Chapter 2 – Towards a Sociology of e-Research: Shaping Practice and Advancing Knowledge

Jenny Fry, and Ralph Schroeder

This chapter maps current social science approaches to the study of e-science. It provides an overview of the different disciplines involved in e-science research, and specifically of the social science disciplines aimed at supporting e-science, in order to ask: how can and should social science best inform research which involves innovative technologies? The chapter discusses this in relation to a variety of current e-science projects, with a particular focus on the United Kingdom, developing a classification of which social science approaches are most likely to be able to provide insights and benefits for them. How to study knowledge production in an e-science context is increasingly being recognized as an important issue by funding bodies such as the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council in the UK and the National Science Foundation in the US. The chapter provides an overview of the diversity of disciplinary approaches that support e-sciences in different ways on these different levels, with examples from current e-science projects and areas of e-science. It will be argued that the place of social science will be much less intractable if its different roles are identified and assigned to different parts of the e-science enterprise.


The availability and appropriation of advanced computing tools in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities has accelerated in recent years. Although technology-driven research is not new to some intellectual fields, such as traditional big science, e.g. particle physics, or the emergent biosciences, e.g. genomics and bioinformatics, the Internet and high-performance computing have given a new impetus to the application and direction of computing in science and scholarship more generally. Several national funding programs have been initiated that can be broadly described as e-research, such as the U.K. e-Science Program funded by the EPSRC (Economic and Physical Science Research Council) and the Cyberinfrastructure Program funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation) in the U.S. These initiatives have been accompanied by large-scale funding and the development of projects across a range of application areas, from combinatorial chemistry to the interpretive social sciences. The vision underpinning these programs is that the new tools and resources being developed will greatly enhance research and enable new forms of global collaboration.

Although these novel large-scale research efforts have been driven, to a certain extent, by technological developments, they have already raised a number of non-technological issues, including legal, ethical, institutional, and disciplinary ones. Indeed, it is increasingly argued that the obstacles to the effectiveness of e-research are not so much technical, as social. In the social sciences, however, there is a variety of approaches that address the shaping of new forms of research, governance, communication, and collaboration, such as the sociology of science, the economics of innovation, and research policy.

In this chapter, we categorize these different social science approaches in the context of e-research and provide illustrations of how they have been deployed. The aim is to highlight the diversity of these approaches, show complementarities among them, and point to how they might shape the e-research enterprise. We take those scholars who are interested in studying or shaping e-research as an object of social research as the primary focus of this chapter. We also include, however, e-researchers who are concerned with the technical development of e-research technologies and infrastructure and categorize their approaches to development. Our categorization of approaches is based on a combination of examining the related literature and our own engagement with e-research communities in the U.K. from the perspective of the sociology of science, and we use examples of these to illustrate our argument. The conclusion weighs the different approaches and assesses their potential influence on the development of e-research and the future role of the social sciences in e-research.

The background to e-research, how it has emerged both programmatically, which is the focus of this chapter, and as a collection of small-scale independent efforts, has been explained in more detail elsewhere.[i] In order to provide context for the categories of social science approaches to e-research and the implications that we identify in the conclusion, we would like to highlight two points in particular. Firstly, that programmatic e-research, at least in the U.K. and U.S., was first developed within the physical and life sciences and subsequently extended to the social sciences and humanities. The report by Berman and Brady (2005) was pivotal in marking the shift to the social sciences, citing issues such as attacks on the security of electronic computer networks and online identity theft as urgent issues that the social sciences could address through the adoption of e-research tools and resources. Berman and Brady also placed emphasis on new techniques for analyzing social behavior as well as the study of the implications of using the array of techniques, tools and resources afforded by e-research. Secondly, the U.K. initiative in science and engineering is already winding down as a distinct initiative that is separate from mainstream programs of research funding, as evidenced by the fact that dedicated e-science funding programs have ceased. Policy makers and funding agencies do not intend this to result in the end of e-research in the U.K., but rather to lead to the integration of e-research within other initiatives, either embedded within the disciplines or on a national infrastructural level. This U.K. funding strategy also means, however, that unless there are new national programs, the development of e-research as a distinct research initiative will likely take on a different guise. In the U.S., there is likewise increasing concern about how to extend and ensure the future uptake of the cyberinfrastructure initiatives. In both the U.S. and U.K., therefore, much of the emphasis is thus turning to developing a sustainable e-research infrastructure.


Disciplines and Boundaries

Apart from describing e-research in terms of national efforts, it is important to take into account the disciplines involved and the extent to which they themselves are being transformed. The first feature to notice is that, as with many other technology-led initiatives, there is an imbalance that has meant technologies have been developed without taking social aspects into account. Overlooking the social side is typical of the early phase of large-scale and complex science and engineering projects (Hughes, 1998). Thus, David (2004: 3) has pointed out that “engineering breakthroughs alone will not be enough to achieve the outcomes envisaged for these undertakings. Success in realizing the potential of e-science, in the case of the U.K., and ‘cyberinfrastructure’, in the U.S., will more likely be the resultant of a nexus of interrelated social, legal and technical transformations.” The social issues to emerge from e-research are now moving to the policy and funding foreground, but they also relate to wider changes in scientific and scholarly communication and collaboration such as electronic publishing, open science, distributed interdisciplinary collaboration, and the availability of networked digital resources. Nonetheless, on the whole, the discipline of computer science and its development of new technologies have dominated the early phase of e-research.

e-Research does not just consist of research apparatuses for manipulating data and manipulating the physical environment; e-research tools can also be means for scientific communication.[ii] With e-research, the scope and scale of collaboration have generally increased, which means that communication itself poses formidable organizational problems and yet extends the technological infrastructure of research. Put differently, e-research faces new challenges involving the coordination and control of research (Fry, 2006). Collaboration-at-a-distance could thus arguably also be seen as a way of underpinning consensus and replicability by using research instruments or research technologies.[iii] The balance between the two – research instruments for manipulating the objects of research and instruments for communication and collaboration – is not yet clear. In the latter case, it might be asked whether two different intellectual fields in the social sciences – library and information science in the case of scholarly communication, and the sociology of science in the case of research instruments – are best equipped to focus on the topic from within their domain, or whether there is common ground between them.

Another point to note is that it is not necessarily the case that the natural sciences are ‘earlier adopters’ of Internet-related tools more than the social sciences and humanities. In fact, Nentwich argues (e.g., 2003: 107-9) that there are some disciplines within these broad disciplinary groupings that are “ahead” of others. Nevertheless, as we highlighted earlier, national programs have broadly followed the pattern of initiating programs in the natural sciences and then following up with initiatives in the social sciences and humanities. Thus, in the U.K., the e-Science Program was followed by an e-Social Science Program and the various initiatives in the U.K. at a much later stage. Similarly in the U.S., the Berman and Brady report (2005) was published two years after the Atkins report (2003). In any case, the initiatives have rippled outward across more and more disciplinary boundaries, although perhaps the argument that Kling and McKim (2000: 1306) have made for “electronic media supporting scientific communication,” that field differences are likely to persist, also applies to e-research.

If we consider the scale of funding for the different projects and disciplines involved, clearly funding in the natural sciences outweighs funding in the social sciences. For example, in the U.K. it is estimated that £250 million has been spent on natural science (Jeffreys, 2005), whereas the social sciences have committed far less and the humanities are on a smaller scale again. This must be put in the context of the historical competition between the social and natural sciences for resources, whereby the social sciences and humanities have traditionally been funded on a much smaller scale.


Social Science Approaches to e-Research

We might expect that the newness of developments in e-research should constitute a core concern for any social science approach, critically informing them even if they are not centrally concerned with it. The reason for this is that the newness has the potential to pinpoint, in a neutral way, the elements of e-research that sets it apart from other kinds of research. The social implications of science and technology in-the-making, however, fall most closely within the social sciences into the subdiscipline of the sociology of science. One question that can therefore be addressed by examining how the social sciences are involved in shaping e-research efforts is the extent to which this subdiscipline informs other approaches, and how it is placed within the social sciences to contribute to the understanding and shaping of e-research.

In an earlier article (Schroeder & Fry, 2007) upon which this chapter is based we restricted our categorization of social science approaches to those studies concerned with e-research as an object of research, rather than practical efforts towards the technical development of e-research. Here we extend the categorization to also include the latter based on two dimensions:

  • The degree to which approaches are pragmatic (focusing on the practical aspects of development and use of e-research tools and resources) or are research oriented (concerned with problematizing or theorizing specific aspects of e-research);
  • The degree to which approaches attempt to engage with e-research on a proactive level or, in contrast, take a detached stance.

Plotting the approaches we identified along these two dimensions (that should be conceived as continua rather than binary fixed points) results in a taxonomy consisting of four main categories: proactive-engagement/pragmatic; proactive-engagement/research; detachment/pragmatic; detachment/research.

This taxonomy yields eight approaches; see Tables 2.1 and 2.2 below.


Table 2.1: Approaches to e-Research as an Object of Research

Pragmatic Research
Proactive-Engagement Usability/practical 

How appropriation can be enhanced through refining understanding of practice, user representations, and human computer interaction

Value free/attempted neutrality Measuring dimensions of distributed communication and collaboration
Detachment Advocacy/steering and aligning structures 

Fostering institutional, economic, and legal structures that enable distributed communication and collaboration. Promoting a particular type of open and accessible e-research

Critique/reflexive or prospective Social implications of e-research; ability to deliver on claims; policy



Table 2.2: Approaches e-Research as an Object of Development

Pragmatic Research
Proactive-Engagement Agenda Neutral/Supporting Paradigms 

Concern with tools being user-led; development efforts addressing user-needs in a specific research paradigm, e.g. discourse analysis, gene ontologies, text-corpora in linguistics. Social factors perceived as technology and policy re-engineering problem

Embedded in the Disciplines/Sustainability as Adoption 

Emerging from a positivistic tradition. Addressing computational and processing issues for domain-specific problems; uptake and use perceived as a result of overcoming technical problems

Detachment Agenda Aligned/Supporting Generic Infrastructure 

Concern with development of services across disciplinary boundaries; social factors perceived as a social re-engineering problem

Skepticism/Non-use from within the Disciplines/ Sustainability as Project/ 

Possibly leading to resistance; uptake and use related to perceived relevance of e-research


A limitation of taxonomies is that they tend to present stereotypes and suggest that the objects of categorization fit neatly into mutually exclusive categories, but as we know social phenomena rarely behave in this way. Our intention in developing the taxonomy represented in Tables 2.1 and 2.2 is nevertheless to understand current approaches, how they relate to one another, and the ways in which they are shaping the role of the social sciences in e-research. Despite the analytical distinction into eight main types of approach, there are synergies at the intersection of the pragmatic/research continuum and the proactive-engagement/detachment continuum. We shall return to discuss these synergies after presenting a brief illustration of the eight approaches.



Perspectives that fall within this quadrant of the taxonomy, shown in Tables 2.1 and 2.2, are concerned with how the effectiveness and uptake of e-research can be enhanced through, for example, refining understanding of practice, user representations, and human computer interfaces. Research councils developing e-research programs are increasingly acknowledging that usability issues are a key barrier to the uptake and use of advanced digital technologies. Funding mechanisms to support usability research have been implemented in programs such as the EPSRC call for “Research into the Usability Challenges to Emerge From e-Science.” This focus is also reflected in the emergence of communication fora such as the “Designing for Usability in e-Science” Workshop sponsored by EPSRC and NeSC (


An illustration of this approach is the eDiaMoND project (Jirotka, et al., 2005), which was a flagship U.K. e-science project. The aim of this project was to create a federated database of digitized mammograms. This would enable x-rays for breast cancer screening (mammograms), which are currently done on film, to be stored and annotated digitally. This digitization would also allow the images and expertise, which are now located at individual breast cancer screening units and ‘double-read’, to be shared across a network.

In this case, many usability issues were found by means of ethnographic and quasi-naturalistic evaluations of work practices in the creation of prototype systems. One of the most important was ‘trust’, both in the new technology, and between radiologists. Interpersonal trust is developed in particular ways in the 100 or so Breast Care Units across the U.K. The co-location of technicians, radiologists, and other experts in traditional Breast Care Units allows personal histories to be developed, such as where a person trained, who they trained with, how they calibrate the machinery, their particular competencies, and knowledge gaps. The introduction of a distributed system for reading mammograms reconfigured the ways in which trust could be built, and new practices were necessary in order to know the other’s capabilities and to come to rely on the other in new ways. Another set of issues concerned the sharing of data, whereby it was deemed generally unethical to share mammograms between clinics and outside of the clinicians and readers who had had direct involvement with the patient and with each other.

The usability findings in this case could be used to try to address these issues by technical means, such as developing interfaces that afford the communication of contextual information, or by social means, such as reconfiguring practice. In fact, the two were difficult to separate into distinct issues. An important outcome of the usability research on the eDiaMoND project has been to highlight the immense obstacles that would be faced in translating the ‘proof of concept’ into a workable system that could be adopted on a large scale across the U.K. National Health Service, as originally envisioned ( In this respect, the usability aspect of this project was typical of usability research: identifying practical obstacles on the ground that they can potentially be overcome by taking into account the needs of diverse sets of users and social settings. Seen from a greater distance, such case-bound usability research is typically and increasingly a tool for making laboratory or prototype technologies robust enough to withstand the vagaries of real world settings.

Agenda Neutral/Supporting Paradigms

This approach is exemplified by development projects that are concerned with research practice on a fine-grained level; how individuals handle and process data, how collaborative groups work together, and the like. These projects typically involve truly multidisciplinary teams. These teams differ from those described under ‘Practical/usability’ in that rather than having an intermediary between developer and potential user, such as a user requirements engineer, these teams involve developers, domain experts and practitioners. Two of the research nodes of the U.K.-based National Centre for e-Social Science (NCeSS,, Mixed Media Grid (MiMeG, and Digital Record (Understanding new forms of digital record are examples of this type of development approach.

Approaches in this quadrant tend to be agenda neutral because they are case or paradigm bound and are focused on developing tools for a clearly delineated set of practices, such as collaborative video analysis as part of ethnographic research (see Mixed Media Grid, MiMeG, above). They thus tend to be concerned with extending methods and supporting research distributed across multiple people, disciplines, locations and resources. This means that individual practices and task-specific applications are prioritized over generic infrastructure, standardization and interoperability. Consequently, development efforts are more engaged with the use and adoption of e-research tools, but tend to be distanced from directly advocating overarching e-research agendas.

Also included in this category are localized small-scale development efforts that are not part of any national e-research program and therefore tend to be agenda neutral at least in terms of explicit institutional policies towards e-research. Of course, the scope and penetration of these efforts are subject to other forms of governance. Tools currently being developed that form part of the social science community engaged in e-research include VOSON (Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Social Networks), the SocScibot and LexiURL suite of tools and Issue Crawler. These tend to be decentralized tools, utilizing an infrastructure not institutionalized and tools that are also available as freeware. We have excluded the Internet Archive, which is becoming an important e-research resource within the social sciences, from this category because it is centralized on an institutional level with collaborating institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, and although it is freely available, it is not being developed on open source principles unlike some of the other examples (including MiMeG) that allow for some co-development between creators and users.



This quadrant represents approaches that are research, as opposed to practice- oriented, and that engage with the object of research, whether it is to evaluate the impact of technologies or to develop indicators of changes in practices. This quadrant is therefore of more relevance to approaches that are concerned with e-research as an object of research than those that are concerned with e-research as an object of development. Nonetheless, it is applicable to both instances when we take the broader social sciences into account as potential users of e-research technologies and infrastructure.

Value Free/Attempted Neutrality

There are of course debates in the social sciences about whether value-free research and neutrality are possible. At the same time, many researchers aspire to such a goal, even when they are aware of its potential limits. One area of the study of e-research where this approach is often in evidence is in the study of communication and collaboration. Research that falls into this category includes, for example, the analysis and evaluation of collaboratories (Finholt, 2002; Further examples of work in this area include identifying patterns of new modes of scientific communication and collaboration using methods and measures such as social network analysis, co-citation practices, co-authorship, and hyperlink networks. This work is sometimes policy related and often involves large-scale analysis or comparison of many cases, for example, when measuring scientific productivity or incentives among scientists for collaboration. However, one of the aims is typically an objective assessment of the inter-organizational relations in science.

One illustration of this approach is a study by Cummings and Kiesler (2005) of collaborative scientific projects in the U.S. They examined 62 collaborative projects that were funded by the National Science Foundation, most with partners distributed across a number of locations, and most of which were multi-disciplinary. One of their findings was that collaborative research across institutions is more difficult than collaborative research across disciplines in terms of project coordination and project outcomes. They also noticed that communication in distributed projects tended to drop off over time. In conclusion, they argue that there may be a ‘trade-off’ in the advantages that these projects can bring between “innovation opportunities versus coordination costs” (2005: 720). These findings, even if they did not arise directly from e-research projects, are clearly relevant to e-research. Many e-research projects are still at too early a stage of developing the capabilities for collaboration-at-a-distance for one to be able to tell if they are effective and able to bridge distances in collaboration. It is clear, however, that coordination problems of the type identified by Cummings and Kiesler (2005), which are almost always multi-disciplinary and distributed, will also affect e-research. Sonnenwald (2006), for example, who studied one e-research multi-institutional collaboration (although with limited multi-disciplinarity) over the course of several months, noticed a host of problems of coordination across distributed institutions.

Embedded in the Disciplines/Sustainability as Adoption

Development efforts in this category place an emphasis on computational and data processing needs for specific research problems. The focus is on sustainability, ensuring a steady flow of human and financial resources in order to maintain tools and resources and support communities of users, rather than generic infrastructure. In the U.K., social science projects that fall under this category tend to be in areas of quantitative social science, such as the NCeSS funded MoSeS (Modelling and Simulation for e-Social Science, research node which aims to develop tools and resources for simulating populations, based on national statistical datasets such as Census UK. The added value that projects such as MoSeS claim to contribute to the social sciences through e-research is the potential contribution to evidence-based policy making in areas such as health and transport. Policy Grid ( is another research node funded by the NCeSS that falls within this approach as its aims are to develop semantic grid technologies to support mixed data and mixed methods within rural development and policy making. In this quadrant we can also place research aimed at gauging the adoption of e-research tools without being prejudicial to the success of e-research as a project, such as the research carried out as part the e-Infrastructure of NCeSS ( which is aimed at surveying users, including about non-use and about tools that are not part of the NCeSS effort.


Approaches in this quadrant attempt to create a new momentum beyond individual projects; here the emphasis is on setting and implementing a new agenda for research. This effort will entail enrolling new actors, in addition to researchers and users, because new institutions must be created or existing ones aligned in order to allow this new type of research, with its novel values and benefits, to flourish.

Advocacy/Steering and Aligning Structures

Advocacy is mainly aimed at general issues affecting e-research, rather than specific e-research projects or e-research agendas, although it engages with agendas in pursuance of its goals. These include fostering structures that enable communication and collaboration across disciplinary, institutional, and geographic frontiers. For example, in his evaluation of the legal and economic dynamics of scholarly publishing, Nentwich (2006) seeks a socio-technical solution to current quality control mechanisms that are seen as a threat to open science. He argues that “what is needed is hardly more technology, but organization, management procedures and legal as well as economic knowledge at the interface of technology and the social environment” (Nentwich, 2006: 201).

There are parallels between Nentwich’s (2006) discussion of digital publishing and Hine’s (2005) case study of systematics in biology (see discussion of the critique/reflexive or prospective approach below). It may be, for example, that the drive for open digital access to information about species will undermine processes whereby cataloguing was traditionally peer reviewed, just as Nentwich’s advocacy of open access may undermine the traditional peer review structure of journals. The de-commodification of information that Nentwich advocates also raises issues (again, echoing Hine’s work) of how archives and collections will be maintained and disseminated effectively in an open-access system and who will fund such resources.

Such general issues of resources and organizational frameworks are typically at the forefront of the “advocacy” social science approach. This approach is illustrated by the work of David and Spence (2003), in their account of the institutional infrastructures for e-science. They seek out the economic advantages and pitfalls of the Internet’s open architecture and culture. In the process, they discuss, among other issues, the question of how such an infrastructure could be funded, including whether the traditional models of journal publisher revenues can be maintained in open publishing, and how intellectual property rights can be implemented when data are made openly accessible or shared. From the point of view of the structural/advocacy position of David and Spence, it is primarily the legal, political, and administrative structures that have been experienced as constraints to Grid-based collaboration by the first generations of Internet and Grid users.

A specific policy-related example of David and Spence’s work that they touch on is the movement towards open access publishing (cf. Schroeder, 2007). This movement aims to make research publications that are currently available only in the form of expensive journal subscriptions freely available. Regardless of the outcome of open access debates, however, in this case social science can point to the advantages (and disadvantages) of policy recommendations accordingly, and promote putting these into practice.

Agenda Aligned/Supporting Generic Infrastructure

It is in this category that we place national publicly accessible resources, such as the Internet Archive, given their institutional alliance and primary concern with developing a generic service that is not embedded in any specific discipline or research paradigm. Other social science initiatives that constitute a wider agenda, such as those that are part of the ESRFRI (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures) effort to create pan-European infrastructures (for example, in the social sciences, CESSDA, which promotes integration of social science data; see, also fall into this quadrant.


Approaches in this quadrant are concerned with the interrelationship between micro-level research practices, on the one hand, and macro-level policy and technology implementation, on the other. Whether from the perspective of critiquing e-research in the context of social and institutional factors, or from the perspective of potential social science users with concerns regarding the social implications (e.g., recognition and reward). Sustainability viewed from this approach is concerned with social barriers and perceived relevance of e-research.

Critical/Reflexive or prospective

The critical/reflexive approach is concerned with the social implications of e-research and tends to highlight the discrepancy between visions and practice. The focus is often on the analysis of high-level discourses around e-research, such as policy documents or future visions. The discussion typically revolves around the ‘values’ and ‘expectations’ embedded in technologies as well the evolving meaning of terminology, definitions, and boundaries. This perspective tends to couple its argument with the need for researcher immersion in ethnographic case studies (Vann & Bowker, 2006; Woolgar & Coopmans, 2006).[iv]

Vann and Bowker (2006), for example, explore ‘prospective texts’ around e-research and argue that in order to understand the impact of e-research on knowledge-producing practices, social scientists need to “consider decisions that get made about how the skill, commitment, performance, and product demand of scientists can be coordinated and stabilized” (2006: 71). In other words, visions lock in particular trajectories of the way in which the work of the research is done. This approach thus looks to concrete instantiations of local scientific practices – such as how the ‘labor’ of research of different forms of research is talked about (Hine, 2005; Vann & Bowker, 2006) – or at new disciplinary identities (Hine, 2006) and forms of accountability in scientific practice.

Hine’s work (2005) is a good illustration of this approach. She explores the relationship between the visions for global online cataloguing and digitization of species and the cultural specificity of the systematics field in biology. To do this, she examines the discourse of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology review of the state of systematics in Britain, combining this with ethnographic observation of the problems encountered in practice. In the process, she challenges the inevitability of the digital solutions perspective: ‘if you build it they will come’.

Systematics is also an interesting case study for exploring what Hine (2005: 4) describes as the ‘political geography’ of a discipline, whereby the geopolitical history of a discipline shapes collective notions of social justice in the present. For example, human geographers try to distance themselves from the colonial geographies of the 18th century, and anthropologists are also keen to rectify and distance themselves from the cultural imperialism of the same period. In the case of systematics, access to the world’s most critical taxonomic collections has historically been held by national institutions of developed countries, often with a history of colonization. This centralization of resources and exclusion of developing countries in the past (which are typically the source of the data held in national repositories of specimens) make the rhetoric of open access and data sharing compelling to a sense of social justice within the disciplinary community. The ‘political geography’ of systematics also converges with the “archaic image of systematic biology” (Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2002, in Hine 2005: 6) to ensure that digital technologies are perceived within systematics to hold both ‘practical purchase’ and ‘symbolic qualities’. Indeed, Hine argues that “particular sets of expectations around digital technologies have played an important part in shaping the discipline’s response to the internet, playing out both on a level of individual practices and in high level policy forums where the discipline’s activities are evaluated” (2005: 5).

Researchers who adopt the critical/reflexive perspective argue that the compelling rhetoric around the transformative nature of digital technologies will preclude appropriate discussions about the real needs for digitizing resources and for evaluating the needs of users.

Skepticism/Non-use from within the disciplines/Sustainability as Project

A skeptical approach may lead to non-use or resistance to e-research. The U.K. National Centre for e-Social Science (NCeSS) perceives that potential users of e-Social Science will fall into three main categories (Halfpenny, 2006): early adopters (current award holders under the e-Social Science program); enthusiasts (who will need practical demonstration of the potential benefit of tools in their research area and for whom the new technology fits with existing work practices); and the unengaged (for whom the complexity of e-science infrastructure would be a disincentive and tools would need to be black-boxed and easily usable). In this quadrant the perceived development and uptake will be viewed with skepticism, with resources perhaps better allocated to an agenda that is less technology-driven and that sees the extension of tools to the ‘unengaged’ as being of doubtful value.



In this chapter we have used a limited number of examples to illustrate each of the eight types of social science approaches to e-research that we have identified. Although we have categorized these approaches into four discrete categories, the taxonomy presented in Tables 2.1 and 2.2 represents potential tensions and synergies. In order to understand the working of a particular aspect or component of e-research practice or policy, it may be beneficial if a combination of approaches were applied. For example, a project concerned with the sustainability of e-research may feasibly employ a ‘usability/practical’ approach as a complement to a ‘value free/attempted neutrality’ approach. However, the various approaches – whether practical in contrast to critical, or neutral rather than advocacy – are likely to shape both our understanding and the outcomes of e-research in different ways.

Potential Impact

The ‘critical/reflexive’ stance, for example, is likely to have an indirect effect on e-research, seeking to shift the debate about its overall aims and opening up a space for a wider debate about the role of science in society that includes more than just researchers. Advocacy may also contribute to steering e-research, and may do so in a direct way, but one question mark is bound to be the strength of the influence of social science on policymaking. In this case, it is important to consider the for a – policy organizations, scientific advisory boards, academic conferences, and the like – in which these policy debates take place.

The examples illustrate that the line between the social, technical, legal, and economic aspects of e-research are becoming blurred. In usability approaches, the line between technical and social improvements may be hardest to draw, even if, as in the eDiaMoND case described earlier, there were many researchers with a social science background involved in this part of project. In a value-free/attempted neutrality approach, social science can learn much about how science works in the case of these large technological systems.

For the projects developing e-research tools and resources (Agenda Aligned/Supporting Generic Infrastructure), on the other hand, the question is whether those projects that are mainly being developed as part of a larger concerted e-research agenda are more likely to succeed than those which are agenda neutral or embed themselves within disciplines. A key factor here must be whether the larger, agenda-driven funding programs will continue, or if e-research tools and resources will be absorbed into existing disciplines or scientific (and social scientific) advances.

Potential Synergies

It will be obvious that, despite our efforts to separate the four social science approaches, there is much overlap between them. This applies not only to the thin line between critical and neutral approaches, but also between critical approaches and usability: For example, the usability issues that were described in the eDiaMoND study led the researchers to say that their findings aimed to “respecify” (Jirotka et al., 2005: 395) the original “visions” of the project, just as Hine’s (2005) work wants to re-size the visions of systematics. Note, however, that in the eDiaMoND case, this respecification of visions was done in order to “make their accomplishment more achievable in the long run” (Jirotka et al., 2005: 395), whereas Hine’s (2006) conclusions throw into doubt the very achievability of the visions.

There is also an age-old tension between theory and practice[v] or, in this case, between becoming so involved in constructive engagement (the policy and usability approaches) that all the necessary distance of the critical or neutral approaches is forsaken, with the result that little of value is gained for social science understanding of the implications of new research technologies. Or the opposite: that the distance between the neutral or critical perspectives and practice is so large that no lessons can be derived for guiding the development of new research technologies. It will only be possible to gauge these tensions—and how they pull in one or other direction in the case of the e-research – once e-research projects and infrastructures have matured.

Another point is that different social science approaches may influence e-Research at different stages. Thus, for example, critics of the visions may dominate in the early phases of the e-research enterprise and may fade as the visions – in whatever form – become translated into mundane practices or when they have faded into practical realities.

The push to develop and use different e-research tools and resources would no doubt benefit from the application of complimentary perspectives, but in practice these are bound to be pulled in different directions, not least to the same intellectual and social considerations that e-research itself is subject to.



Coming back to the question of common ground and diversity among the eight social science approaches we have identified, it would seem that despite the complementarities that we highlight above, an integration of goals has not yet transpired. It may be the case that over time, the eight distinct approaches will mature into an intellectual field of its own right or become embedded in a broader adoption of e-research practices. In terms of our hypothesis about the ‘newness’ of e-research being a force for common ground among the approaches, we conclude that such newness or novelty shifts in and out of focus depending on whether an approach is proactively engaged on a research level, or detached from a pragmatic perspective.

The newness of e-research is perhaps least relevant to ‘usability/practical’ approaches, because here the main concern is a pragmatic one: making tools work. By employing sociology of science concepts – such as trust, incentives and interdependence between researchers – ‘usability/practical’ approaches can, however, locate the focus of where bottlenecks may lie. A ‘critical/reflexive or prospective’ approach will also not be primarily concerned with novelty, but rather with the extent to which the vision lives up to or reifies the realities of the sciences. Nevertheless, a useful way of gauging whether e-research becomes translated into effective scientific practice is how e-researchers cope, for example, with the challenges of uncertainty that accompany novelty (Whitley, 2000). ‘Advocacy/steering and aligning structures’ approaches are concerned with whether e-research is enhancing research efforts more broadly, and so will focus on whether e-research is providing a basis for more powerful ways of organizing research. A ‘value free/attempted neutrality’ approach, on the other hand, will need to establish which sociological concepts are adequate to the task of describing this new form of science and how well they fit different e-research developments.

In development and use, there is also a programmatic element, apart from an instrumental one, at play: how, via pushing tools and resources across disciplines ‘from above’, or providing raft of these tools and resources as part of a sustained platform, there is an aim to actively overcome systemic bottlenecks and creating novel supporting institutions. A skeptical approach will regard these efforts as overbearing and ultimately headed towards limited success, if any. For agenda-neutral approaches and those embedded within disciplines, on the other hand, this will depend on the how research technologies and the resources they deploy can cross disciplinary boundaries or be successful within them interstitially; that is, whether the institutional momentum can simultaneously reshape the landscape of research.

A final set of ideas that can be taken from the sociology of science is that across all e-research projects, one effect which seems mostly unintended is that e-research projects make visible or explicit many processes that were previously invisible or implicit.[vi] Examples abound, and include workflow organization, intellectual property issues, and inter-institutional commitments. E-Research projects do this partly because computerization necessitates, for example, that data are put into a certain format or stored in a certain way or made accessible across a network. These e-research developments all require standardization of rules and procedures that may previously have been unstated or unformalized or do not apply to non-digital material. At the same time, e-research may also hide or marginalize other research efforts that are not amenable to the process of rendering research into digital formats.

Earlier we posed the question of the potential influence of the sociology of science, as a disciplinary foundation across these approaches. Perhaps a more prudent question would be: what is the likely impact of these approaches and of e-research itself upon the sociology of science? Is the focus within the subdiscipline of sociology of science coupled to its object such that it promotes the advance within this subdiscipline, or is the subdiscipline promoted by means of engaging pragmatically in helping to reshape the new technologies?

Taking the social science approaches identified above more broadly, are the diversity of perspectives (we have identified four) beneficial, contributing essential, yet distinct, inputs to different levels of research policy and practice, or does it merely reflect fragmentary characteristics of the social sciences? Are we witnessing, on the other hand, a concerted shift in research organization towards a shared set of approaches and goals?

These questions must be posed with the understanding that the shift of resources and collaboration within online networks represents an entwining of an emerging large technological system for online research with the social environment of research institutions and settings. Can such a socio-technical system be reshaped by social scientists who analyze research in diverse ways, or will the social sciences themselves rather become engulfed by the new system of tools that are reconfiguring research across different arenas and institutions of knowledge production? In short, how is the object of research (e-research) coupled to the different social science perspectives that have been discussed? The question of how the social sciences relate to e-research as e-research transforms the nature of knowledge cuts across all four social science approaches as we have distinguished them here and will continue to evolve. Categorizing the different social science perspectives in terms of their potential relation to the object of research is a useful start and provides a better purchase on e-research, as e-research, in turn, re-shapes the sciences and advances knowledge.



This chapter is an updated and revised version of an earlier journal article (Schroeder & Fry, 2007). We would like to thank Nick Jankowski, two anonymous referees, and the participants at the “Social Science Perspective on e-Sciences” workshop at the Second International Conference on e-Social Science, Manchester, June 28-30, 2006, for helpful comments and suggestions. The work for this article has been supported by ESRC grant RES-149-25-1022 and is part of the Oxford e-Social Science (OeSS) project.



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[i]See the introductory chapter to this volume and also an earlier version of this essay (Schroeder & Fry, 2007). It can be difficult to define e-science or e-research independently of the funding programs that have fostered it. Schroeder (2008: 133) defines it as “the use of computing tools for networking in order to share distributed digital resources in scientific or academic research.”

[ii] Koku, Nazer, and Wellman (2000) argued some time ago that electronic communication does not do away with face-to-face communication among researchers; here, as elsewhere, the two are complementary. Nevertheless, Koku, et al. also noted that communication among researchers in a variety of different modalities has become denser – that is, more frequent and more multi-channel. E-Research contributes to this trend, complementing rather than displacing existing ways of doing research.

[iii] Schroeder (2007, 2008), drawing on Collins (1994), argues that because e-Research consists of research technologies, these technologies play a unique role in promoting the advance of knowledge since they are generic devices which operate across knowledge domains, have a more global scope, and allow research materials to be more powerfully malleable. This argument can be applied to research technologies in the social sciences as well as the natural sciences, though with the proviso that research technologies are coupled differently to their research domains depending on the knowledge domain. Further, research technologies operate on different levels, sometimes as part of research infrastructures, sometimes as part of the science communication system, and in other cases as individual tools or resources – though for e-Research, these are also networked and distributed.


[iv] Woolgar and Coopmans (2006) use the term “virtual witnessing.”


[v] Max Weber’s “Objectivity” essay (1949) remains a key starting point in this debate; see also Rule (1997) for a recent overview.


[vi] This has been discussed by Fuchs (1992) outside of the context of e-Research, whereby researchers make their findings presentable to their peers, or they standardize and make their instruments more robust, contributing to a process of enhancing visibility and explicitness in scientific practices. In the context of e-Research, the argument is made by Schroeder (2007, 2008).