Monday, May 11, 2015

Taxonomist Survey

I had created a survey of taxonomists to gather some information for writing my book, The Accidental Taxonomist. It was mainly for Chapter 2: Who Are Taxonomists?  With the word “taxonomist” in the title, I had to write something about taxonomists, and not just about taxonomies, and this was the best way I could get more information than some anecdotes from colleagues.

But that was in late 2008, 6½ years ago. Has there been change in the industry since? In most fields, 6-7 years is not long at all, but in field of taxonomies, there could be changes. First of all, there have been significant changes in the economy over that particular period (recession and partial recovery), and, at least for internal, enterprise taxonomies, the role of the taxonomist could be considered something expendable in tight economic times. (I know, as I was laid off in 2008 and again in 2010.) More significantly, the field of information science is evolving very rapidly. So, I released a new survey this month.

My previous survey had 9 multiple choice questions and one open response. I chose to keep those questions with no changes or only minor wording changes, in order to compare the changes over time. I also decided to add a few more questions. To help me come up with the questions, I asked for input from an audience of presentation I have last month ("Taxonomy Displays: Bridging UX & Taxonomy Design" at the Content Strategy Seattle Meetup. Suggestions from that group included questions on the size of taxonomies, job titles, and taxonomy work pain points. The current survey now has 14 multiple-choice questions, one very short answer (job title), and three open responses, although all questions are optional, and it is permitted to skip questions.

Where to find taxonomists to survey

In 2008, I could think of only one logical channel to find taxonomists, the Yahoo group called Taxonomy Community of Practice. But it is no longer the only group and no longer the most active. The Taxonomy Community of Practice Yahoo group averaged only 5 messages per month in the last 6 months. In contrast, the 6 months around the time of my last survey, this group average 39 message per month. This is most likely because the LinkedIn group of the same name, Taxonomy Community of Practice, which was created in September 2007, has taken over the most of the taxonomy discussions.  Furthermore, there are additional LinkedIn groups, such as “Controlled Vocabularies”  and “Thesaurus Professionals.” The American Society for Indexing started a Taxonomies & Controlled Vocabularies Special Interest Group in late 2007, and SLA (Special Libraries Association) started a TaxonomyDivision in 2009, both of which have member discussion lists.

I have announced the current survey in all of these groups and more. However, I do not expect to reach significantly more taxonomists than before. That’s because, whereas the single Yahoo group back in 2008 tended to be subscribed to by email (individual or digest), the proliferation of groups and lists of similar or overlapping subjects has led to subscribers/members to opt out of direct emails. Additionally, email software, such as Gmail, can filter messages from lists to a category/tab that users may choose to overlook. So, my email announcements of the survey to groups may go unnoticed by many group members. It would be tempting to individually contact everyone I know personally who is involved in taxonomy work, but that could be a personal bias that would skew the pool of respondents.

Taxonomist tendencies

There have already been enough respondents to the current survey, that I can safely say that the largest number do taxonomy work as their primary responsibility, as with the previous survey, and that, like before, the majority are employees, rather than contractors, freelancers, or independent consultants. The most common educational or professional background (although not the majority) is library/information science. What is striking, though, is that despite the fact that 48% of respondents in 2008 had an MLS/MLIS degree (and from the early survey returns, the percentage is even slightly higher), only a small percentage of taxonomists learned taxonomy skills through formal educational institution coursework. Self-taught through reading, on-the-job experience, and on-the-job training, and conference workshops or seminars are each methods of learning taxonomies that are more prevalent than college courses. Additional, more specific comparisons will be the subject of a future blog post.