A context-based study of serendipity in information research among Chinese scholars

Publication Date14 May 2018
AuthorXiaosong Zhou,Xu Sun,Qingfeng Wang,Sarah Sharples
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
A context-based study of
serendipity in information
research among Chinese scholars
Xiaosong Zhou and Xu Sun
Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China
Qingfeng Wang
Nottingham University Business School China, University of Nottingham,
Ningbo, China, and
Sarah Sharples
Human Factors Research Group, Faculty of Engineering, University Park,
University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
Purpose The current understanding of serendipity is based primarily on studies employing westerners as
the participants, and it remains uncertain whether or not this understanding would be pervasive under
different cultures, such as in China. In addition, there is not a sufficient systematic investigation of context
during the occurrence of serendipity in current studies. The purpose of this paper is to examine the above
issues by conducting a follow-up empirical study with a group of Chinese scholars.
Design/methodology/approach The social media application WeChatwas employed as a research
tool. A diary-based study was conducted and 16 participants were required to send to the researchers
any cases of serendipity they encountered during a period of two weeks, and this was followed by a
Findings Chinese scholars experienced serendipity in line with the three main processes of: encountering
unexpectedness, connection-making and recognising the value. An updated context-based serendipity model
was constructed, where the role of context during each episode of experiencing serendipity was identified,
including the external context (e.g. time, location and status), the social context and the internal context
(e.g. precipitating conditions, sagacity/perceptiveness and emotion).
Originality/value The updated context model provides a further understanding of the role played by
context during the different processes of serendipity. The framework for experiencing serendipity has been
expanded, and this may be used to classify the categories of serendipity.
Keywords Information retrieval, Context, Model, Information science, Serendipity, Informationencountering
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Research into serendipity has been ongoing since the term serendipitywas first
coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, in reference to the Three Princes of Serendip, who were
always making discoveries by accident. Studies relating to serendipity can be found
in various disciplines, including information studies (Foster and Ford, 2003),
human-computer interaction (Sun et al., 2011), social science (Merton and Barber, 2004),
career research (Bright et al., 2005), arts and humanities (Delgadillo and Lynch, 1999),
psychology (Heinström, 2006), organisation (Cunha et al., 2010) and medicine
(Allegaert, 2013 ).
However, regardless of the increasing interest in the understanding of serendipity, an
interesting discovery revealed from our review of current studies is that the proposed
frameworks or theoretical models for serendipity were formed primarily on the basis of
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 74 No. 3, 2018
pp. 526-551
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-05-2017-0079
Received 30 May 2017
Revised 29 November 2017
Accepted 2 December 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
This research was supported in part by a NSFC grant with code 71401085 and the International
Doctoral Innovation Centre (IDIC) at the University of Nottingham China.
taking westerners as the research subjects (e.g. Makri and Blandford, 2012a; McCay-Peet
and Toms, 2015). This led to our thinking about whether or not these research findings
would be pervasive under different cultures, such as in China.
In addition, although a number of theoretical models for serendipity have been put
forward by various researchers (Erdelez, 2004; Makri and Blandford, 2012a; McCay-Peet
and Toms, 2015; Rubin et al., 2011), very few of these studies have examined the occurrence
of serendipity from a systematic perspective of context. The empirical studies by Pontis
et al. (2015) showed contextual factors such as location, activity and focus can influence a
users experience of serendipity. Kefalidou and Sharpless (2016) study also found that time,
location and the content of a text message can also impact a users experience of serendipity.
Serendipity, as part of a wider behaviour model, is considered as the product of context
(Foster and Ellis, 2014, p. 18), and the role of context in fostering serendipity deserves to be
understood in its own right.
We previously undertook a mobile diary study to understand serendipity
among a group of British researchers (Sun et al., 2011). In total, 11 British scholars
participated in that study, and we received 23 serendipity cases within one week.
The outcome of the study was that we identified the perception of serendipity among
these British researchers and made an initial probe into the role of context in serendipitous
experiences (see Figure 1). We identified two different levels of abstraction that can
leadtoapositiveoutcomeduringaserendipitous experience, including level of
abstraction 1 the unexpected findin g of informationand level of abstraction 2 making
unexpected connections between pieces of informationand in some cases, level of
abstraction 1 can lead to the level of abstraction 2. Context played a role in affecting the
experiencing of serendipity, and it has been examined from the three perspectives of:
people (active or less active), temporal factors and environment (i.e. working
environments, places and changing environments). We then adopted Schmidts (2000)
context model to denote the relationship between the role of the individual and their
context in serendipity by considering different elements , such as an individ uals level of
attention, pressure and focus under the effects of the physical environment, the social
environment and th e time. However, limi ted by the perception of s erendipity at that ti me,
we only discussed these elements as different factors having an influence on the
participantsreadiness to experience serendipity, and thereby failed to make a further
examination of how these elements would act during the separated processes of
serendipitous encountering.
Social environment
Physical environment
Noticing Examining
Unexpected finding
of information
Level of abstraction 1
Positive impact
(short term or
long term)
Making unexpected
connections between
Level of abstraction 2
Making connections
Figure 1.
Our previous
context model
for experiencing
Serendipity in

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