Field-specific cultures of international research collaboration

Editors’ note: how can we better understand and map out the phenomenon of international research collaboration, especially in a context where bibliometrics does a patchy job with respect to registering the activities and output of some fields/disciplines? This is one of the questions Dr. Heike Jöns (Department of Geography, Loughborough University, UK) grapples with in this informative guest entry in GlobalHigherEd. The entry draws from Dr. Jöns’ considerable experience studying forms of mobility associated with the globalization of higher education and research.

Dr. Jöns (pictured above) received her PhD at the University of Heidelberg (Germany) and spent two years as a Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the University of Nottingham (UK). She is interested in the geographies of science and higher education, with particular emphasis on transnational academic mobility.

Further responses to ‘Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities’, and Heike Jöns’ response below, are welcome at any time.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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The evaluation of research performance at European universities increasingly draws upon quantitative measurements of publication output and citation counts based on databases such as ISI Web of Knowledge, Scopus and Google Scholar (UNESCO 2010). Bibliometric indicators also inform annually published world university rankings such as the Shanghai and Times Higher Education rankings that have become powerful agents in contemporary audit culture despite their methodological limitations. Both league tables introduced field-specific rankings in 2007, differentiating between the natural, life, engineering and social sciences (both rankings), medicine (Shanghai) and the arts and humanities (Times Higher).

But to what extent do bibliometric indicators represent research output and collaborative cultures in different academic fields? This blog entry responds to this important question raised by Kris Olds (2010) in his GlobalHigherEd entry titled ‘Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities‘ by discussing recent findings on field-specific research cultures from the perspective of transnational academic mobility and collaboration.

The inadequacy of bibliometric data for capturing research output in the arts and humanities has, for example, been demonstrated by Anssi Paasi’s (2005) study of international publishing spaces. Decisions about the journals that enter the respective databases, their bias towards English-language journals and their neglect of monographs and anthologies that dominate in fields dominated by individual authorship are just a few examples for the reasons of why citation indexes are not able to capture the complexity, place- and language-specificity of scholarship in the arts and humanities. Mapping the international publishing spaces in the sciences, the social sciences and the arts and humanities using ISI Web of Science data in fact suggests that the arts and humanities are less international and even more centred on the United States and Europe than the sciences (Paasi 2005: 781). Based on the analysis of survey data provided by 1,893 visiting researchers in Germany in the period 1954 to 2000, this GlobalHigherEd entry aims to challenge this partial view by revealing the hidden dimensions of international collaboration in the arts and humanities and elaborating on why research output and collaborative cultures vary not only between disciplines but also between different types of research work (for details, see Jöns 2007; 2009).

The visiting researchers under study were funded by the Humboldt Research Fellowship Programme run by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Bonn, Germany). They came to Germany in order to pursue a specific research project at one or more host institutions for about a year. Striking differences in collaborative cultures by academic field and type of research work are revealed by the following three questions:

1. Could the visiting researchers have done their research project also at home or in any other country?

2. To what extent did the visiting researchers write joint publications with colleagues in Germany as a result of their research stay?

3. In which ways did the collaboration between visiting researchers and German colleagues continue after the research stay?

On question 1.

Research projects in the arts and humanities, and particularly those that involved empirical work, were most often tied to the research context in Germany. They were followed by experimental and theoretical projects in engineering and in the natural sciences, which were much more frequently possible in other countries as well (Figure 1).

Figure 1 — Possibility of doing the Humboldt research project in another country than Germany, 1981–2000 (Source: Jöns 2007: 106)

These differences in place-specificity are closely linked to different possibilities for mobilizing visiting researchers on a global scale. For example, the establishment of new research infrastructure in the physical, biological and technical sciences can easily raise scientific interest in a host country, whereas the mobilisation of new visiting researchers in the arts and humanities remains difficult as language skills and cultural knowledge are often necessary for conducting research projects in these fields. This is one reason for why the natural and technical sciences appear to be more international than the arts and humanities.

On question 2.

Joint publications with colleagues in Germany were most frequently written in physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering and the biological sciences that are all dominated by multi-authorship. Individual authorship was more frequent in mathematics and the earth sciences and most popular – but with considerable variations between different subfields – in the arts and humanities. The spectrum ranged from every second economist and social scientist, who wrote joint publications with colleagues in Germany, via roughly one third in language and cultural studies and history and every fifth in law to only every sixth in philosophy. Researchers in the arts and humanities had much more often than their colleagues from the sciences stayed in Germany for study and research prior to the Humboldt research stay (over 95% in the empirical arts and humanities compared to less than 40% in the theoretical technical sciences) as their area of specialisation often required learning the language and studying original sources or local research subjects. They therefore engaged much more closely with German language and culture than natural and technical scientists but due to the great individuality of their work, they produced not only considerably less joint publications than their apparently more international colleagues but their share of joint publications with German colleagues before and after the research stay was fairly similar (Figure 2).

Figure 2 — Joint publications of Humboldt research fellows and colleagues in Germany, 1981–2000 (Source: Jöns 2007: 107)

For these reasons, internationally co-authored publications are not suitable for evaluating the international attractiveness and orientation of different academic fields, particularly because the complexity of different types of research practices in one and the same discipline makes it difficult to establish typical collaborative cultures against which research output and collaborative linkages could be judged.

On question 3.

This is confirmed when examining continued collaboration with colleagues in Germany after the research stay. The frequency of continued collaboration did not vary significantly between disciplines but the nature of these collaborations differed substantially. Whereas regular collaboration in the natural and technical sciences almost certainly implied the publication of multi-authored articles in internationally peer-reviewed journals, continued interaction in the arts and humanities, and to a lesser extent in the social sciences, often involved activities beyond the co-authorship of journal articles. Table 1 documents some of these less well-documented dimensions of international research collaboration, including contributions to German-language scientific journals and book series as well as refereeing for German students, researchers and the funding agencies themselves.



Table 1 — Activities of visiting researchers in Germany after their research stay (in % of Humboldt research fellows 1954-2000; Source: Jöns 2009: 327)

The differences in both place-specificity and potential for co-authorship in different research practices can be explained by their particular spatial ontology. First, different degrees of materiality and immateriality imply varying spatial relations that result in typical patterns of place-specificity and ubiquity of research practices as well as of individual and collective authorship. Due to the corporeality of researchers, all research practices are to some extent physically embedded and localised. However, researchers working with physically embedded material research objects that might not be moved easily, such as archival material, field sites, certain technical equipment, groups of people and events, may be dependent on accessing a particular site or local research context at least once. Those scientists and scholars, who primarily deal with theories and thoughts, are in turn as mobile as the embodiment of these immaterialities (e.g., collaborators, computers, books) allows them to be. Theoretical work in the natural sciences, including, for example, many types of mathematical research, thus appears to be the most ‘ubiquitous’ subject: Its high share of immaterial thought processes compared to relatively few material resources involved in the process of knowledge production (sometimes only pen and paper) would often make it possible, from the perspective of the researchers, to work in a number of different places (Figure 1, above).

Second, the constitutive elements of research vary according to their degree of standardisation. Standardisation results from the work and agreement previously invested in the classification and transformation of research objects. A high degree of standardisation would mean that the research practice relies on many uniform terms, criteria, formulas and data, components and materials, methods, processes and practices that are generally accepted in the particular field of academic work. Field sites, for example, might initially show no signs of standardisation, whereas laboratory equipment such as test tubes may have been manufactured on the basis of previous – and then standardised – considerations and practices. The field site may be unique, highly standardised laboratory equipment may be found at several sites to which the networks of science have been extended, thereby offering greater flexibility in the choice of the research location. In regard to research practices with a higher degree of immateriality, theoretical practices in the natural and technical sciences show a higher degree of standardisation (e.g., in terms of language) when compared to theoretical and argumentative-interpretative work in the arts and humanities and thus are less place-specific and offer more potential for co-authorship (Figures 1 and 2).

The resulting two dimensional matrix on the spatial relations of different research practices accommodates the empirically observed differences of both the place-specificity of the visiting researchers’ projects and their resulting joint publications with colleagues in Germany (Figure 3):

Figure 3 — A two-dimensional matrix on varying spatial relations of different research practices (Source: Jöns 2007: 109)

Empirical work, showing a high degree of materiality and a low degree of standardisation, is most often dependent on one particular site, followed by argumentative-interpretative work, which is characterised by a similar low degree of standardisation but a higher degree of immateriality. Experimental (laboratory) work, showing a high degree of both materiality and standardisation, can often be conducted in several (laboratory) sites, while theoretical work in the natural sciences, involving both a high degree of immateriality and standardisation is most rarely tied to one particular site. The fewest joint publications were written in argumentative-interpretative work, where a large internal (immaterial) research context and a great variety of arguments from different authors in possibly different languages complicate collaboration on a specific topic. Involving an external (material) and highly standardised research context, the highest frequency of co- and multi-authorship was to be found in experimental (laboratory) work. In short, the more immaterial and standardised the research practice, the lower is the place-specificity of one’s work and the easier it would be to work at home or elsewhere; and the more material and standardised the research practice, the more likely is collaboration through co- and multi-authorship.

Based on this work, it can be concluded – in response to two of Kris Olds’ (2010) key questions – that international research collaboration on a global scale can be mapped – if only roughly – for research practices characterised by co- and multi-authorship in internationally peer-reviewed English language journals as the required data is provided by citation databases (e.g., Wagner and Leydesdorff 2005; Adams et al. 2007; Leydesdorff and Persson 2010; Matthiessen et al. 2010; UNESCO 2010). When interpreting such mapping exercises, however, one needs to keep in mind that the data included in ISI Web of Knowledge, Scopus and Google Scholar do itself vary considerably.

Other research practices require different research methods such as surveys and interviews and thus can only be mapped from specific perspectives such as individual institutions or groups of researchers (for the application of bibliometrics to individual journals in the arts and humanities, see Leydesdorff and Salah 2010). It might be possible to create baseline studies that help to judge the type and volume of research output and international collaboration against typical patterns in a field of research but the presented case study has shown that the significance of specific research locations, of individual and collective authorship, and of different types of transnational collaboration varies not only between academic fields but also between research practices that crisscross conventional disciplinary boundaries.

In the everyday reality of departmental research evaluation this means that in fields such as geography, a possible benchmark of three research papers per year may be easily produced in most fields of physical geography and some fields of human geography (e.g. economic and social) whereas the nature of research practices in historical and cultural geography, for example, might make it difficult to maintain such a high research output over a number of subsequent years. Applying standardised criteria of research evaluation to the great diversity of publication and collaboration cultures inevitably bears the danger of leading to a standardisation of academic knowledge production.

Heike Jöns

References

Adams J, Gurney K and Marshall S 2007 Patterns of international collaboration for the UK and leading partners Evidence Ltd., Leeds

Jöns H 2007 Transnational mobility and the spaces of knowledge production: a comparison of global patterns, motivations and collaborations in different academic fields Social Geography 2 97-114  Accessed 23 September 2010

Jöns H 2009 ‘Brain circulation’ and transnational knowledge networks: studying long-term effects of academic mobility to Germany, 1954–2000 Global Networks 9 315-38

Leydesdorff L and Persson O 2010 Mapping the geography of science: distribution patterns and networks of relations among cities and institutes Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 6 1622-1634

Leydesdorff L and Salah A A A 2010 Maps on the basis of the Arts &Humanities Citation Index: the journals Leonardo and Art Journal, and “Digital Humanities” as a topic Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61 787-801

Matthiessen C W, Schwarz A W and Find S 2010 World cities of scientific knowledge: systems, networks and potential dynamics. An analysis based on bibliometric indicators Urban Studies 47 1879-97

Olds K 2010 Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities GlobalHigherEd 20 July 2010  Accessed 23 September 2010

Paasi A 2005 Globalisation, academic capitalism, and the uneven geographies of international journal publishing spaces Environment and Planning A 37 769-89

UNESCO 2010 World Social Science Report: Knowledge Divides UNESCO, Paris

Wagner C S and Leydesdorff L 2005 Mapping the network of global science: comparing international co-authorships from 1990 to 2000 International Journal of Technology and Globalization 1 185–208


Understanding international research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities

How can we map out and make sense of the changing nature of research collaboration at a global scale? This is an issue many people and institutions are grappling with, with no easy solutions.

As noted in several previous GlobalHigherEd entries:

collaboration between researchers across space is clearly increasing, as well being increasingly sought after. From a sense that ‘global challenges’ like climate change demand collaboration, through to a sense that international collaboration generates higher impact (in a citation impact factor sense) output, there are signs that the pressure to facilitate collaboration will only increase.

At the same time, however, government ministries, funding councils, higher education associations, and universities themselves, are all having a challenging time making sense of the changing nature of research collaboration across space. Common questions include:

  • Can this phenomenon be mapped out, and if so how and at what scales?
  • Can baseline studies be created such that the effects of new international collaborative research programs can be measured?
  • What happens to research practices and collaborative relations when universities join international consortia of universities?

One option is the use of bibliometric technologies to map out the changing nature of research collaboration across space. For example, the international linkages of the Australian Group of Eight (Go8) universities were mapped out (see some sample images below from the report Thomson ISI Go8 NCR dataset: Go8 International Collaborations, available via this University of Sydney website).

Other reports like Science-Metrix’s Scientific Collaboration between Canada and California: A Bibliometric Study (2008) used similar forms of data to understand collaboration between a country and a foreign state. I’ve also seen similar types of bibliometric-reliant reports while participating in discussions at Worldwide University Network (WUN) meetings, as well as on Thomson Reuters’ own website.

Another option is to take an institutionally-specific perspective, though via the acquisition and analysis of a broader array of forms of data. This type of mapping can be developed via bibliometric technologies, researcher surveys, an analysis of travel expense claim data, an analysis of media ‘expertise’ data bases maintained by universities, and so on. This is an oft-desired form of analysis; one designed to feed into central repositories of knowledge (e.g., the University of Notre Dame is developing such a site, tentatively called Global ND). Yet such an approach is challenging and resource consuming to implement.

In the end, for a range of reasons, bibliometrics are often the fallback tool to map out international collaboration. Bibliometrics have their important uses, of course, but they are not effective in capturing the research practices of all research scholars, especially those in the humanities and some arms of the social sciences.

Why? Well the main reason is different disciplines have different publishing practices, an issue funding councils like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), or European agencies (including DFG, ESRC, AHRC, NWO, ANR and ESF) have recently been exploring. See for example, this March 2010 ESF report (Towards a Bibliometric Database for the Social Sciences and Humanities – A European Scoping Project), or Bibliometric Analysis of Research Supported by SSHRC: Design Study (March 2009) – a report for SSHRC by Science-Metrix.

If we go down the mapping route and rely too heavily upon bibliometrics, do we risk of letting the limitations of Thomson Reuters’ ISI Web of Knowledge, or the Scopus database, slowly and subtly create understandings of international collaboration that erase from view some very important researcher-to-researcher collaborations in the humanities, as well as some of the social sciences? Perhaps so, perhaps not!

In this context I am in search of some assistance.

If you or your colleagues have developed some insightful ways to map out international research collaboration patterns and trends in the social sciences and humanities, whatever the scale, please fill me in via <kolds@wisc.edu> or via the comments section below. Or one alternative response is to reject the whole idea of mapping, bibliometrics, and so on, and its associated managerialism. In any case, following a compilation of responses, and some additional research, I’ll share the findings via a follow-up entry in late August.

Thank you!

Kris Olds

Collaboration among research universities: a model from the US Midwest

barb20081Editor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Barbara McFadden Allen. Ms. McFadden Allen has served as director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) since 1999. The CIC is a consortium of 12 research universities (University of Chicago; University of Illinois; Indiana University; University of Iowa; University of Michigan; Michigan State University; University of Minnesota; Northwestern University; Ohio State University; Pennsylvania State University; Purdue University; University of Wisconsin-Madison) located in the U.S. Midwest. Prior to that, she served as Director of the CIC Center for Library Initiatives. She is Vice President of the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education (NCCI), a board member of the Association of Consortial Leadership, and a member of the Global Resources Committee of the Center for Research Libraries (US). She holds an MLS from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

This entry should be viewed in the context of debates about the role of consortia and associations in enabling universities to achieve their evolving development objectives (e.g., see Lily Kong’s entry ‘The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia‘).  Given the nature of GlobalHigherEd, we are also interested in highlighting how many associations and consortia are involved in the process of forging global relations on behalf of their members, engaging with new actors in the global higher education landscape (e.g., Google, or international consortia like the Worldwide Universities Network), and acting as collaborative spaces for the sharing of ‘best practices’. We’ve also noted that consortia and associations like the CIC serve as logical ‘entry points’ into the US for stakeholders in other countries, or international organizations, who are grappling with the complexity of the US higher education system (systems, really). Given these emerging functions, it is important to understand the origins, core mission, and nature of effective intra-national actors like the CIC.

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Academic isolation has long been impractical; in today’s world, it is impossible. At a time when yesterday’s bright new fact becomes today’s doubt and tomorrow’s myth, no single institution has the resources in faculty or facilities to go it alone. A university must do more than just stand guard over the nation’s heritage, it must illuminate the present and help shape the future. This demands cooperation – not a diversity of weaknesses, but a union of strengths.

Herman B. Wells (1902-2000). President of Indiana University 1938-1962. Leader behind the establishment of the CIC.

Throughout its 50-year history, the consortium of prominent research universities in the American Midwest known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) has sought to create a “union of strengths” as envisioned by the Presidents of the member universities back in 1958. With the recent launch of several large-scale, high-profile initiatives (a shared fiber-optic network; an agreement with Google to digitize 10 million library volumes; and a shared digital repository called HathiTrust), the CIC has demonstrated its understanding that in today’s networked world, no university can expect to achieve greatness while standing alone. The experience of the CIC may also be instructive for those wishing to develop meaningful and productive partnerships across international boundaries. It could also be argued that the deep experience of CIC universities with collaboration gives them a competitive advantage as attractive and sophisticated partners in emerging international research collaborations.

A half century ago, CIC leaders began building this model of open, productive collaboration that has helped our member schools navigate such complex issues as how best to preserve and provide open digital content in a virtual environment, how universities can hone core competencies while sharing collective assets, and how they can foster outside partnerships to accomplish even the most complex and costly shared goals.

block_logocmykThe framework established for this collaboration has remained remarkably stable: The Provosts (chief academic officers) govern and fund the enterprise; top academic leaders on the campuses identify opportunities and engage their faculty and staff to implement the efforts; and a central staff enables the collaboration by providing administrative support that minimizes the ‘friction’ in collaborative efforts.

Along the way, we learned hard lessons about the challenges to inter-institutional collaboration. The independent nature of scholarship and the inherent competition across higher education exist as natural hurdles to sharing assets and accomplishments. We compete with one another for students, for researchers and teachers, for federal funds and private partners. When our interests do converge, we do not always share the same priorities, timelines, or strategic vision.

Within the CIC, each collaborative agreement is unique, and necessarily builds upon the trust established through earlier efforts. Through the steady development of this inter-connected web of increasingly more sophisticated arrangements, we can point to some factors for our success that might be relevant for other universities seeking to develop international partnerships:

  • The peer nature of our universities allows partners to come in with similar needs and expectations at the outset;]
  • The long-standing commitments to the partnership at the very highest levels of university administration;
  • A focus on projects that clearly leverage efforts, thereby creating more value through aggregation or coordination;
  • A flexible, lightweight framework with an equal commitment in the basic infrastructure and governance, but with varying levels of participation in any one activity;
  • Leadership for efforts arises from (or is nurtured in) the member universities, thereby ensuring that only the highest priority initiatives are launched & sustained.
  • A willingness to be patient and a tolerance for some failure.

The success of many CIC projects and programs (some dating back 40 years or more), illustrate how the persistent, patient approach of the CIC offers both hope and guidance. Few of the most consequential agreements were easily reached. Many were the result of years, even decades, of revisiting common issues, assessing new technologies, and respecting the basic factors that make change difficult within any organization – spectacularly so when working across institutions. But we have made steady progress.

Certainly other like-minded enterprises have made similar efforts to pool resources. But the CIC stands as one of the very few that have both stood the test of time and that continues to innovate in the pursuit of our core mission – that of leveraging and aggregating the vast resources of our member universities for the common good.

Virtually every research university in the world is striving to identify their place in the broader, global context. And here it might be argued that it is virtually impossible to engage globally without partnerships (be they with other institutions of higher learning, or with communities, or governmental agencies). Our work in the CIC suggests that it is not just possible – but desirable – to invest institutional energy in the establishment and continued development of partnerships. There is a better and more meaningful way to launch and sustain efforts rather than the traditional ‘memorandum of agreement’ with which we are all familiar (and which are too often signed and forgotten). This requires an initial investment in the selection of the right partners, the identification of clear objectives that map to strengths among the participating institutions; and multi-level support from administrators, faculty and scholars.

There are many attractive and compelling opportunities for collaborating internationally. From building shared digital repositories that aggregate scholarly works, to co-investments in very large scale scientific equipment or laboratories that can be shared, to the shared development of courses and scholarly resources among scholars across the globe. Our experience in the CIC suggests that it is possible to realize the golden opportunities before us. To harness the great scholarly resources that universities command worldwide will require thoughtful, engaged, and collaborative leadership, and a recognition of the need for sophisticated mechanisms to manage, measure and sustain such efforts.

Barbara McFadden Allen

Technology, international consortia, and geographically dispersed research teams

The Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) is one of several international consortia that have been created, since the late 1990s, to deepen linkages between universities. I’ve been involved with two of them (the WUN and Universitas 21) while working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National University of Singapore.

As Lily Kong (Vice-President, Global Relations, National University of Singapore) noted in her 7 October 2007 entry (‘The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia’):

[o]ne of the challenges of making such university alliances work is the lack of clarity of intention, and the lack of a clear articulation of how such alliances, often formed from the top by senior university administrators, can achieve the stated objectives. In almost every new alliance, establishing research partnerships and collaboration among member universities is said to be a priority. Are alliances really an effective way to develop research collaboration though? Member universities that are chosen to be part of an alliance are often chosen for political reasons (”political” in the most expansive of its meanings). They may be chosen because they are thought to be “research powerhouses”. But different universities have different areas of research strength, and university administrators sitting together to decide an area/s among their universities for research collaboration can be quite artificial. Such alliances can then at best facilitate meetings and workshops among researchers, but the collaborative sparks must come from the ground. Throwing a group of people together once or twice and asking that they produce huge grant applications to support collaborative research is not likely to happen. Those with the responsibility of developing alliances, however, will be anxious to show results, and sometimes, just the act of bringing researchers together is hardly sufficient result.

Given these challenges, some of us have been trying to think through ways to use the international consortia framework as a vehicle to deepen regular connections between geographically dispersed researchers. In doing so, though, we’ve been faced with debates about the costs of facilitating relatively frequent human mobility between member universities, not to mention which types of people (Graduate students? Faculty? Staff?) to target with available support. To be sure there is nothing quite like face-to-face engagement: intense sessions in meetings, workshops, summer institutes, and in situ collaborative research. However, these face-to-face moments, which can never be replaced, need to be supplemented by regular virtual gatherings. Furthermore, the ongoing financial crisis is now generating troublesome ripple effects in research networks where bodily movement across space is the ideal.

In the course of thinking about the development of UW-Madison’s WUN website, we have been considering the establishment of some web-based resources for researchers who seek to collaborate virtually, including via sound and video in synchronous (ie concurrent/real time) fashion. We have used a variety of such technologies – Skype, video-conferencing, Access Grid Node – before, though we have not formally identified, at UW-Madison’s Division of International Studies (the host unit of WUN staff), the full array of options, which ones are best for what activities, what the full cost (if any) of using each of them are, and how researchers can access them (if they need to be booked). Yet a search for a model website via an associated consortia (the Committee on Institutional Cooperation) failed to identify examples of one.

Given the above, we met with the Division of Information Technology (DOIT) a few days ago. DOIT’s savvy staff ended up having more questions for us – very simple yet telling questions – than we had for them.  They wisely helped us think through the forms of collaboration being undertaken via WUN-funded initiatives, and what types and level of resources we had to enable such collaboration to occur.

Now, the vast majority of WUN-related research collaboration does not involve the transmission and analysis of large-scale data sets – the type dependent upon the Internet2 cyberinfrastructure and collaborative platforms like HUBzero.  Rather, it tends to involve formal and informal dialogue within and between research teams, fora such as workshops and conferences, virtual (video-conference) courses for students in multiple sites, and formal and informal graduate student advising. Given this, DOIT’s staff recommended that we explore, more intensively, options for web-conferencing. There are, of course, many other options but we settled on web-conferencing as the likely best option.

Web-conferencing is a form of collaboration that enables geographically dispersed research teams to connect via computer desktops, while allowing engagement throughout the link-up process. Deliberative engagement, versus ‘passive learning’, is important for research teams typically do not want to sit quietly while someone they know is speaking.

Typical features of web-conferencing include:

  • Slide show presentations – where PowerPoint or Keynote slides are presented to the audience and markup tools and a remote mouse pointer are used to engage the audience while the presenter discusses slide content.
  • Live or Streaming video – where full motion webcam, digital video camera or multi-media files are pushed to the audience.
  • VoIP (Real time audio communication through the computer via use of headphones and speakers)
  • Web tours – where URLs, data from forms, cookies, scripts and session data can be pushed to other participants enabling them to be pushed though web based logons, clicks, etc. This type of feature works well when demonstrating websites where users themselves can also participate.
  • Meeting Recording – where presentation activity is recorded on a PC, MAC or server side for later viewing and/or distribution.
  • Whiteboard with annotation (allowing the presenter and/or attendees to highlight or mark items on the slide presentation. Or, simply make notes on a blank whiteboard.)
  • Text chat – For live question and answer sessions, limited to the people connected to the meeting. Text chat may be public (echo’ed to all participants) or private (between 2 participants).
  • Polls and surveys (allows the presenter to conduct questions with multiple choice answers directed to the audience)
  • Screen sharing/desktop sharing/application sharing (where participants can view anything the presenter currently has shown on their screen. Some screen sharing applications allow for remote desktop control, allowing participants to manipulate the presenters screen, although this is not widely used.)

Note, though, that this is not a new technology: web-conferencing has been heavily used in some disciplines (e.g., Chemistry), and of course the business world, for some time. It has also moved through a number of development phases, and is increasingly affordable and simpler to use.

There are, as you might expect, plenty of platform options for web-conferencing. I’ll cut to the chase and state, given our needs and the evolving discussion, that Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro software emerged as the most likely option for enabling the type of engagement that we are seeing in the vast majority of WUN-supported projects. Link here for information about other platform options including the relatively popular Elluminate and WebEx. See a brief YouTube summary of Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro below.

We’ll be testing out this platform in the near future and will report back. We’ll also be comparing notes with WUN staff who have been using Marratech, a platform bought up by Google in 2007. But from what I can detect, this type of web-conferencing software, in conjunction with weblogs and wikis (to aggregate research group output, and enable the joint development of papers, presentations, and so on; see a brief YouTube summary of what a wiki is below), should satisfy the majority of our needs given the dispersed nature of WUN-sponsored research networks.

Synchronous communication technologies, that operate via computer desktops, are increasingly important when working to deepen network relations between members of small-scale yet geographically dispersed research communities. This said, such technologies can never create nor determine; they simply enable. Yet the enabling process is hindered by lack of knowledge about the technological options at hand, and how they mesh with the nature of the research communities (and cultures) associated with the creative process. It is at this level – that of the textures of practice – through which international networks are brought to life, and international consortia show their worth, or not.

Kris Olds

PS: please let me know if your institution has developed a single portal/website that outlines (and ideally evaluates) the wide array of technological options that enable geographically dispersed small-scale research teams to function. I’ll post the links that come through below, assuming such sites exist!