Why You Should Scrutinize Technical Articles for Bias

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #2.

Of all of the engineering fields, I have to think that our field of automation has one of the fastest rates of change. Every day new processes, new technologies, new instruments, and new control techniques invade the market, and an automation engineer must constantly strive to stay abreast of the latest offerings or face becoming obsolete. To stay Technical writing Disciplines Conceptcurrent, I find myself constantly reading technical articles so I can quickly evaluate the benefits and weaknesses of the latest entries and determine whether they might be useful to my company or my clients. Of course the sales and marketing departments of the various vendors know this, and they spend a lot of effort publishing articles to “help” engineers select their product over their competitor’s.

Concept: Staying technically current in the field of automation is a never-ending task. Attending ISA meetings and conferences, vendor expos, and industry group conventions is a start, but your best solution is maintaining a steady diet of articles to keep abreast of the latest trends and technology. While many articles provide excellent information on a wide variety of topics, many others are written with a particular product bias or marketing angle. The author’s description, position, or byline will often alert you as to which type of article you are reading.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerDetails: Sales and marketing departments often employ people whose sole purpose is to write articles that appear technical but are in fact specifically written to entice engineers to specify or purchase their products. Before you read any article, skip ahead to the author information at the end and determine who wrote the piece. Please note that this tip is NOT a global slight against technical articles written by vendor personnel. Many vendors employ the top experts in a particular field to design and develop their products. These people often write informative and unbiased technical publications that are invaluable sources of information. However, knowing the background of the author before reading a piece can help you be on the lookout for misleading statements or positions that seem to favor one product or technology to the exclusion of others.

Watch-Outs: Be particularly wary of technical publications/magazines that are sponsored by a single vendor. These publications rarely allow any disparaging comments about their product and will rarely mention a competing technology except to explain how their product is vastly superior. While these publications can be a good source of information about a single system, they tend to limit their focus to the company’s product line and ignore all others.

Insight: Look for job titles such as “Sales Director,” “Marketing Manager,” “Product Development Manager,” or the “President” or “Vice President” of a particular vendor. Such titles are a strong clue that the true purpose of the article might be more sales related than technical.

Rule of Thumb: Just because an article is written by the sales/marketing department does not mean it should automatically be ignored. However, if the piece IS written by the sales/marketing department, be on the lookout for a biased view of the product. Does the article mention a particular brand or technology exclusively? Does it offer pros and cons of the subject, or does it only mention advantages and benefits and never mention any negative aspects. These questions can help an engineer quickly determine if the article in question was sponsored by the marketing department.

Hunter VegasAbout the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.

 

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