The Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences @ the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
Networked Research and Digital Information (Nerdi)
Amsterdam 8 November/14 December 2004
Recent transformations in communication and information exchange have created new opportunities for researchers in the humanities and social sciences. It is not self-evident, however, in what ways scholars can best use these possibilities while maintaining and further developing their specific roles in academia and society. This new KNAW programme, The Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences, aims to support researchers in the humanities and social sciences in the Netherlands in the creation of new scholarly practices, termed here e-research, as well as in their reflection on e-research in relation to the development of their fields. A core feature of the Virtual Knowledge Studio is the integration of design and analysis in a close cooperation between social scientists, humanities researchers, information technology experts and information scientists. This integrated approach should provide insight in the way e-research can contribute to new research questions and methods in the humanities and social sciences.
The Virtual Knowledge Studio has the following goals:
to contribute to the design and conceptualisation of novel scholarly practices in the humanities and social sciences
to support scholars in their experimental play with new ways of doing research and emerging forms of collaboration and communication
to facilitate the travel of new methods, practices, resources and techniques across different disciplines
to contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of knowledge creation.
The humanities and social sciences are no backwater with respect to e-research. This is demonstrated by a host of new initiatives in the areas of digitisation, Web based repositories and archives, digital libraries, and collaboratories, in the Netherlands as well as abroad. A number of fields have undergone radical transformations through the use of novel analytical techniques and related shifts in research paradigms. Yet, a systematic and critical interrogation of the potential of e-research paradigms and methodologies for the humanities and social sciences is hampered by disciplinary boundaries between fields, by a relative lack of resources and research infrastructures, and by the dominance of particular computational approaches in the world of e-science. The Studio will address these problems by:
demonstrating and exploring the potential of additional, non-computational as well as computational, ways of doing e-research
making disciplinary boundaries more permeable for new scholarly practices
pooling resources that are available to the scholarly communities in the Netherlands and abroad.
Because the research projects in the Studio will not be developed for but with scholars in the humanities and social sciences, we expect that the lessons learned in this research programme will have a lasting effect on academia in the Netherlands. Each research project will result in contributions to the pool of research resources in the form of scientific and technical publications, research methodologies and techniques, software tools, organisational protocols, or best practice manuals, and freely downloadable data and tools. The Studio maintains two forms of long-term collaborative relationships with researchers in the humanities and social sciences: partnerships and collaboratories. These are supported by a suite of Studio web sites1, which will develop into a portal on e-research in the humanities and social sciences. The Studio will organise a yearly Summerschool, seminars and workshops to involve new generations of researchers and students (PhD and Research Masters).
The creation of knowledge is the research object of the Virtual Knowledge Studio. In the context of e-research, it is tempting to focus on the digital technologies. Such an approach would, however, ignore the epistemic dimension of knowledge practices. Scholarly and scientific developments are intellectually codified, so that they are relatively resistant to external steering, but not to technological change. The study of the interaction between users, designers and technological artefacts is the topic of a number of well-established fields of research: humanities computing, social informatics, technology studies, human computer interaction, computer supported cooperative work, and innovation studies. Although the researchers at the Studio will be able to draw upon this knowledge, its research agenda will not be limited to these user-oriented paradigms.
The central problem in the development of e-research is not the technology, nor the role of the user in technological environments, but the cultural and historical specificity of knowledge production in the new technologically mediated contexts. This is the reason the Studio puts knowledge creation centre stage. The central research question of the Studio is how it is possible to develop novel ways of knowledge creation in the humanities and social sciences by utilizing and adapting e-research concepts, instruments and ways of working. This includes the epistemic and cultural effects of e-research on the humanities and social sciences.
The Studio will concentrate its work in three research themes:
Data and Digital Information: the role of data, digital information and data standards in scholarly research
Networked Research: novel forms of collaboration and communication in the humanities and social sciences
Virtual Institutions: the emergence and dynamics of new institutional arrangements in e-research.
Data and digital information play complex roles in research in the humanities and social sciences. This creates particular challenges for the application of e-research methods and techniques, especially if complex and fuzzy data sets are involved (eg. visual data, music, complex texts). The increased availability of digital resources, data and collections, partly the result of digitisation of cultural heritage and of administrative databases, affects the very core of humanities and social science research by changing existing research objects and creating new ones. The theme Data and Digital Information will address the question of which characteristics these new research objects will and should have, and how they may reconfigure scholarly research. What type of questions will be foregrounded and which questions may become less central? Which assumptions are built into the new epistemic objects and how may they influence the boundaries between scientific specialties? We will also pay attention to the specificity of qualitative data. They are often more fuzzy and less easy to standardise. The Studio research will strive to complement existing research into scientific and scholarly data and data standards by focusing on the epistemic and social role of data and data sources in the humanities and social sciences. Additional attention will be given to issues of data sharing and the specific problems related to the use of Web data in scholarly work.
The humanities and social sciences are a particularly interesting area to study the development of scientific and scholarly collaboration because the variation of forms of collaboration and non-collaboration is so huge. Virtually every possible configuration is practiced in one field or another. The Studio research in the theme Networked Research will focus on the way the new media interact with forms of collaboration and communication. It moreover aims to support scholars with building new forms of collaboration (eg. collaboratories) and communication (eg. new Web site conceptions). A key issue concerns the ways the dynamics of collaboration are affected by mediation by digital communication networks. How does the technological possibility intersect with traditional human needs for communication? The implications of collaborative work for the resulting knowledge products will also be studied. How are forms of knowledge affected by the way they need to be communicated? Which types of intellectual work seem amenable to virtualisation and digitisation?
In e-research, digital infrastructures and emergent institutions play a crucial role. Collaboratories, research infrastructures or the lack thereof, digital libraries, digital repositories and collections, and new venues for scholarly publication directly influence the extent to which scholars in the humanities and social sciences can effectively make use of new research possibilities. Given the recent emergence of e-research, the consequences of the accompanying institutional rearrangement is not yet well understood. The theme Virtual Institutions will explore which institutional arrangements are conducive to the humanities and social sciences. This should help to understand the specificities of institution building in the humanities and social sciences. Important questions are also: how does the textual nature of digital infrastructures affect textual practices of researchers and scholars? How does infrastructure sustain various levels of formalisation and circulation of knowledge and information? How universities and research institutes have organised their systems of quality control and accountability may have a profound effect on knowledge creation because of its impact on the criteria of scientific and scholarly quality and integrity. What are the implications of new e-research information infrastructures for regimes of quality control in universities and research institutes?
The Studio will develop methodological innovation of the study of e-research. Of course, this should be relevant to other researchers in the humanities and social sciences as well. The Studio focuses on those methodologies that (1) are not yet well covered by methodologists in social sciences and humanities at the universities, and (2) are particularly relevant for the study of scientific and scholarly knowledge practices. Three methodological foci will be given priority in the first three years of the Studio:
Web Archiving for scholarly research
Simulation in e-research.
Virtual ethnography extends the notions of field and ethnographic observation from the exclusive study of co-present and face to face interactions, to a focus on mediated and distributed interactions. The key research question in the Virtual Ethnography focus will be how ethnography can be pursued in mediated settings. This research should establish which aspects of ethnographic research are challenged in particular in the shift from face to face interaction to mediated digitised interaction. This will make clear how ethnography can be conceived as a flexible practice, while remaining recognisable as a specific methodology. More specific questions are which new concepts of “field” or “research site” are needed for virtual ethnography, how virtual elements can be integrated in traditional fieldwork, and which new ethical issues arise in the practice of virtual ethnography.
The Web Archiving focus will develop a new methodology for systematic, longitudinal analysis of Web sites that are produced in the sciences and humanities. Presently there is no clear way how to make Web data available for scholarly research. Libraries and archives are now only beginning to develop concepts that enable the medium- and long-term archiving of Web sites. The emphasis in this focus will be on the analysis of the Dutch and European academic Web. The central question is which specifications and analytical tools are needed for the extraction of meaningful data sets for research in the humanities and social sciences from the flood of raw Web data.
The aim of the research in the methodological focus Simulation is to develop further expertise in simulations and systematic reflection on the heuristic value of modelling and simulation for theory building in the social sciences and humanities. The extended use of data visualisation technologies and virtual reality techniques in simulation research methods is often seen as one of the hallmarks of e-science. The respecification of general simulation models for research questions in the social sciences and humanities will be central in this focus. Both agent-based and network-oriented models and simulations will be included. The study of the heuristic and epistemic value of modelling and simulating as a research strategy in both the humanities (eg. language variation processes) and social sciences (eg. social selection) is intrinsic part of this respecification.
The empirical research in the Studio will address a number of theoretical questions that pertain to the development of e-research in the humanities and social sciences. The most important questions are:
does e research lead us to redefine how we can understand the development of scholarly cultures?
how can we explain and understand diversity of mediated knowledge practices, for example across disciplines and specialties?
what roles do digital epistemic objects (eg. data, metadata, analytical tools, digital libraries) play in knowledge creation?
how can we use these digital epistemic objects to reformulate specific informatics problems in the humanities and social sciences in generic terms of information science, and vice versa?
do we need to rethink the conceptualisation of scientific labour and markets to understand the dynamics of e-research practices?
does the extra connectivity of e-research lead to new forms of complex relationships in social structures and does this lead to new understandings of complex systems?
does the operationalisation of concepts of agency, institution, textuality and infrastructure need to be revised in order to study mediation in e-research?
Three modes of enquiry are central in the Studio: thinking, observing and playing. These three metaphors capture the interplay we expect between thorough analysis and more experimental, playful design of new tools and practices. The design of new tools is never only a technical job. Opening up new possibilities for humanities and social science scholars with the help of advanced networked information and communication technologies implicates the rethinking of old research questions, questioning established research methods and techniques, and asks for the intellectual courage to try out new forms of scholarly work. This is why we emphasise that the Studio will not in the first place help design new tools but rather new scholarly practices.
To realise its dual mission of increasing our understanding of e-humanities and e-social science, and of supporting scholars to make use of e-research, the Studio has two interrelated modules: the Analytic Centre (AC) and the Construction Platform (CP). These facilitate long-term research based on a clear intellectual agenda combined with flexible short-term projects created in response to the changing needs of researchers at universities and research institutes. All projects in the CP result from, and are led by, partnerships with external research groups. Whereas the CP helps create new epistemic objects and practices in the humanities and social sciences, both inside and outside of the Studio, the AC studies this process. To facilitate this, the AC is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the Studio’s inhouse knowledge database.
The Studio will be supervised by a scientific advisory board which has two roles: to oversee the scientific quality of the research program and to promote the anchoring of the Studio in the Dutch humanities and social science communities, and in relevant audiences outside of academia. The Studio should be housed in a research oriented environment. The core budget of the Studio is 900 k€ per annum. Additional external funding is expected to increase the Studio budget considerably.
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