Chapter 5 – e-Research and Scholarly Community in the Humanities

Paul Genoni, Helen Merrick, and Michele Willson

Abstract
The terms ‘e-science’ and ‘e-research’ are commonly evoked to describe profound changes experienced as a result of the affordances of computer mediated communication (CMC). Changes in the teaching and research practices of academics are noted in both the traditional and social sciences. Whilst there exists extensive research into emerging patterns of online teaching and learning and on the effects of electronic publication, there has to date been less consideration of the processes of internet-facilitated research (e-research) and the resulting impact on notions of scholarly community or the ‘invisible college’. A full understanding of how CMC has impacted on scholarly research requires consideration not just of its formal outcomes, but also consideration of the processes and practices of the more informal, inter-personal communication that are part of the e-research endeavor. In the chapter we examine the role of scholarly communities in supporting and enabling e-research in the humanities / social sciences. Of particular interest are the informal, behind-the-scenes, communicative and collaborative practices that instigate, manage and produce e-research outcomes. Our study is informed by a broader research project on the virtual scholarly community which surveyed academics in the sciences and humanities about their use of CMC to support, extend and, possibly transform such communities. This chapter offers qualitative examinations of e-research communication processes, drawing upon specific case studies of new and existing e-research groups and distributed collaborative projects. In particular, we ask what such e-research practices and possibilities mean for understandings and experiences of academic community within a communication network environment.


The terms ‘e-research’ and ‘e-science’ are emerging as the favored descriptors to signal both the shift in the practice and business of scholarly work, and an increasingly common direction for national funding and research priorities. As researchers begin to examine this phenomenon, it is becoming clear that disciplinary differences are crucial markers of success and uptake, with much work remaining to be done in areas outside the natural sciences (e.g., Lloyd & Sun, 2005; Jankowski, 2007; Wouters & Beaulieu, 2007). Closer attention needs to be paid to the ways in which diverse disciplines can use and benefit from e-research-enabling technologies such as cyberinfrastructure or grid computing. Not surprisingly, most research to date has tended to focus on the natural sciences (Costa & Meadows, 2000: 255) with some interesting work emerging around the notion of collaboratories (Finholt, 2003; Bos et al., 2007). There have, however, been considerably fewer investigations of the changing practices, cultures, and communities of scholars in the humanities as they engage with an e-research environment.

The concept of ‘scholarly community’ has for some time been central to the understanding of scholarship and research, and the types of community (and communication) that are characteristic of different disciplines (Crane, 1972; Meadows, 1974). What exactly constitutes or defines scholarly community is, however, an open question, and one which is complicated as modes of communication and research practice are transformed. For the purposes of this paper scholarly community is defined as the multiple relationships that result from the pursuit of shared scholarly interest and endeavour. These may be formal relationships – those that are mediated by professional associations or constructed collectives of scholars; or they may be informal relationships – those that are constituted spontaneously between two or more scholars. In either case it is not necessary that individuals know each other personally in order to belong to the same scholarly community. ‘Belonging’ may simply result from being part of the extended discourse of scholarship that attaches to any discipline or subject area.

Recent work on the structuring, diffusion and use of scholarship and research emphasizes the complicated and interdependent relations between disciplinary cultures, formal and informal communication, and scholarly communities (Hargens, 2000; Fry, 2004). In this chapter we consider the impact of e-research models on the informal communication practices of humanities scholars, and the extent to which their own perception of ‘scholarly community’ may have been altered. The broad aim of our research is to investigate the relationship between changing research and communication practices and notions of scholarly groupings and, in particular, differences in e-research practice between the sciences and humanities. Underlying this aim are important questions concerning how (and why) we conceptualize and categorize such practices. That is, the possibilities and the imperatives of an ICT-driven environment invite reflection not only about how to conduct e-research or what it means, but also about the very notion of scholarly community itself.

This chapter reflects on an ongoing research project investigating e-research practices in the humanities, and particularly the impact of the Internet on the informal communicative practices that support and inform research. Our discussion is based on a survey of academics’ use of the Internet, conducted at Curtin University of Technology, and initial investigations of academics involved in the Australian-based Network for Early European Research (NEER). Following a brief literature overview contextualizing this research we draw on a small-scale survey of NEER participants as a means of speculating about the evolution of informal communication and related notions of scholarly community as humanities scholars increasingly engage with e-research.  We conclude that further investigation of the underlying cultural practices and research needs of humanities scholars is required in order to understand and enact a closer match between their research practices and productive technological relationships.

Background

Our focus on informal scholarly communication, and the role it plays in supporting and generating community or the ‘invisible college’ in a networked environment has necessitated the review of a large and diverse body of literature. This has ranged from older studies of patterns of scholarly communication (Meadows, 1974) and the invisible college (Crane, 1972) to research on the impact of ICTs on traditional research and communication practices (Bruce, 1996; Appleby, Clayton & Pascoe, 1997; Houghton, Steele & Henty, 2003). There is a related body of research that focuses specifically on changes in informal scholarly communication practice; that is, the wide range of written and verbal information exchanges other than those which constitute publication (Hert, 1997; Costa & Meadows, 1999; Koku, Nazer & Wellman, 2001; Henry, 2002; Barjak, 2005).

One of the few studies to date explicitly addressing the humanities argues that ‘e-science’ is not the most appropriate term to cover humanities-type research (Wouters & Beaulieu, 2007). The term e-science carries connotations regarding the use of high-end computational facilities and grid computer networks as tools for research in ways that may not be appropriate to humanities research methodologies and practices (Jankowski, 2007, 551). Indeed, as Wouters and Beaulieu (2007) note, “the dominant use of the term e-science in discussions of new information infrastructures for the humanities and social sciences carries with it an emphasis on data-oriented computational or quantitative analysis” (p. 584).

Thus far the Australian approach reflects that of European initiatives rather than the U.S. and U.K. in preferring the umbrella term of ‘e-research’. As Jankowski notes, in the Netherlands “the term e-science is avoided and preference given to ‘e-research’, which is seen as more reflective of the work of both social scientists and scholars in the humanities” (Jankowski, 2007). The Australian government’s definition of e-research stresses ICT-enhanced collaboration and enabled research practices rather than focusing on grid computing per se, noting the supplementary nature of many e-research practices. It also notes the development of completely new research and methods as a result of technological capabilities.[1]

Bodies with an investment in the humanities have also started using the term ‘e-humanities’ to distinguish the particular needs of their discipline. One manifestation of this trend in Australia is the establishment of the Australian e-Humanities Network, operating under the auspices of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.[2]

In this chapter, e-research is our preferred term for several reasons. Firstly, it can most easily encompass the sorts of informal communication and community-related practices particularly suited to those disciplines within the humanities that have not traditionally relied on large data sets or extensive computational facilities; secondly, because e-research better reflects and encompasses the range of collaborative possibilities of networked research in the humanities; and finally, as the research reported here focuses on experiences in Australian universities and on an Australian Research Council (ARC)  nationally funded project it makes sense to use local terminology.[3]

The humanities encapsulate a range of research objectives, methods, and resources that render any undifferentiated coupling with the ‘traditional’ or natural sciences problematic. Indeed, it has been suggested that the term humanities itself covers too broad and diverse a collection of research and scholarly communication practices to be able to be considered as a cohesive research object (Fry, 2006). This diversity affects the ways in which digital resources are employed in scholarly communication practices and research production.

On the one hand, there is validity in Fry’s claim that:

intellectual fields within a single discipline vary to such an extent in their knowledge creation practices and work organization as to render comparison of computer-mediated communication practices based on broad disciplinary groupings such as the natural sciences and humanities misleading. (Fry, 2006: 302)

On the other hand, the intellectual fields incorporated under the banner of humanities tend to exhibit differences from the sciences (and often social sciences) in a number of ways: predominance of independent scholarship and the lone author (Cronin, 2003; American Council of Learned Societies, 2006; Wouters & Beaulieu, 2007), focus on qualitative rather than quantitative focused methods, and a trend of interpretative and speculative outcomes. That is, intellectual fields in the humanities are more likely to exhibit “a low degree of ‘mutual dependence’ coupled with a high degree of ‘task uncertainty’”, which as Fry argues are “less successful in commanding control over channels of communication and are less concerned with co-producing field-based digital resources” (Fry, 2006: 299).[4]

In discussing the importance of variations in formal and informal scholarly communication for the uptake of e-research processes and resources, Fry points particularly to the difficulties in utilizing digital infrastructures to enable collaborative work in “those fields that are non-hierarchical, loosely organized, intellectually pluralistic, with local variation in work organization” (Fry, 2006: 312). Despite her caution about basing comparisons on disciplines, this description would apply to many fields in the humanities. Thus Fry’s conclusion about the fate of such fields in an e-research environment is, we would argue, crucial in considering humanities’ applications and uptake of e-research initiatives. She notes:

the lack of centralized coordination and control in these fields will make it difficult for the scholarly community to systematically appropriate and develop digital infrastructures and resources in response to specific cultural needs. Often such fields have to work within externally imposed and developed digital infrastructures and resources. (Fry, 2006: 312)

Thus, central to our investigation has been the work on the transformation of university information resources and scholarly practices at an institutional level (Gibbons et al., 1994; Hawkins & Battin, 1998). In Australia, there has been increasing focus on collaborative and cross-institutional research. The Australian Government’s proposed introduction of the Research Quality Framework (RQF) in 2007/8 emphasized national and international output and performance. Similarly, in 2005, the Australian Research Council (ARC) special research initiatives focused on e-research.[5] The centrality of grid computing in funding models and as impetus for collaboration is hard to avoid. For example, a recent survey conducted under the aegis of the Australian Academy of the Humanities was heavily focused on the use or potential of ICTs and networked computing for research practice (Australian Academy of the Humanities, 2007). Broader questions about cultural and communication practices were not addressed or considered as part of the survey’s purview.

Given such systemic encouragement, it is likely that there will be an escalation in the formation of humanities research groupings that are less organic, spontaneous, and instinctive than they may have been in the past. These groupings, it can be hypothesized, are likely to also be more structured, administratively facilitated and grant purposive. In this sense, they may be seen to mirror some of the processes and practices already embedded within the production of knowledge in the sciences. In Australia, “[i]ncreasingly the dominant research model is derived from the sciences rather than the humanities, with some of the benefits, and most of the complexities and difficulties that arise from such models of research teams” (Trigg, 2006: 329). This is an important point if we are to recognize that the difficulties of attaining a ‘fit’ between humanities research and e-research/cyber infrastructure is not just due to a (potentially determinist) notion of causal changes initiated by a changing technological environment. In many ways these difficulties emerge from, and indeed are exacerbated by, traditional differences between the cultures of humanities and science scholars. Such differences may leave humanities scholars even more disadvantaged as funding incentives for collaborative work become bound up in designing and implementing the technical and economic infrastructures for future e-research.

Our initial research focused on the perceived changes to academic communication and community brought about by the increasing adoption of ICTs (Genoni, Merrick, & Willson, 2005a; 2005b; 2006). Through a mixture of surveys and focus group studies, we examined scholarly communication practices and their relation to ICT usage at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. Our study of 107 academic staff and 139 postgraduate research students (246 respondents in total) across a range of disciplinary areas flagged a number of areas for investigation around the possible transformation of disciplinary research cultures and the perception of the impact of ICT usage. Also of interest was the fact that while Curtin’s humanities scholars appeared not to be as e-research focused as some of the other disciplines, they still perceived ICT as impacting on their experience of scholarly communication and collaboration (although to a lesser degree than scholars in the sciences and social sciences). The Curtin study also pointed to a need to investigate a clearly identified electronic network of humanities researchers as a means of reaching a better understanding of humanities e-research practices.

Network of Early European Research

As a result of the evolving nature of e-research formations it is difficult to identify the appropriate unit for analysis in terms of investigating the changing dynamics of different research cultures. Whereas many of the classic studies referred to above have been conducted at the discipline level, it may be more productive to investigate research practices of sub-disciplines, networks, or even projects. We had some difficulty in locating an Australian humanities e-research grouping that was more than simply an electronic list of affiliates before eventually selecting the Network of Early European Research (NEER) as a subject for more detailed exploration. We acknowledge, however, that research conducted on differently sized units of humanities e-research might achieve different outcomes.

Preliminary interviews and questionnaires with NEER members were conducted, and responses were used to reflect on existing literature and the previous Curtin University survey in order to pose questions concerning the methodology and research objectives most suitable for investigation of humanities e-research.

NEER is funded by the ARC as a ‘network of excellence’; and is also supported by a number of other institutional bodies. Established in 2004, NEER had approximately 200 members at the time of our survey in 2006 (membership in 2007 was closer to 300) drawn from across most of the Australian universities. These members are comprised of a mix of research and teaching, research-only academics, and postgraduates. NEER has been granted ARC funding until 2009, at which point the management committee will seek other funding sources in order to ensure the network’s continuation.

The stated aim of the network is:

to implement a formal framework for supporting and enhancing current Australian research into the culture and history of Europe between the fifth and early nineteenth centuries. It also aims to foster new research and new connections between researchers, and to develop and nurture the next generation of researchers in the field. (NEER, 2006)

NEER offers an administrative framework to afford and facilitate collaborative information sharing, mentoring and research output across national and international locales. As such it is a grouping that intends some longevity rather than one constituted as a more ephemeral gathering around a particular project or research problem.[6]

As well as providing a website (http://www.neer.arts.uwa.edu.au/) and electronic list, NEER offers access to commercial databases, is establishing a digital research repository, PioNEER, and an electronic Australian collections service. Funded activities to date include symposia and conferences; sponsorship for other research-related events; collaborative research programs; and postgraduate training seminars. NEER also supports Confluence, a Wiki space designed to support member interaction and joint research and grant writing. Confluence was activated in February 2007 and thus is still in its early stages with regards to researchers’ familiarity with the software.

A further feature of NEER is the research clusters, groups of 3-10 individuals from more than one institution and more than one discipline, collaborating in particular research areas. NEER has to date 14 research clusters, each of which has their own space in Confluence to coordinate and manage their collaborations. Although the NEER website notes, “Research clusters are expected to use (Confluence) as the primary means of tracking and recording their communications and collaborative activities”,[7] to date there has been a slow uptake of the software’s collaborative possibilities with most researchers resorting to email, or to email style attachments within the software (Burrows, 2007). This slow uptake may be related to the members’ lack of familiarity with the technology’s possibilities (Burrows, 2007), and also possibly because these possibilities require changes to take place in members’ research practices.

NEER was approached to participate in this study after the network had been operating for two years. The first stage involved the electronic distribution of a short open-ended questionnaire to the list of members. In order to provide contextual information, participants were asked how they had become involved in NEER, what range of activities they participated in, and whether they were involved in any e-research projects – defined as collaborative work fully or partially conducted through online means. We were interested in foregrounding questions concerning the human or social elements underpinning these initiatives. A total of 38 responses were returned. Given the small number of responses and the limited range of the survey questions, the following discussion is necessarily exploratory in nature, intended to open up and identify areas for further empirical investigation and theoretical development.

Involvement in NEER

When asked about how they had become involved in NEER, most respondents indicated that they had been, in one way or another, invited to participate. Participants were either known of through personal networks, through a shared association with a professional organization or by reputation within the field. From the outset then, NEER could be said to have been built upon a selective use of the scholarly community or invisible college as it related to a particular area of expertise. According to Stephanie Trigg (2006), NEER started with a small core of 50 established researchers and successful grant applicants and then built outwards to include early career researchers, postgraduates and other scholars. She notes the application for funding, “had no difficulty in proving that funding would consolidate networks and groups already in existence, rather than suddenly producing relationships among scholars who had never worked together before (a weakness of many other applications)” (Trigg, 2006: 322).

Therefore, at least in these initial stages, while NEER can be identified as a constructed or contrived network, there were underpinning relationships and an existing community within the group. However, it is also noteworthy that an e-research network of the scale of NEER had not arisen spontaneously out of these relationships but rather needed to be consciously constructed and administered. This is understandable given the institutional imperative of seeking external, large scale funding; a broader issue for academic research networks that will be touched on later.  Yet, the consequences of a broader gathering, enabled in no small part because of ICT capacities, opens up a range of issues and possibilities for humanities research to address.

Respondents’ reasons for agreeing to become involved in NEER fell into three broad categories: those relating to expansion of contacts or academic networks, those relating to access to information and knowledge, and those that were primarily resource driven. For example, many respondents noted the importance of broadening their connections to other areas and scholars and improving access to academic knowledge. Comments[8] indicative of these sentiments included:

  • Reconnected me with my initial academic field;
  • Good opportunity to get to know what academics are doing in this area;
  • To gain contacts with other early modern researchers;
  • Establish a sense of community;
  • Share research and teaching ideas … share resources and the expertise of personnel.

NEER was also seen as offering concrete benefits. These included opportunities to attend conferences and seminars; funding of projects using sources outside the mainstream funding bodies; and access to resources provided by NEER.

Another key reason mentioned by a number of respondents was the potential for NEER to strengthen the profile of Early Modern and Medieval Studies in Australia and internationally, and to counter the isolation of researchers in the field:

  • I believed NEER would be a great way to … strengthen the academic position of European studies In Australia, (leading to) even more success and security for the field;
  • I care about developing Medieval and Renaissance art history in Australia;
  • To overcome the problems of isolation and fragmentation in Australian medieval early modern studies.

Such sentiments indicate the importance of belonging, and a shared sense of identity: key ‘aspects’ in many understandings of community, and by extension scholarly community.

As noted earlier, the culture of humanities research typically privileges the sole author/investigator research project – although the research itself may be engaged in a discussion with other researchers’ work, past and present. In these circumstances a broader scholarly community is necessary in order to expand the development and dissemination of ideas and activities. However, while collaborative research projects are not unknown in the humanities, they have not been the norm. In Australia collaborative cross-institutional research has been considerably constrained by issues of geographic dispersion and the small numbers of specialist researchers located in the same institution. The possibilities of using communication technologies to facilitate broader collective projects (less restricted by geographic constraints and costs) has engendered greater interest in these endeavors, potentially introducing new research practices, and impacting upon the research culture of humanities scholars in the process.

Thus, respondents were asked whether they had been involved in any collaborative research projects online. Of those who responded to this question, 21 had not been involved in any e-research projects; 4 had been involved in projects with other NEER members; 8 in projects with non-NEER members, and 2 in projects both with and without NEER members. Those who had not been involved in any e-research collaborations were more likely to be junior academics or postgraduates rather than longer-term academics: all of those answering ‘no’ had been employed as academics for 20 years or less, whereas all of the respondents who had been academics for more than 20 years were involved in some type of e-research project. This suggests that the impact of new technology on older academics plays a lesser role than strength of long-term participation in scholarly networks: longer-term academics were more likely to have been in projects with those outside NEER, or both, than with NEER members alone. This accords with previous research that has shown it is established scholars who have access to, and communicate with, the invisible college or network of researchers (Barjak, 2006: 1352).

 

Perceptions of NEER

In considering questions relating to the social aspects of e-research practices and scholarly communication, we wanted to ascertain how people identified their involvement in NEER and how they perceived the grouping. This was important for a number of reasons. Not only might it lead to insight into the types of research taking place, it might also be useful for understanding the success and/or longevity of these types of groupings. Issues such as trust, instrumental motivation, reciprocity and prestige can then be investigated within this broader contextual understanding. Also related are questions to do with degrees of innovation and exposure to new ideas as has been discussed, for example, in social network analysis of weak and strong ties (Granovetter, 1973). Similarly, organizational management literature hypothesizing about different types of innovation and change practiced within networks and communities, when posited as extreme ends of a continuum, is of interest (Dal Fiore, 2007). While NEER is obviously not able to act as representative of all e-research humanities groupings, it does afford a place to explore such issues and their appropriate methods of investigation.

The main focus of the questionnaire was on participant perceptions of NEER, and whether (and if so, how) it had impacted on their understandings of networks, communities, and possible research outcomes. Despite its self-identification as a network, we asked participants to indicate which term they thought best described NEER: either network, team, collaboratory, community, or other. Network was chosen by 30 respondents, with 6 indicating collaboratory; 4 community; and 2 each for team and ‘other’ (some participants provided two responses). Given that NEER is named as a network, it is perhaps not surprising that this was the most common choice.

In order to gain a clearer understanding of their choice, understanding and application of these terms, participants were asked to elaborate on their response. Network was justified by a number as best describing what they saw as, “a loose association,” one with “too many participants with diverse interests to constitute a single community or team;” and a grouping that was “too diffuse, at this point, to be a community.” These responses accord with understandings of networks and changing practices of community noted by social network enthusiasts. Koku, Nazer, and Wellman suggest that there is “a movement from tightly-bounded, highly structured bureaucracies to social networks with amorphous boundaries and shifting sets of work relationships” (2001: 1772).

A deeper examination of the responses, however, reveals a more complex picture than this easy delineation would at first suggest. Many of those who chose ‘network’ revealed a more fluid understanding of the distinctions between each category, and made explicit links between networks, community and collaboration:

  • Network does describe NEER well … much of it is team work and collaboration between teams and/or individuals is really the goal;
  • Network provides the foundation for establishing a community among scholars and across disciplines, enabling collaborative work amongst teams of scholars.

For others, the term network was not seen as encompassing enough of the sense of community that they felt NEER represented:

  • I think collaboratory incorporates all the words … NEER is a network community in which people collaborate together;
  • I was going to tick network here, but then I realized that NEER was much more than that. Through its symposiums, I’ve been able to meet the people behind the emails and in this way, NEER has established a real sense of community.

These conceptual linkages and fluidity indicate a more complex working understanding of these terms than is often allowed for in the literature. Both the instrumental and strategic affordances of networked relations are viewed as valuable, but responses also evidenced a perception of stronger interpersonal connections linked to community, which might enable a deeper level of trust. Interestingly, for many respondents, networks were seen as preceding community, or as a formative stage that enabled stronger ties to be developed. Given the lack of shared protocols for collaborative research in the humanities, it is interesting to speculate about the extent to which communal relations provide a foundation from which to embark on collaborative information sharing and research. What is apparently important is that NEER provides a means of engaging and communicating with fellow researchers in a manner that performs and may even enhance the benefits of a more traditional scholarly community, in that it can support both ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ ties, or in other terms, both ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ relationships. In so doing, it serves for some participants the function of a community and for others the function of a network.

 

Expanding scholarly community

The earlier survey of academics at Curtin University supported the idea that ICTs have expanded the possibilities for networked connections and relational communities. Some three-fourths of the respondents indicated they were now more likely to initiate contact with scholars they did not know, with about the same number agreeing the internet had made it easier to approach senior scholars (Genoni et al., 2005b). However, some noticeable differences between disciplines emerged when scholars were asked to indicate the frequency they “use the internet to initiate contact with scholars and research students unknown to you”. Only 19% of humanities academics answered ‘frequently’, as opposed to 30% of those in sciences and 36% in social sciences. Also noticeable was the number of humanities scholars who indicated they ‘never’ use the internet to contact unknown scholars (28%), compared to social sciences (4%) and sciences (9%).[9]

In the case of NEER, which was explicitly established to connect humanities academics and researchers, respondents were asked whether they believed their participation in NEER had expanded their scholarly networks/communication. Of the 38 respondents, 27 were in agreement, and 8 disagreed, with a further 3 indicating ‘maybe’.

A number of respondents attributed this expansion to NEER’s facilitation of more traditional functions such as face-to-face workshops and seminars, which allowed them to network with other scholars. Others identified a combination of traditional and online activities as contributing to their expanded sense of network. Facilities such as the mailing list heightened awareness of more traditional activities such as conferences – and the potential for NEER to serve as a focal point for dissemination of news and events. In addition, as one respondent notes, the very act of establishing NEER infers a sense of community or network that crosses both disciplinary and geographic boundaries. That is, constituting a formal network and naming it as such has immediate implications for individuals’ understandings of what sorts of networks or scholarly communities they ‘belong’ to:

  • It has also made me think more consciously of the community of early European researchers in Australia and to think of informing them and involving them in activities than would otherwise be the case.

A number of participants point to the research clusters as important:

  • I have recently joined a NEER research ‘cluster’ in an area that is tangential to my main research area. I would not have committed to doing research in this area if it had not been for the cluster. Moving into that new research area would have been impossible if I was working on my own;
  • [NEER], I think, encourages a significant degree of dialogue between different ‘formations’ of Medieval studies and this has already produced initiatives that are new in the disciplinary sense.

Indeed many respondents commented on the importance of contact with scholars outside their own immediate area of research. Thus, NEER is seen as impacting on scholarly communities not just by providing better access to a pre-existing community of interest, but also by creating new networks or relational communities by deliberately crossing disciplinary and institutional boundaries, as well as geographic and hierarchical boundaries. This resonates with the literature addressing the usefulness of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973; Haythornthwaite, 2002) and with Dal Fiore’s (2007) hypothesis about the potential of networks to encourage radical innovation.

 

Impact on Research Outcomes

Central to our investigation of the impact of ICTs on scholarly community is how informal and less tangible practices and communication influence the production, development and dissemination of scholarly knowledge. Participants were therefore asked whether NEER had enabled research outcomes that would not be possible in a more traditional research environment. In this case 25 respondents agreed that NEER had acted in this way; 7 indicated ‘possibly’, and 5 disagreed (one response was missing). While this question relies on a participant’s self perception as to the degree of change or opportunity, this perception is important both in terms of the actual likelihood NEER has increased research opportunities, and also because such responses indicate a favorable attitude towards the technology and e-research practices, thus inferring a stronger possibility of uptake.

Some of the reasons given for impact related to improved funding opportunities and assistance to attend conferences / symposia.  Also cited as significant was broader and faster access to information relating to events, and to academic positions. Indeed, a number of respondents pointed to the way NEER enabled certain formations which in some ways ameliorated institutional constraints and pressures: in particular it was suggested that NEER gave their area of research a ‘profile’ not possible when working as isolated individuals.

One of the interesting outcomes of NEER has been the ways in which it has served to provide a more cohesive framework and sense of identity for participants. This has helped to heighten the awareness of levels of dependency and mutual benefit that may have been previously less apparent. Such frameworks and heightened mutual dependencies may work to counter some of Fry’s observations as to the difficulties of the single author culture and lack of collaborative tradition in the humanities

The collaborative cultural practices enacted in laboratories with shared protocols, procedures and expectations are mostly absent in the humanities. If e-research practices are to be successfully undertaken in the humanities, researchers need to develop cultures that value and support collaboration. Groupings such as NEER enable the collaborative, multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional research common in sciences, which is alien to the way many humanities scholars have traditionally operated:

  • collaborative projects are not, in my experience, the ‘norm’ in traditional contexts which tend to produce privatized, individuated projects.

Importantly, a shift towards collaborative research models could be seen as positioning the humanities more favorably for funding and thus successful research outcomes:

  • It allows teams to be formed, and team research is understood by the scientific disciplines that control the criteria for research grants and outcomes.

Therefore it is important to emphasise that it is as much the institutional and organizational effects of an e-research funding culture that are impacting on communication practices, particularly in the humanities, as the technologies themselves. However, while NEER’s institutional arrangements and technological infrastructure in some ways ameliorate the difficulties of coordination, the importance of the very human relationships established between researchers cannot be ignored.

 

Impact on concept of scholarly community

Finally, respondents were asked whether participation in NEER had impacted on their understanding or concept of scholarly community. Ten agreed that being a member of NEER had produced this effect, with a further 3 reporting they were ‘unsure’.  However of the 25 who reported that NEER hadn’t changed their understanding, a number qualified their answer to indicate some degree of impact (i.e. in all only half gave a definite negative response). Some comments qualifying the negative responses included:

  • No. But it has given much greater definition, and focus to the existing (and previously far more ad-hoc) scholarly networks in the field in Australia;
  • My understanding of ‘scholarly community’ has not changed but the possibilities of accessing such a community have certainly been opened up by NEER;
  • My understanding of the concept hasn’t changed a great deal, but I think NEER offers the opportunity for more involvement and greater lines of communication in a scholarly community;
  • Not changed, but made particular and actual. Many so-called research groupings /networks are really just an e-list. NEER has, for me, a sense of ‘real people engaging with one another’ about it;
  • In theory no: in practice yes.

The last comment is a useful way of framing this apparently ambivalent response: for many, rather than changing their notion of the invisible college, NEER has ‘actualised’ on a personal level an ideal of scholarly community.

For others, the experience of NEER has had a direct impact on their understanding or perception of scholarly community:

  • It encourages scholars to think of bigger projects, and to think outside traditional disciplinary/ institutional boundaries;
  • Yes; I’ve never seen this kind of nation-wide community that isn’t defined by its subject matter;
  • Yes, I can see the collaborative model as far more productive than the within-university funding model which seems to me to discourage the sharing of ideas;
  • It has made my idea of across-institutional academic community more real!

When asked what benefits they thought might emerge from their involvement with NEER, participants emphasized the possibilities for collaboration and increased access to information and networks. Some 16 respondents mentioned the development of collaborative projects (or the potential for collaboration to develop), with 15 citing better access to information, expanded contact with other academics and disciplines and better access to information. Surprisingly, funding was only cited by 3 respondents as a primary benefit – this despite the high number of responses citing funding as a key element in their reasons for joining NEER. This suggests that whilst initial reasons for joining were understood in terms of individual interest, the real benefits are viewed in terms of the ‘community’. A number (4 respondents) also referred to visibility as a key benefit – visibility of Australian research in this area, and of the discipline as a whole. Indeed, several participants were explicit in describing the ‘benefits’ in terms of their scholarly community, rather than the individual: “I don’t see it as a way to advance my career … so much as the discipline.”

Conclusion

This preliminary study of NEER has highlighted a number of key issues that need to be investigated in more detail: both reinforcing and challenging assumptions emerging from the literature. Our previous studies (Genoni, et al., 2005a, 2005b, 2006) tried to assess the academic’s sense of belonging to the rather amorphous invisible college which in individual cases would be constituted more by differing memberships delineated by discipline, or region (for example, Australian academics; medieval scholars). In approaching NEER there was an expectation on the part of the researchers that the enactment of scholarly community in a more tangible and particularized form (as deliberately constituted and managed to meet certain economic and institutional imperatives) might mean it was viewed as a more instrumental, individuated ‘tool’, rather than a relational, reciprocal environment ‘owned’ by its membership. Certainly for some members, ‘community’ remained only a possibility, needing more time for interpersonal relations and connections to emerge and be nurtured. For others, however, NEER was already viewed as a more relational ‘community’ than instrumental network, and indeed was considered by many as a welcome alternative to institutionally-driven formations. Indeed such findings raise the possibility that as research funding increasingly shifts to cross-institutional formations, these ‘networks’ may rival institutions as the primary point of self-identification for individuals.[10]

Another area of interest arising from the study concerns the social-technological relations of network and/or community. In seeking to examine the impact of ICTs on scholarly community and informal communication, there is recognition that many of the changes in an e-research environment are not simply technologically driven but result from and intersect with broader political and institutional developments. That is, the availability of networked technologies themselves are not the sole influence on emergent or changing research and scholarly practices – just as important are the institutional, social and economic imperatives to adopt and use these technologies.

Yet, particularly for humanities scholars, these same institutions do not necessarily provide the appropriate environments to meet these expectations, in the form of increased team-work or connectivity, for example. Few Australian universities can now sustain humanities departments of a sufficient size to provide a localized community of scholars. In this context, the traditional invisible college does not serve such isolated institutionally-located scholars as well as a self-identified and constituted grouping such as NEER. This is particularly important in countries such as Australia where institutions are often geographically isolated from one another, and where the numbers of area-specialist researchers are thinly dispersed.

It appears that the very establishment of NEER is already helping to constitute a community of ‘Early European researchers’ in Australia in addition to (and separate from) the traditional markers such as published output in journals or papers presented at conferences. Thus it is not the actual transactions, technologies, forms or directions of information flows that distinguish this network but the perceptions of its significance and location that make it distinctive – and will, perhaps, assist its ongoing growth and success. The challenge for developers of humanities e-research groupings is to ensure they move beyond the use of the technology as a means of enabling the sharing of data and information – an ‘information commons’ – and become a forum that enables, supports and sustains collaborative, distributed scholarship – a ‘research commons’.

 

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[1] See, e.g., http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/research_sector/policies_issues_reviews/key_issues/e_research_consult/

[2] See http://www.ehum.edu.au/

[3] Choosing to study a ‘national’ research grouping raises questions about the tensions between the strategic priorities and infrastructural responsibilities of national funding bodies, and the need for many researchers to create international affiliations.

[4] Fry’s paper builds on Whitley’s (2000) theory, which argues “the major differences between disciplines can be characterized in terms of the degree of mutual dependence between researchers in making competent and significant contributions to the research front and the degree of task uncertainty in producing and evaluating knowledge claims” (Fry, 2006: 300).

[5] See: http://www.arc.gov.au/ncgp/previous/e-research.htm.

[6] The relationship between these types of ephemeral associations and other more institutionalized or stable gatherings for e-research output is another area outside of this chapter, but one worth consideration for further research.

[7] See: http://www.neer.arts.uwa.edu.au/neer_research_clusters

[8] Here and elsewhere in this chapter series of comments from respondents are listed as unordered bulleted items and shown in italics.

[9] A large proportion of all academics had been involved in a collaborative project using the Net (54% from humanities, 53% in social sciences, and 63% of sciences). The disciplinary differences in the extent of collaboration were, however, interesting. Of these collaborations, only 18% of humanities were international (41% were national and 35%, were local). In contrast, 71% of social scientists and 70% of scientists’ collaborative projects were international (with only 21% and 10%, respectively, being local).

[10] Thanks to Anne Beaulieu for drawing our attention to this point.