Paul Wouters Networked Research and Digital Information (Nerdi)

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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.

In May 2004, the KNAW published a call for proposals for a research programme aimed at stimulating the development of e-science in the humanities and social sciences (KNAW 2004). The new program is part of a broader KNAW policy “aiming at significant advances in the effective use of ICT in the humanities and social sciences”. This new policy includes actions on different levels: principles of open access to research output and data, investments in ICT infrastructure, and the establishment of data archiving networked services (jointly with the Netherlands Research Council NWO). With this new e-science research program, the KNAW seeks to “fuel the development of this emerging field in the Netherlands and achieve a leading position internationally”.
We wish to realise these goals by creating The Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is both a novel multidisciplinary research programme with intellectual merits of its own, and a new intellectual and technological infrastructure for the communities of researchers and scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The Studio 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.
This programme builds upon decades of research in the humanities, social sciences, information science, and science & technology studies about new forms of knowledge creation. It also elaborates on the results of the current NIWI-KNAW research programme, “Networked Research and Digital Information 2001-2005”. Not only has this programme led to a better understanding of the informational turn in academic research, it has also made clear that the role of the new media and of information and communication technologies in the creation of scholarly and scientific knowledge is indeed a problematic relevant, interesting and complex enough to merit the focused attention of a multi-disciplinary research program. In efforts to study these topics, the humanities and social sciences are often underrepresented. Attention tends to follow the flow of funding and most research in science & technology studies has therefore been conducted on the physical and natural sciences. We see the decision to focus a new research program on the humanities and social sciences as a welcome opportunity to at least partly redress this imbalance and to put the practices and problems of researchers in the humanities and social sciences squarely central. We also see it as an opportunity to strengthen the ties between researchers of the humanities and social sciences and researchers in those fields.



According to the KNAW-call, the programme needs to address a dual mission: (i) “to stimulate the development of e-science in the humanities and social sciences”, and (ii) “to study the effects of e-science on the practice, activity and quality of research in those fields”. The call stipulated that this mission is to be pursued “by an integrated program of cooperative research between the humanities, social sciences and information sciences”. 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. The programme is integrated at all levels: its goal and mission, its research projects, its internal peer review, its funding acquisition, its collaboration and publication policies and its data management. This does not mean that disciplinary differences will become invisible. On the contrary, we rather expect that these distinctions will be productive and contribute to that creative tension which is the hallmark of innovative research and scholarship. This integrated approach should thereby 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.

These goals are intimately connected, one cannot be reached without the other. Moreover, they are not only relevant to the humanities and social sciences but to the development of - and reflection on – present-day knowledge societies.

What is the matter with e-research?

e-Science is generally defined as the combination of three different developments: the sharing of computational resources, distributed access to massive datasets, and the use of digital platforms for collaboration and communication (Hey and Trefethen 2002; Nentwich 2003). The precise definition varies between the UK, the US and the Netherlands, which inter alia illustrates the local nature of this type of global developments. Nevertheless, these three elements are generally recurring in e-science projects and programmes. In the Dutch initiatives of e-science, the e stands not in the first place for “electronic” but for “enhancement”3. The core idea of the e-science movement (most of it still promise rather than practice) is that knowledge production will be enhanced by the combination of pooled human expertise, data and sources, and computational and visualisation tools. e-Science has become a buzzword for funding large-scale facilities, especially in those research fields in which research is driven by huge high-technology research groups. The confrontation of this ideal of enhanced knowledge creation with scholars in the humanities and social sciences has mostly yet to begin. So far, the meeting is partly metaphorical, with the exception of facilities for computationally or experimentally oriented social sciences and humanities (eg. in economics and linguistics).
In this proposal we use the notion of e-research rather than e-science to indicate that it is not a matter of importing e-science ways of working into the social sciences and humanities. The humanities and social sciences will develop their own specific ways of integrating the use of networked information and communication technologies (Bijker and Peperkamp 2002; Bijker, Schurer et al. 2003; Boonstra, Breure et al. 2004; Kircz 2004). This does not have to mean that the difference with natural sciences will become less important. Hence, the generic term e-research is preferable over the notion of e-science.
The humanities and social sciences are no backwater with respect to e-research. For example, archaeology has developed e-science ways of working in its combination of natural science and humanities expertise, its use of sophisticated Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software packages, and its use of expert systems in parts of its research and training. In the field of linguistics, both corpus-based and experimental approaches have led to a transformation of the study of language and the creation of sophisticated research infrastructures. The cognitive sciences are an example of the confluence of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities which drives them into a new experimental direction that relies heavily on computer-based imaging techniques. Economists are interested in modelling and simulation and develop fields like neuro-economics4. In sociology, computational research seems to catch on again in the form of new research programmes aimed at, among others, micro-simulations of households and agent-based modelling (Ahrweiler and Gilbert 1998). Moreover, computerised social network analysis is a well-established tradition in sociology (Wasserman and Faust 1994). Even in the more traditional fields, many researchers in the humanities and social sciences are adept users of the most advanced tools they can get, as long as the learning curve is not perceived as too steep.

The Studio in the humanities and social sciences

Yet, the implications of e-research for the humanities and social sciences are far from clear. A systematic and critical interrogation of the potential of e-research paradigms and methodologies for the humanities and social sciences has been 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.

The humanities and social sciences are not a unified set of knowledge practices, as is well known. Methodologies and techniques do not travel easily from one field to another. This has a direct bearing upon the development of e-research tools, practices, infrastructures and institutions. For example, in fields like philosophy, art history or literature studies, scholars even may not be aware of e-science as relevant to them at all. The equipment of many academic scholars with the tools and “play space” they need to independently assess the merits of e-research has moreover been hindered. Lack of funding has decreased the space for advanced instrumentation and support staff. Moreover, ICT has been standardised within the paradigm of office automation and therefore lacks many features that would be useful for scholarly work. In so far as ICT has been tailored to research needs, it has been based on computational research and often assumes mathematical and programming skills on the part of the researcher. In many fields scholars have different needs, such as the representation of ill-defined data, analysis-oriented visualisation of manuscripts and multimedia sources, and specific source-oriented analytical tools. These needs are often not met by standard computational and mathematical analytic methods.

The meeting of e-research and the academic scholar is moreover problematic because it is far from clear whether the present needs of the scholar can be met by e-research at all. Important fields in the humanities and social sciences are characterised by a huge epistemic diversity; by specific, sometimes person-bound, roles of the researcher; by the lack of consensus about the research agenda in a host of specialties; by a relatively low-tech research environment (often aggravated by the scarcity of university funding); by the specificity of writing and reading as features of knowledge creation; and by a historically grounded and relatively large share of solitary research practices (Becher 1989; Whitley 2000). In all these dimensions, many fields seem ill-suited to become enthusiastic adopters of the e-science paradigm as it now stands. If e-research should make sense to a variety of specialties in the humanities and social sciences, new non-computational and computational paradigms of e-research need to be developed.
The Studio will therefore orient itself to a critical interrogation of the very notion of e-research, by taking seriously the intellectual and social characteristics of the humanities and social sciences and the implications of these characteristics for the hermeneutics of e-research as a prospective intellectual and technical horizon. At the same time, existing knowledge practices in the humanities and social sciences should not be taken for granted. There is ample space for enhancement indeed (see for example the NWO programs focused on new research practices in the humanities and social sciences (NWO 2000; NWO 2001; NWO 2001)). This must in the end be enacted by the research communities themselves, which is why we wish to engage them in the Studio. Advanced research projects and the discussion of these projects in seminars and Summer Schools can play a catalytic role in this development by the involvement of new generations of researchers and students (PhD and Research Masters). 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. 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.
This may be reinforced by the host of recent new initiatives in the areas of digitisation, Web based repositories and archives, digital libraries, and collaboratories, in the Netherlands as well as abroad. New programmes such as the Dutch national initiative DARE5 and the NWO programme CATCH6 attest to this. Indeed, digitisation of the humanities has been on the agenda for a number of years (NWO 2000). Recently, a consensus has emerged about the need for a national data archive in the humanities and social sciences (DANS) (see for the social sciences SWR 2003). This coincides with a rethinking of the social and cultural roles of the humanities in the Netherlands (Bijker and Peperkamp 2002; NWO 2002) and abroad (eg. Ang and Cassity 2004). The Studio will not duplicate these efforts. Its research will also not try to take over the responsibility of R&D departments of data archives, repositories and academic and research libraries. To the extent that these R&D efforts will take more shape, the Studio will take initiatives to cooperate in joint research projects on common themes. We expect that these projects will focus on the role of data and data standards in scholarly work.
Complementary relationships also will be developed with scholars engaged in methological research in social science and humanities university departments, and with research groups in humanities computing. The Studio will not try to interfere with already well-established methodological traditions and research programmes in Dutch universities. Monodisciplinary methodology is the responsibility of the relevant research groups, not of the Studio. Rather, the Studio will contribute to the exchange of methodologies between different research traditions by creating an experimental space and repository of e-research related methods and tools. In e-research it is sometimes less clear what a research method actually entails than in traditional research contexts. For example, the difference between tools for communication and tools for analysis may become blurred. This is especially true for collaborative analytical and annotation tools, a niche area that may be worthwhile for the Studio researchers to explore. This area is usually not yet covered in more traditional methodological research. The Studio moreover aims to contribute to the methodological development of the study of e-research itself. To this end, the Studio develops a concentrated research effort in three specific methodological domains (see Methodological foci).

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