World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities

Mervyn Levin (University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 11 October 2011




Levin, M. (2011), "World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 9, pp. 834-836.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The editors admirably pull together a wide range of contributions on the potential for new technologies to transform research. The authors provide a critical understanding of how increasingly powerful distributed and collaborative computer networks, tools and data systems are reshaping access to information and expertise across the humanities and sciences.

The book is an important contribution to the field of e‐research convincingly showing how new capabilities are accelerating globalisation and changing patterns of academic interactions through greater online transparency in more widely dispersed research teams. Also, the book strikes an effective balance between the social and technological factors influencing new research environments. The editors are right in considering the former as the more challenging.

The semantic web, embedded sensor networks, the internet of things, virtual worlds, grids, cloud computing, coupled with creating the metadata necessary to ensure data resources are more easily retrieved and used, are some of the key e‐research technologies covered. These are some of the main enablers for selecting, gathering, analysing, organising and displaying information in order to better manage the digital data flood generated by e‐research. Their use to connect people and collect information is facilitating increased and quicker collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

The ramifications are wide reaching outside the immediate sphere of the individual researchers themselves. E‐research holds the promise of widespread innovation to transform the processes of discovery in ways that might enhance or hinder our ability to grapple with many of the twenty‐first century's key challenges. One of the book's key insights is the immense potential for new e‐research technologies to analyse and model complex interactions spanning global issues such as the financial system, climate change, ageing, terrorism, infectious diseases and urban design. The book provides solid evidence that new research technologies have the potential to improve quality of life and economic well‐being, as well as to mitigate systemic risks by more reliably sourcing, evaluating and documenting research information.

The quantity of research data on these themes and others is escalating and the book effectively addresses ways in which available and emerging technologies can help to target the deluge. New and better tools now exist to extract large‐scale and more comprehensive, trusted data sets that support more complex analytical and modelling tasks. For example, social scientists can sift for evidence through mountains of data by mobilising increasing amounts of computational power to study whole populations rather than samples and in doing so enhance the reliability of research outputs.

The book makes important reading for a wide range of university leaders in shaping research policy. The drivers for closer collaboration across disciplines are the increasingly data intensive nature of research, the rise of distributed global collaborations, together with managing, processing and visualising great oceans of information. Bridging the working practices of researchers across a variety of academic settings is crucial to facilitate mutual learning and knowledge transfer.

Universities will need to embrace the central role of ICT to enhance the range and quality of research across the sciences and humanities, the new ways of working internally, with industry, other universities, and the impact of increasing the scale and diversity of participation. The capacity‐building challenges are formidable, being primarily non‐technological, e.g. how institutions increasingly share data across disciplines, both within the same university and across organisations. The roles and relevance of the university librarian, archivist and university as publisher will increasingly be impacted by new approaches to research. All this throws up complex new challenges such as tracking data provenance, verifying authenticity, protecting and exploiting intellectual property rights and identifying routes to dissemination.

Some of the pertinent questions the book raises concern the degree of openness in a university in terms of information sharing policies and practices. E‐research puts the debates around competitive versus open publication and sharing into sharper focus. In an era of accelerating globalisation of science and humanities production, there are significant technical, geographical, institutional, disciplinary, financial, ethical and legal (IPR and liability) challenges if the advances in e‐research capabilities are to be fully exploited. Universities need to embrace cultural change as the new technologies reconfigure access to different actors making it imperative that organisational and disciplinary structures and practices evolve. An example is academic reward mechanisms and status, which need rethinking beyond publications to motivate individual researchers and universities to use new ways of disseminating their ideas, concepts, materials and data more widely and openly.

A strong point of the book is exploring the variety of profound ethical dilemmas opened up by new research technologies. Much new thinking is needed about the use of data both in the sciences and the humanities that balances protecting the public and the research community's independence. For example, what are the appropriate standards of confidentiality, anonymity, security, digital rights, and the risks to privacy and surveillance, and how are these maintained and managed? New approaches such as digital archiving, web metrics and experiments in virtual environments set these dilemmas in new contexts, e.g. changing the nature of informed consent by human subjects. The increasing diversity of material now being sourced for research, e.g. e‐mails, blogs and social networks, raises legitimate concerns around these ethical issues. Very divergent understandings of these key concepts exist globally. Different countries have different laws and conventions and there is a confusing range of codes and guidelines at local, professional disciplinary, regional and national levels that constrain researchers in realising the full value of the current data explosion.

The book is useful reading for policy makers involved in public funding of e‐research, the associated e‐infrastructures and fostering more open science. A first class e‐research infrastructure is becoming a prime need for economic competitiveness and a magnet for talent. There are also risks that global digital divides, as measured by research capacity, will widen further. The most developed economies have the capacity to create e‐infrastructures to meet the requirements for access to extensive data collections, very large‐scale computing resources, high‐performance visualisation of research data and analysis of results by members of geographical distributed research teams. Thus, top‐down approaches from policy makers are likely to be as important as bottom‐up approaches from individual researchers in exploiting the benefits of new research environments and the technologies underpinning them.

The book's wide terrain is impressive. Some of the key issues raised are the skill requirements to work with e‐research tools and the need to create more usable software systems. In particular, newer generations of researchers, or “digital natives”, tend to find it easier to extract meaning from goldmines of data and to present information in new ways to increase understanding. Advances in visualisation technologies, e.g. virtual worlds, simulations and games, put increasingly more complex and comprehensive data into an appropriate form so that it can be easily understood or explored by researchers – from biological and environmental systems to social and economic trends, to demonstrate human behaviour more effectively to a broader audience. High quality data sets are increasingly being combined with systems that visualise the identification of complex trends. The use of such tools for novel forms of data mining and analysis is become increasingly prevalent in research and helping to drive more collaborative work across both institutional and national boundaries.

New markets, businesses and business models are fast emerging based on innovations in the e‐research space. However, the book does not quite hit the mark on the value of e‐research to business, specifically commercial collaboration and case studies on how to extract value from large and diverse sources of data to drive a robust economy outside universities. Harnessing large and diverse sources of data in the commercial arena and developing ways to apply it for the purpose of decision making is becoming increasingly important for business productivity across all sectors. Being able to identify and make sense of the data of most use to businesses in a competitive data economy are likely to lead increasingly to projects involving collaboration between universities, data creators and technology providers from multiple disciplines, as well as with end‐users. Forging greater common understanding between commercial and academic norms on “big data” in a more knowledge‐based economy will become increasingly important. The book could have made more of this topic.

The final section in this admirably edited book suggests that profound transformation is taking place in research environments emphasising that social and institutional shaping will be key to success – both in making data easier to discover, access and analyse, and in enabling increased collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The authors are right in that the focus of e‐research now needs to shift more from means and methods to outcomes, specifically providing robust evidence of how it contributes value to innovation in sciences and humanities.

The book has the potential to develop new mindsets at all levels providing a more common vocabulary between the usual disciplinary silos. The many valuable insights should lead sciences and humanities to better understand each other's contributions, forge a common language, cooperate to add value and enhance synergies. The book deserves to be read widely.

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