Guru of information quality garners Piper Research Prize

    U of A library scientist Lisa Given was called in to assess the quality of evidence in a groundbreaking immigration trial...

    By Geoff McMaster on October 14, 2010

    (Edmonton) In 2005, a 64-year-old Pakistan refugee was deemed inadmissible to Canada because of his alleged connections to terrorism. Iftikhar Shoaq Jalil�s case went to appeal, and U of A library scientist Lisa Given was called in to assess the quality of evidence, including documents submitted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

    What Given found was shocking. While there was certainly legitimate police intelligence among court documents, it was supplemented by a substantial amount of information drawn from questionable sources, such as media reports, Wikipedia, independent blogs and terrorist portals.

    �In some cases there was absolutely no citation or referencing, no way to verify [the information],� says Given. The case, and especially Given contribution to it, was ground-breaking�the first, in fact, to identify deficiencies in evidence used by the federal government to connect a defendant to a terrorist organization.

    Since then Given has testified for 16 high-profile cases as well as a review of the information assessment practices of CSIS. Only nine years after finishing her doctorate, the acting director of the U of A�s School of Library and Information Studies has become a world leader in qualitative methodology, specializing in just how people go about finding, compiling and using information.

    In roughly a decade of professional life, the recipient of this year�s Martha Cook Piper Research Prize has 73 publications to her credit, including the Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, and 218 presentations, including 48 keynote addresses and workshops to more than 1,500 scholars around the world.

    Among her many interests is the physical design of libraries and how well they meet the needs of students. In one study she followed a group of U of A undergraduates around campus to see which study spaces they found useful and which were counterproductive. The latter included a floor of the Cameron Library before its recent renovation.

    �Students would be playing poker, throwing food and jumping on chairs,� she said, �what I used to think of as an animal-house approach to university.� Such places were clearly conducive to socializing, �but if students really had to knuckle down and do their academic work, they would search out places where they had more privacy, where it was quieter, or where they had better access to equipment.�

    But it�s important to remember there are also those who can�t work in quiet spaces, she adds. �We often think we need spaces to be quiet and calm, but I�m one of those people who like noise and movement.

    �We tend to have stereotypes about what a library should be, she says. �It�s not just about reading and quiet concentration . . . social aspects are also important, so how do we channel that? If people are working on a group project, for example, it�s important that they can find a place to brainstorm, be loud and have PowerPoint running, because that�s a legitimate use of library space.

    �There isn�t a one-size-fits-all approach. Everybody is unique and needs their own way to be successful.�

    In addition to the information needs of students, lawyers and the court system, Given has also assessed Canadian ethics and integrity practices for social sciences and humanities scholars, and seniors� access to health information online. And if that weren�t enough, she has a passion for postmodern critical theory, with a book on the subject forthcoming.

    �My area of work, information behaviour, really allows for this lovely mix of disciplines, where I can still play with [Michel] Foucault or [Jacques] Derrida, but there�s this lovely pragmatic outcome as well.

    �You can pursue your passion. Whether music or chemistry, it doesn�t matter�it�s the information component that ties us together.�

    The Martha Cook Piper Research Prize was established to commemorate the significant contribution Martha Piper made to the research community while vice-president, research, and vice-president, research and external affairs, at the University of Alberta between 1993 and 1996.