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A Research Revolution: The Impact of Digital Technologies

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Dicky Maidment-Otlet and Judy Redfearn describe a new JISC activity to highlight how digital technologies are changing research.

At the end of November 2009, JISC launched a year-long suite of activities under the heading Research 3.0: driving the knowledge economy. A series of events, publications and Web activity are stimulating discussion about how advanced digital technologies are creating a revolution in research and the way researchers work. With a central role in making these technologies available, JISC is also hoping to learn more about the concerns, views and requirements of researchers and the institutions that support them, especially given the financial constraints they are now under.

This article describes the background to this campaign, some of the activities that will be taking place and what we hope will come out of it.

Breaking New Ground

Digital technologies are changing both the research that can be done and the way researchers work. Advances in many, if not most, disciplines now depend on the generation or manipulation of digital data, sometimes in unimaginably large quantities.

In the sciences, this data-intensive research invariably requires remote access via the Internet to scientific instruments which generate the data, and to distributed databases, large-scale distributed computing resources and high-performance visualisation for data storage, analysis, modelling and simulation.

In the humanities, the availability of digitised content is opening up access to vast resources of literature that would otherwise remain inaccessible to most, if not all, readers. The arts and humanities are also adopting some of the digital technologies originally developed for the sciences and hence generating large new datasets. Examples include image capture to aid with deciphering ancient texts [1] or documents and collaborative dance projects at a distance [2].

screenshot (41KB) : Screenshot from the eDance Project showing the use of an advanced digital technology (the Access Grid) to facilitate remote collaboration in dance.

Screenshot from the eDance Project showing the use of an advanced digital technology (the Access Grid) to facilitate remote collaboration in dance.

Across all subjects, data-intensive research is opening up to scrutiny questions that previously would have been impossible to tackle because of their scale. In environmental sciences, for example, models of individual aspects of the Earth System can be integrated to generate a better understanding of the Earth System as a whole. In drug discovery, all licensed drugs can be systematically searched for any that shows action against a particular bacterium. Moreover, in the social sciences, a computer model of the UK population is enabling social scientists to test the consequences of social policies before they are put into practice. In their recently published introductory textbook Research in a Connected World, Voss, Vander Meer and Fergusson [3] give examples across all disciplines where advanced digital technologies are profoundly changing our understanding of the world.

But it is not just the nature and scale of research that is changing: researchers are having to adopt new ways of working. The ability to share resources across the Internet is enabling them to collaborate, often in global multi-disciplinary teams which are fit and large enough to tackle these new large-scale research questions. These developments are exciting and full of new opportunities, but they also bring challenges. An immediate one is what to do with all the research data now being generated. Some data are already curated and kept for future access and reuse in well-managed data centres that are usually subject-based. Typically, these data are generated by large-scale facilities or major goal-oriented research programmes. The majority of research data, however, goes uncatalogued and is therefore not reusable by other researchers either now or in the future. If today's research data really do have the potential for reuse by tomorrow's researchers to answer questions we cannot yet predict, then this represents a failure to reap the full potential from present-day investment in research.

Many organisations have a stake in finding ways to make sure research data is not lost. The challenge is to develop policies at international, national and institutional levels that are rooted in the actions researchers themselves will need to take. Another challenge arises from the ability of researchers to collaborate and share as never before. This is exciting, but it is also at odds with the traditional social structure of science which tends to promote competition rather than collaboration and open sharing by rewarding individuals for being the first to publish in a high-impact journal.

photo (41KB): Example of the Hume Tracts

Example of the Hume Tracts: This collection is now available online and accessible via the collection pages on the JSTOR site [4] or via 19th Century British Pamphlets Online [5]

Future-gazing

Many questions arise: what motivates some researchers to share their data? And why are others so reluctant to share? Should there be a change in the way researchers receive recognition and establish their careers? If so, what should that change be? Should research data be shared just within the bona fide research community – or should data be publicly available? Will there be a move towards the democratisation of research? If so, will this further promote research excellence - or erode it?

The answers to these questions will be decided by developments in the Internet, in network technology and the Web, as much as by deliberate consideration. Now, however, is an important time to be asking them. Web 2.0, the relentless growth of research data and the unprecedented ability to share brought about by the Internet are forcing change. We need to make the most of the new opportunities for openness and shape how research is conducted in future. This is Research 3.0.

JISC at the Heart of the Debate

An important part of JISC's remit is to support the innovative use of ICT for research and hence the goals laid out in the government's Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14 [6]. JISC's role in supporting research through its digitisation programme and its work to make the outputs of research freely available through Open Access publishing are well-known. Less well-known is its role in supporting the innovative use of ICT in revolutionising the research process itself, a role that developed alongside the UK e-Science Programme which was managed by the research councils and then the Department for Trade and Industry from 2001-2007 [7].

During that time JISC worked in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to establish three new services: the National Grid Service which provides UK researchers with access to the pooled computing resources of several institutions from the comfort of their own desktops; the Digital Curation Centre, which provides a national focus for research and best practice on the curation of research data; and the National Text Mining Centre, to help researchers extract valuable insights from the vast amount of text now available to them.

Other initiatives established during this time include JISC's Virtual Research Environment programme which is supporting projects to develop tools for collaborative working and an e-Science in the Arts and Humanities initiative which is supporting a series of projects to develop and apply digital technologies specifically for the arts and humanities.

Most recently, JISC has launched a 'managing research data' programme to make progress in solving the research data management problem. It is asking several questions including:

  • Are our assumptions about the value of research data right?
  • What do researchers need to manage data effectively?
  • What policies are required to support researchers' requirements?

As the leader in the innovative use of digital technologies in UK Higher and Further Education and research - and a key international player - JISC is well placed to stimulate and lead debate with its partners on the issues outlined above.

Research 3.0: driving the knowledge economy

The campaign launched last November with a Times Higher Education supplement on the 'data revolution' [8] and a mini-site within the main JISC Web site which provides a focus for the campaign debates and activities [7]. This mini-site also provides a direct route to all JISC's activities that are relevant to research and researchers. The 'data revolution' supplement raises many of the issues surrounding research data which are central to Research 3.0: why researchers need to share their data, what funders are doing to encourage them, costs, the role of the institution and subject libraries in providing help, and researchers' attitude towards data sharing – which is often reluctant. On the latter point, Chris Rusbridge, Director of the DCC is quoted as saying: 'It's not that people say, "I definitely don't do this". They often say, "That's a really good idea, I'll certainly do that." And they go back to the lab and there are a million other things to be done. Most researchers don't see how managing and sharing their data more widely can benefit them'.

This point will be taken up further in the next two major activities. An event in association with the British Academy in May 2010 will illustrate how the use of advanced digital technologies is supporting advances in text-based research in the humanities that were previously impossible. It will explore how the use of these techniques can be taken up more widely in the humanities. A further topic of discussion will be the role of data and text mining in helping arts and humanities researchers to manage the data explosion together with the future requirements for support and infrastructure if these techniques are more widely adopted in future.

This will be followed by an event in association with the British Library, and the natural environment and social sciences research councils, that takes a practical look at how researchers in these two data-intensive disciplines are managing their data in large, multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional projects. The debate will then be opened out to consider the prospects for 'Open Science' where data are shared publicly. This raises many of the issues mentioned earlier concerning the social structure of science and researchers' motivations for sharing their data and working more openly.

JISC will be live-streaming sessions from both these events and organising bloggers to bring the presentations and discussion to a far wider audience than can be present. Through the British Academy and research councils, we hope to reach a wider audience of researchers than we could alone, and to stimulate a lively debate on our Research 3.0 blog. We are also planning to extend audience reach through a further supplement with a media partner to focus in particular on the application of advanced digital technologies in the arts and humanities.

Our final event will be a conference in October 2010 which pulls together conclusions from the earlier events, but also takes a more pragmatic and immediate look at how advanced digital technologies can help institutions to grapple with their present financial constraints by supporting researchers and the research process effectively and efficiently. JISC's role in supporting institutions to achieve this objective will be shown through presentations and demonstrations based on all aspects of the research lifecycle; from the generation of ideas to the research process itself, to publishing the final results and making them widely available.

Interwoven with these main activities are a number of other events which we will be linking to Research 3.0, although they lie outside the campaign. Most notable is the JISC Conference [10] which this year will feature more sessions with a research angle than usual. Up-to-date information on these and other events is available at the JISC Research 3.0 Web site [9]. From here you can also access the debate generated by events, see what others are saying, watch our videos and other multimedia information and, via the research lifecycle diagram, explore the JISC services, programmes and projects that support researchers and the research process.

Conclusion

By the end of our year-long suite of activities we hope we will have raised awareness of many of the issues mentioned above with audiences beyond JISC's traditional reach, as well as with the JISC community. We also hope we will have raised awareness of the opportunities offered by advanced ICT for all aspects of the research lifecycle including research information, data management and research processes. Equally importantly, we hope that JISC will be better informed about what researchers and the institutions that support them really want from advanced ICT so that we can better plan the future together in these straitened times.

References

  1. VRE for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts: BVREH
    http://bvreh.humanities.ox.ac.uk/VRE-SDM
  2. e-Dance | Arts and Humanities E-Science Support Centre
    http://www.ahessc.ac.uk/e-dance2
  3. Voss, A., Vander Meer, E., Fergusson, D., "Research in a Connected World",
    http://cnx.org/content/col10677/latest/
  4. JSTOR Title List - 19th Century British Pamphlets
    http://www.jstor.org/action/showJournals?browseType=collectionInfoPage&selectCollection=britpam
    Librarians can sign their institution up via the page on the JISC Collections Web site
    http://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/catalogue/19thc_pamphlets
  5. 19th Century British Pamphlets Online
    http://www.britishpamphlets.org.uk/
  6. "Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14"
    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/consult_sciinnov_index.htm
  7. EPSRC: e-Science Programme
    http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/ResearchFunding/Programmes/RII/e-Science/default.htm
  8. The data revolution, Times Higher Education, 26 November, 2009
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=409097
  9. Research 3.0: driving the knowledge economy http://www.jisc.ac.uk/res3
  10. JISC Conference 2010 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2010/04/jisc10.aspx

Author Details

Dicky Maidment-Otlet
Communications Manager
Services and Outreach, Communications and Marketing
JISC

Email: d.maidment-otlet@jisc.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/contactus/staff/dickymaidmentotlet.aspx

Judy Redfearn
Communications Coordinator
Services and Outreach, Communications and Marketing
JISC

Email: j.redfearn@jisc.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/contactus/staff/judyredfearn.aspx

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Date published: 
30 January 2010

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How to cite this article

Dicky Maidment-Otlet, Judy Redfearn. "A Research Revolution: The Impact of Digital Technologies". January 2010, Ariadne Issue 62 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue62/maidmentOtlet-redfearn/


article | by Dr. Radut