Monday 16 November 2009

Life is a Conference (Oh Chum)

Since EPrints has now celebrated its 10th birthday** I have been chewing over where this decade of repository activity is leading us. Bigger repositories? More repositories? Faster repositories? Better repositories? Well, yes to all the above, but collecting, curating and sharing data/documents seems to be only part of the picture.

At the same time, I have become a director of the Web Science Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Southampton. Its five year mission (no, really, it's there in the EPSRC grant letter) is to build up a cohort of interdisciplinary scientists who can understand the impact of the Web on our society - its economic activity, political exchange, social interactions, scientific knowledge transfer - and predict the future benefits and downsides of different kinds of Web technology.

For the last few days I have been trying to pull some of these pieces together: the Web, the Social Web, the Data Web, repositories, open access and open science. In recent years, the community has built a Web infrastructure for e-research that handles research outputs, research data, research process and workflows. This infrastructure has many desirable properties - it is dynamic and persistent and supports managed curation and auditable provenance.

One thing I believe is missing from the picture at the moment is research people, research careers and research meetings. Researchers engaged in human-oriented research activities, rather than research artefact and research experiments. Research after all isn't just about individual scientists turning dials on a piece of laboratory equipment, but about many individuals debating and evaluating their ideas in scientific discourse and scientific debate. Part of that discourse and debate happens through journal publications, but much of it happens in conferences and workshops, through face to face interactions. The proceedings of these meetings become part of the literature, and so part of the personal, dynamic, face-to-face engagement is captured for posterity, but the questions and answers, the ad hoc discussions, birds of a feather sessions and arguments over dinner - all the normal human interactions that generate inspiration as well as larger scale knowledge transfer - have not been captured.

Except that they are starting to be exposed beyond the boundaries of the conference meetings by microblogging services. The low barrier to communication afforded by a Twitter client on a smart phone means that ideas, controversies and emerging consensuses are broadcast beyond the immediately present delegates in a meeting. These communications are not edited, published and catalogued for posterity (and are only searchable for a short time), but they do (potentially) increase the efficiency of the meeting.

A decade ago, the only way to facilitate social networking in the research world was by face to face meetings; flying hundreds or thousands of people half-way across the world for a week in order to be able to talk to each other (or perhaps even to listen to each other). This is still the way by which much research business is conducted, despite being more aware of the environmental consequences of our conferences. There must be a better way.

Twitter, blogs, web, phone, email, papers, workshops, meetings, projects, texts (SMSes) are all ways of mediating engagement between knowledge generating people. In point of fact, conferences are not very efficient engagement mechanisms - most sessions are full of people doing email. Virtual conferences (whether held in Second Life or a rather more prosaic video/audio conferencing environment) also have shortcomings in fostering participation and engagement.

We need to redesign our social interactions to make them more pro-human, pro-diary, pro-budget and pro-environment. We need to use technology not to ape our large-scale face-to-face meetings (using enormous video walls of dozens and hundreds of virtual delegates), but to support us as we try to achieve scientific debate and argument with loose synchronisation across a dynamic community of individuals spread over a number of years.

It's ironic that a university is supposed to be a community of researchers, but none of us know what our neighbours do until we accidentally meet them at a conference on the other side of the world. This is no longer acceptable as the importance of interdisciplinary research increases! Let's instead use technology to improve the social transfer of our knowledge capital with our international research community and our institutional research community too!

I believe that's where our infrastructure needs to grow - supporting our research engagement as well as managing our research artefacts.

** Technically, it is 10 years since Stevan proposed EPrints at the first OAI meeting in Santa Fe at the end of October 1999. We will have a more tangible anniversary in June 2010, celebrating 10 years since the first release of the software at the second OAI meeting.

1 comment:

  1. I agree there is a big space still to get online conferencing right and that the models we are using at the moment don't quite work.

    There was an interesting discussion about the changing nature of conferences here -

    I actually think this might be the sort of thing Google Wave might actually be good at when people start building stuff using the Wave protocols..