VRE and Research 2.0

BACKGROUND

The Brain project, in its proposal for funding to the JISC VRE3 Programme, was one of the first projects in the UK and even perhaps on a world scale to align itself clearly with the concept of Research 2.0. In a seminal paper written for the JISC Technology & Standards Watch, Paul Anderson [Anderson, 2007] had discussed the question of what Web 2.0 was and identified 6 “Big Ideas” which he considered characteristic of it. These were: Individual production and User Generated Content, Harness the power of the crowd, Data on an epic scale, Architecture of Participation, Network Effects and Openness. “Collaboration, contribution and community are the order of the day”, he stated, and the Brain project was based on the application of these principles and approach to research, taking its cue from earlier “Science 2.0” projects, such as myExperiment [de Roure et al, 2008].

The particular direction the project took looked particularly at the community dimension of research as key to this approach, and built on work from a previous small JISC project [Hensman, Haine, 2007]. This had carried out a preliminary analysis of user research requirements at the University and had looked – using examples from business, government, research and other areas – at what factors contributed towards successful Communities of Practice. A key conclusion had been that successful communities were in practice communities of communities where flexible interactions took place within and between larger and smaller groups – going down to individual level, so that at each of these levels significant benefits were obtained by those involved.

Based on this conclusion the Brain project therefore planned to facilitate the building of communities from the bottom up, working at ground level with researchers and research groups and only aiming at higher level structures and systems if these arose organically out of user requirements.

THE EXPERIENCE OF THE PROJECT AND CONCLUSIONS

Circumstances were fortuitous and a reorganisation of research at the University to focus on a number of Grand Challenges during the course of the project provided an ideal opportunity for it to be involved in the process of identifying and developing the new communities and networks that this required. However, despite this, a number of the factors that had influenced the original approach of the project probably had an even greater effect than originally envisaged, and led to some re-evaluation about what a VRE could be.

The “Community of Communities” model the project had started with and the development of services and facilities to facilitate connection, interoperability and collaboration that followed from it, were important and supported by the success of what the project was able to achieve. However, in practice, this often meant that the “Community” was seen by participants not as the wider whole, but primarily as the specific area within which most of their activities occurred. This meant that the project was most successful when it adopted a very “hands on” approach, working closely with researchers and groups over a period of time and participating in their activities as appropriate to be able to understand the issues from the “inside”. This meant as well that although generalisations could be made and developments undertaken that were of benefit to many researchers and research groups, it was difficult to make pre-judgements – whether technical or otherwise and work needed to proceed on a very flexible and ad hoc basis if it was to maintain user engagement and be effective.

It was also clear that a real VRE had to be considered in a broader context of requirements and needed to merge seamlessly with a variety of other facilities and services supporting research. Even just on the technical side, something that was highlighted by the work on process (Analysing and Improving Processes) was that research-related services tied in with many other systems and infrastructural components and that the development of a successful VRE could not be separated from this underlying framework. A key conclusion of the project therefore certainly reinforced one of its precepts, that current approaches had to increasingly move away from the traditional concept of a VRE as an entity – manifested for instance as a single portal. It was also clear that any major development had to be problem rather than solution based and it would not be possible to predefine what particular developments would constitute a VRE. Rather there would be a complex interrelationship of different services and activities involving a diverse collection of interrelated groups and individuals – the totality of which actually constituted what a VRE could be considered to be. This concept therefore, of a VRE development as an ongoing and organic part of research and innovation communities and their activity, rather than a predefined and specific set of system or software developments, was a key one that evolved over the course of the project.

REFERENCES

Paul Anderson. What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education, JISC Technology & Standards Watch, February 2007

David de Roure, et al., myExperiment: Defining the Social Virtual Research Environment, Proceedings of the 4th IEEE International Conference on e-Science, December 2008

Jim Hensman, Peter Haine, JISC DINCoP Project Report, 2007, Available at: http://reports.jiscemerge.org.uk/Download-document/6-Innovation-Networks-and-Communities-of-Practice.html