Frequently Asked Questions

1. How is 'eresearch' different to 'esocial science', or 'digital humanities', or 'cyberinfrastructure'?

The terms 'e-Research', 'cyberinfrastructure', 'Grid computing', 'e-Science',' e-Social Science' and 'e-Humanities' all refer to distributed, collaborative, data- and information-intensive research activities.

2. Why do you study 'eresearch' and 'eresearchers'? Why do they make interesting subjects? How do you choose research areas?

Keeping Social Research in Pace with Innovation. The dynamism of this field poses issues with keeping our research targeted on leading-edge developments and issues, since these are changing rapidly.

This year, for example, the OeSS project staff have been engaged in research on the legal aspects of cloud computing, and are presently involved in the new Web Science Institute initiative, bringing our work on the social science of the digital research to bear on opening public data to the public

3. What is the aim of this research programme? What would you hope will be the outcome?

OeSS is developing original social science perspectives on digital research across the sciences and humanities. Its researchers critically examine how the design and use of advanced Internet and Grid technologies in the social, natural and computer sciences are reconfiguring not only how researchers obtain and provide data resources and other information but also what they and the public can access and know; not only how they collaborate, but with whom they collaborate; not only what computer-based services they use, but from whom they obtain services, such as from their university or the cloud. This reconfiguring of access affects the provision of data resources in ways that raise legal, institutional and social issues such as confidentiality, privacy and data protection, ownership of intellectual property rights, anonymity and accountability, and issues of trust, confidence, and risk in distributed collaboration.

4. What are the project's outputs?

OeSS has established the social science of digital research as a focus of the international community involved in designing, implementing and using new computational research-centred networks. This has been accomplished through numerous publications, conference presentations, invited talks, and participation in workshops, as documented in reports of the project, but they total over 150 outputs to-date. OeSS publications.

The OeSS designed e-infrastructure survey played an unexpectedly prominent role in awareness building and by informing the NCeSS community about the beliefs and attitudes of current and prospective users of e-Research. This kind of survey research has been replicated and extended by the Manchester e-Research Centre (MeRC).

In addition to OeSS's e-Infrastructure survey, its scientometric or webometric analysis provides the first evidence-driven insights on the impact of the UK's e-Research programme (finding, among other things, that the UK is more central to global networks than one would expect on the basis of its scale) and the unexpected ways in which e-Research is taken up by the scholarly community but also by government and industry.

The Oxford e-Research 08 Conference (September 2008) was attended by over 140 researchers. There were more than 80 conference paper submissions. Both attendance and submissions indicated a growing interest in the work of the OeSS node and digital research more generally. Participation came from around the globe and from a wide variety of disciplines and e-Research practitioners and policymakers. However, OeSS is planning to host another conference in the final year of its Phase II grant, which will focus on the social science of digital research.

Over the last year, the OeSS node has conducted training and events to enhance awareness of digital social research with a number of ethics committees, such as at Oxford University and the University of Southampton, focusing on the ethical issues arising around e-Research. Bill Dutton was a member of the Advisory Committee for the revised Research Ethics Framework, recently published by the ESRC.

5. Who should be interested in this work? Why?

The e-research community, both academic and industrial and public sector practitioners, would be the key users of our research, but other groups include research services, including their legal teams, and ethics committees along with other bodies regulating research with human participants.

Understanding these issues can advance the quality and impact of research, but discovering whether or not this is the case, and under what conditions, is a key objective of this project. In such ways, the social science of digital research can give the UK research community a lead in understanding the social shaping and impacts of e-infrastructures and in identifying ways forward for the appropriate design of research technologies, institutions and practices. As digital research involves the co-development and use of robust technical systems based on standards and protocols (‘hard’ infrastructure), along with legal-institutional arrangements and processes (‘soft’ infrastructure), the Oxford e-Social Science (OeSS) node has focused attention on the more neglected soft infrastructural issues, such as intellectual property and the openness of research, security and authentication, protecting the anonymity of social science micro-data, application uptake, use, contractual arrangements for inter-institutional and cross-sector collaboration, and trust among stakeholders.

The second phase of the project will engage with different institutions (data archives, e-infrastructure policymakers) to enable increased information transfer. The planned workshops and focus groups along with a series of policy briefs should facilitate broad awareness of our findings.

Finally, an on-going array of project seminars at the OII, OeRC, ComLab, and Säid Business School at the University of Oxford, not budgeted in this project, will bring speakers who can highlight particular facets of e-research (for example, visual data in social science, amateurs contributing to producing astronomical data, or the annotation of literary works via Wikis) for researchers, practitioners, and the public. We will utilize our Webcasting facilities to create an archive of materials accessible to a wider audience.

A major output of the project is the book World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities (2010 MIT Press, edited Dutton and Jeffreys) and includes chapters from all members of the OeSS project team as well as other experts in the area from digital research in the UK (De Roure, Procter) and abroad.

The other major dissemination highlight is reflected in the high productivity of the OeSS project team in terms of number and quality of presentations and publications that are the result of the OeSS work. All members of the project team have been active over the course of the project on the publication front

6. Are there other research programmes that focus specifically on studying the social and organisation aspects of 'eresearch'? How unique is this work?

The OeSS project forms one node of a UK-wide network of research centres. Coordination and promotion of activities are undertaken at the Digital Social Research hub at the University of Oxford.

7. How does this particular research programme link to national (UK) or international efforts?

In addition, we have been able to leverage the success of the OeSS project into additional funding that supports related research that will in turn broaden and deepen this work. For instance, two recent JISC funded projects have allowed us to engage with the digital humanities community, which is providing valuable data to compare and contrast with developments in the social sciences. A recently funded EU project focusing on the lessons of successful global research infrastructures will also contribute directly to Phase II research objectives, identifying lessons that can be valuable to digital research programmes in the UK. OeSS has informed and helped shape the Digital Economy programme, through Oxford’s participation in a research cluster.

8. Does this research programme focus only on recording and understanding 'what is happening', or does it also affect how this research is being conducted?

The OeSS infrastructure survey will inform and shape not only future e-social science research programmes but also technologies and dissemination and adoption strategies.

The OeSS node has engaged digital research practitioners - including policy-makers and industry, technology developers and researchers who use tools and data - to identify key social factors influencing digital research. In this way, OeSS has not only influenced policy, but also its practice.

OeSS has also reached beyond an academic audience to a popular one, as for example in the recent Meyer/Schroeder essay in the ESRC’s newsstand magazine Britain in 2009.

9. Are the findings applicable to any groups of people undertaking complex distributed work?

Based on his paper on collaborative network organizations, supported in part by OeSS research, Bill Dutton has been asked to prepare a paper for the White House Occasional Paper Series in Science & Technology that will focus on involving experts and networks of experts in government. These papers are organized by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

10. Training and capacity building

OeSS is building capacity in training doctoral students (Lucy Power, Grace de la Flor and five other doctoral students in OeRC) who will be able to take the expertise developed in OeSS forward, beyond the current project.

There is a growing focus on training, as through the development of Grid computing summer schools, that the OeSS project will seek to inform or participate in as requested. Knowledge from our studies will also be used on Oxford University Computing Laboratory’s MSc programmes in Computer Science and Software Engineering, specifically on the modules on ‘Computers and Society’ and ‘Requirements Engineering, as well the Doctoral Training Programme.

A new option MSc/DPhil course developed and taught by Eric Meyer and Ralph Schroeder: Networks of Collaboration, which is essentially about e-Research, plus training in e-Research methods on the Social Research Methods and the Internet course.

11. What are the policy implications of this work?

During this year, OeSS colleagues (Ralph Schroeder and Eric Meyer) participated in a closely related EU project ‘eResearch2020: The Role of e-Infrastructures in the Creation of Global Virtual Research Communities’, which helped to shape (via workshops, conference presentations, and a project report, European e-Infrastructure policy. OII was responsible for the roadmap for the future in this project, in addition to collaborating on the project as a whole.

Eric Meyer and Marina Jirotka are co-investigators on a new RIN-funded project: Humanities Information Practices (HIP) with OII, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and the Department of Information Studies, University College London (UCL), Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and Maastricht University (VKS).

OeSS has a particularly focused role in establishing and demonstrating the importance of research on the social shaping of technology, as a complement to application development. The OeSS survey results helped demonstrate the strategic value of social research in this area, but the project will need to continue its emphasis on demonstrating and validating the significance of the social science of digital research. This year, OeSS was consulted and helped shape the new national strategy for digital social research, which recognizes the importance of the social sciences of digital research.