Search Research Note SR2 – Professional search

by | Mar 19, 2020 | Search

Over the last few years, the concept of ‘professional search’ has evolved rapidly. In 2018 the First International Workshop on Professional Search (ProfS2018) was co-located with SIGIR 2018. A good summary of the Workshop was published in SIGIR Forum. The workshop briefing is only available via ACM Digital Library. The briefing sets out the characteristics of professional search.

  • Heterogeneous information sources. Often professional searchers need to collect and synthesize information from internal and external sources and perhaps in different languages.
  • Highly interactive procedure. The information tasks often involve multiple stages. They commonly exhibit exploratory search behavior with relatively complex queries and long sessions. The information needs are typically high-value and often recall-oriented.
  • Highly specialized activities. Searchers in professional contexts are often engaged with information tasks that are highly complex. Clickthrough popularity is less useful as a ranking criterion in professional search because the information needs are highly specific

Both documents suggest that this is a task dating back on a decade or so. This is misleading. Professional search arrived with the advent of the online search services from Lockheed Dialog, SDC Orbit and BRS services in the early 1980s, with Lexis being the first of the domain -specific services. Searches were carried out by information scientists, special librarians and (in the case of Lexis) junior lawyers, and there were many conferences, research papers and reports on searching behaviour which now seem to have been forgotten.

Some very helpful research into the ways in which patent agents, recruitment agents, legal researchers and medical information specialists search was published in 2018 by Tony Russell-Rose, Jon Chamberlin and Leif Azzopardi.  There are both published and open source versions of the paper. To quote from the abstract of the paper, the survey investigated their search practices and preferences, the types of functionality they value, and their requirements for future information retrieval systems. The results reveal that these professions share many fundamental needs and face similar challenges. In particular, a continuing preference to formulate queries as Boolean expressions, the need to manage, organise and re-use search strategies and results and an ambivalence toward the use of relevance ranking. The results stress the importance of recall and coverage for the healthcare and patent professionals, while precision and recency were more important to the legal and recruitment professionals.

In my SearchCheck assessment I specifically ask about whether the requirements of professional searchers have been taken into account, and the response is usually a quizzical one about what I am talking about – which instantly answers the questions. There is so much detail in the research paper that I am not going to try and summarise it. My take-aways are

  • Professional searchers have very specific requirements in trying to find business-critical information
  • They depend on the extensive functionality of high-end search applications, though each user group has slightly different requirements.
  • The skills and experience of these searchers could be of significant value to the organisation in helping an enterprise search team enhance the performance of other applications

This paper should be essential reading for any search manager as it discusses a wide range of search challenges and requirements which are of direct relevance to any enterprise search application. There are quite a number of research papers being published on this topic. A simple search for “professional searchers” in Google Scholar listed out over 1000 results since 2016. Reading any of them will give important insights into how people search inside organisations and just how different the process is to web search. 

Martin White