The Book of Trogool

What is e-research?

That would be the question, wouldn’t it. Unfortunately, such fundamental definitions are never simple to create, and even less simple to agree upon. A little history may help explain how we got into this parlous uncertain state, but it may not get us out of it.

The short version of the history (which all and sundry may feel free to correct in the comments) is that the Anglophone world had a terminology breakdown right from the start: what the English called “e-science” the Americans (with our customary tin ear) dubbed “cyberinfrastructure.” Then the humanities reared back on their hind legs brandishing their claws like heraldic gryphons and demanded to know why they weren’t included in the discussion, which led to the umbrella term “e-research” that I prefer to use.

So we have a term. Several terms, in fact. Do we have definitions for them? Well? no, not particularly, to be perfectly honest. Being a hardheaded sort, I prefer to define by praxis. What is it that e-research does? What do e-researchers do that other researchers might not?

One thing is “use grid computing to tackle otherwise intractable problems.” Grid computing is the modern version of the Cray supercomputer?more computing power than you can possibly imagine. Only it’s done not with one gigantic machine, but with hosts of ordinary machines yoked together by specialized software. Think about a Google server-farm, and you aren’t too far wrong.

Another thing is “generate and analyze huge piles of digital data.” Instrument science, all sorts of imaging, text-mining, survey data, observational data?it’s all piling up. Back in the day, there wasn’t much that could be done with raw (or even cooked) data other than boiling it into a graph or chart or table for a published journal article. The advent of computers has changed that irrevocably, and data show signs of becoming just as much a first-class citizen in the research polis as the journal article or the monograph.

This, of course, creates the problem of holding onto digital data?sometimes in shocking quantity?and keeping it useful and accessible. Again, our practices haven’t caught up with us on this. Some disciplines have well-established lab-notebook cultures. Many don’t. Almost no disciplines have established digital-data standards and practices; the quantitative social sciences are a long way in the lead thanks to enlightened research-data centers such as ICPSR, but other fields are gamely working to catch up.

“Data curation,” as it is often called, is my major professional interest in the e-research firmament, so you can expect to see it discussed often here. I am partial to Melissa Cragin’s definition: “the active and ongoing management of (research) data through its lifecycle of interest and usefulness to scholarship, science, and education.” I hope to unpack this definition in a future post.

A last behavior thought to set e-researchers apart is computer-enabled collaboration in various forms, from the breaking-down of institutional barriers to the spread of inter- and multi-disciplinary research teams. Social networking is often mentioned in this context, though sometimes with a bit of a sneer. Even the humanities, where scholars tend to self-define as solitary and esoteric, are beginning to find that the life of the mind can be usefully shared.

Does what I’ve said accord with your impression of e-research? Comments are open!

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Richardson
    July 18, 2009

    Nice to see comments are open (though one understood too when they weren’t :-)

    I agree with Dorothea’s breakdown of eResearch (as it’s spelt in Australia) into three broad categories: research data management, online collaboration for researchers, and high-performance computing for analysis and modelling.

    But I’d use the terminology differently.

    One: In my vocabulary, there are no “e-researchers”. There are researchers who use eResearch techniques, but they’re still researchers; and there are eResearch support people who help them. Over time, most or all research will be based on eResearch approaches, and the term eResearch may well wither away.

    Two: To encourage the culture change process, I think it’s a mistake to ask the question “What is eResearch?”

    Instead, let’s avoid doubt, be affirmative, and give a clear, simple definition so that we support people and the researchers can move on to doing not talking :-)

    In that spirit … we do have a definition:

    eResearch is the application of advanced information and communications technologies to the practice of research.

    By repeating this definition confidently, we can make it so.

  2. #2 Dorothea Salo
    July 18, 2009

    EResearch vs. eResearchers: fair cop. Maybe it’s different in Australia, but in the US it seems to me that researchers do have to claim the mantle, claim the identity, in order to get their work heeded and their needs respected, particularly in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

    I could, however, be wrong about that.

    There is definitely a lot of cultural processing happening in academia around computers, in teaching as well as in research. Speaking for myself only, I’m not sure that framing eResearch as something you do rather than something you are will encourage rather than retard that process. My sense is that until it’s okay to call oneself an eResearcher, one’s practices may meet with inordinate scrutiny and even disdain.

    We’ll see how it plays out, I guess…

  3. #3 rnb
    July 18, 2009

    Computers have been used to investigate circuit behavior since I was in college back in the 70s. So should engineers be called e-engineers?

  4. #4 Dorothea Salo
    July 18, 2009

    Tell me more about the trajectory of computers in engineering. I’m interested!

  5. #5 rnb
    July 18, 2009

    This is from what I can remember.
    I’m finding boiling down 30 years in the computer/electronics industry isn’t easy, so I’ll just touch on a few things.

    When I started in 1979 design was done on paper, and the way we tested a design was by building it, identifying the problems, changing the design on paper, generating change orders, and then changing the actual hardware. I think some low level circuit designs were probably checked on computers at this time.

    Gradually all this was moved to computers. I was simulating 486 microprocessors in 1994.

    We keep coming up with new tasks to do.

    The big thing we are working on now is “How do we know we have checked everything?”
    An older one is “how do we know the different level of designs are equivalent?” A big enough design will still break equivalent checking software, from what I understand.

  6. #6 Jim Richardson
    July 18, 2009

    Re calling oneself an eResearcher …

    This doesn’t seem to happen, or be an issue, in the sciences, maybe because technological mechanisms to support research have always been routine there.

    You are quite right about the tension relating to doing versus being outside the sciences. However, the term eResearch is not one chosen by the protagonists themselves. I’m not sure how social scientists using eResearch methods describe themselves; but “Digital Humanities” is in broad use, and doesn’t seem likely to be overtaken by “eResearch”, as the characterisation of preference for researchers basing their humanities research on what (according to my definition) are eResearch techniques.

  7. #7 Dorothea Salo
    July 19, 2009

    I’m aware of the terminology hassles, and I’m not particularly on a crusade for “e-Research.” People can say whatever they want to say as long as they let me help ‘em!

    I do object to “e-science” as a descriptor for the whole phenomenon (though it’s fine as a counterpart to “digital humanities”). I use “e-research” because it gets across what I want it to.

  8. #8 Mary
    July 19, 2009

    Data curation is so crucial, and yet so often under-supported and under-appreciated.

    I have been involved with large curation projects and I have huge respect for that work. But some people think it is the equivalent of stamp collecting (I explored that a bit here: http://www.openhelix.com/blog/?p=1078). And yet the same people complain a lot when the data in their favorite database isn’t perfect or is incomplete.

    Anyway, in case you haven’t guessed, I have strong feelings about this and look forward to your future posts on that!

  9. #9 Dorothea Salo
    July 19, 2009

    Welcome, Mary! I completely agree with you, especially about the disconnect between what researchers do and what they expect as a result. That plays out in a lot of ways, none of them terribly useful.

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