Research on the Process of Development of Virtual Research Environments

Increasingly, science is conducted by large teams of researchers scattered across widely dispersed locations and accessing scientific tools, data, and each other via the internet. Scientific communities develop with a wide variety of talents and skills, harnessing the resources of multiple institutions, and tackling larger, more multifaceted problems. The virtual research environment (a key type of cyberinfrastructure combining technologies for conducting research, analyzing data, coordinating projects, and enabling collaboration) has been shown to make significant contributions to the success of distributed science. However, there are few systematic studies of the process by which these environments develop both through intentional design decisions negotiated among a diverse and changing set of stakeholders over an extended period of time and through unplanned events and contingencies.

This project, a collaboration between scholars at the University of North Texas and University of Illinois, will advance and refine a theoretical framework for understanding the processes by which virtual research environments are developed and how these processes contribute to their effectiveness. The framework proposes that virtual research environments are constructed through interactions among five critical activity tracks, specifically: (a) technological design and implementation, (b) scientific work, (c) the community of virtual research environment users, developers, funders and other stakeholders, (d) managerial and organizational system, and (e) critical events. The project will conduct in-depth longitudinal analyses of the sequences of events involved in the development of virtual research environments along the five tracks and trace inter-track influences. It will assess the fit of various developmental models to identify factors that account for the development of the virtual research environments and the co-evolution of the tracks. Finally, it will relate various features of the developmental process to effectiveness of virtual research environments in terms of productivity, collaboration, community development, and successful implementation and use of virtual research environment features.

Results of this research will yield insights into how virtual research environments develop and change over time. The multidimensional model can be used to understand the conclusions drawn by previous case studies and to enable a more sophisticated analysis of cyberinfrastructure evolution that can identify key drivers and effectiveness. The results also promise insights into other kinds of virtual organizations with multiple, complex sets of stakeholders. The project will advance process theory and research by providing a more complete specification of the types of relationships among process tracks and articulation of developmental models based on these relationships.

Virtual research environments have great potential to advance scientific inquiry. Understanding how they develop and how their effectiveness is related to their development over time would enable designers to improve the development process. Knowledge of the various processes that promote or derail design, implementation, and use would increase the effectiveness of developers and managers of virtual research environments, and assure the best returns for public and private investments.

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation Virtual Organizations as Social Systems Program.

For more information contact Iftekhar Ahmed (Iftekhar.Ahmed@unt.edu) or Scott Poole (mspoole@illinois.edu).