|Overview of the book|
|Book Web page (MIT Press)|
|Science of Collaboratories Website|
|Review of Cultivating Communities of Practice (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder)|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – March 4, 2009
This review takes a personal look at the book Scientific Collaboration on the Internet, edited by Gary M. Olson, Ann Zimmerman, and Nathan Bos.
Gary M. Olson, Ann Zimmerman & Nathan Bos (Eds.)
Gary M. Olson is professor emeritus in the School of Information and
professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology. Olson's research
interests are in the areas of applied cognitive science, particularly
human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work. Specifically,
he is working on topics in the area of computer support for collaborative
activities, particularly when conducted at a distance. A major current
interest is the design and evaluation of collaboratories to support distributed
science and engineering.
Ann Zimmerman is a research assistant professor in the School of Information.
Her research interests include the design, use, and impact of cyberinfrastructure;
the sharing and reuse of scientific data; and the effects of large-scale
collaborations on science policy and research management. Zimmerman has
studied distributed research collaborations across many disciplines as
part of the Science of Collaboratories project.
Nathan Bos is a Senior Research Associate in the research department
at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. His research interests
are computer-supported cooperative work, simulation and gaming, and long-distance
collaboration in science.
The book, Scientific Collaboration on the Internet, edited by Olson, Zimmerman, and Bos collects contributions from members of the Science of Collaboratories (SOC) project. This project was set up to advance the "science of collaboratories" (SOC), as well as give practical advice and enable "users with a need for collaboratory infrastructure ... to create successful collaboratories on their own." The book can be regarded as a consolidated project summary. It includes numerous case studies and project presentations as well as articles that aim to increase the understanding of collaboratories.
The term "collaboratory" is a blend of the words "collaboration" and "laboratory." As the book's title indicates, the book focuses on collaborations between scientists, in particular on support for remote collaborations using the Internet and other information and communication technology (ICT). The editors note that modern science has become increasingly collaborative. This is indicated, for example, by increasing national and international coauthorship. They identified several key factors that led to this trend:
The second ingredient, "laboratory," refers to the shared use of laboratory facilities, typically by distributed locations and often over long distances. ICT, such as e-mail and videoconferencing, has made it possible for scientists to collaborate over long distances more easily than ever before. In addition to their role in communication, new technologies allow large amounts of data to be collected and shared as well as expensive instrumentation to be shared that can be operated remotely and used for remote education. All in all, the term collaboratory denotes the approach to fostering collaboration through creating dedicated technical (infra)structures for collaboration, so-called collaboratories. In a 2001 workshop of the SOC project, these were defined as follows:
Other authors speak of "e-science" or "cyberscience/cyberinfrastructure," often in a broader sense. Nentwich (in the book), for example, defines cyberscience as "all scholarly and scientific research activities in the virtual space generated by networked computers and advanced ICT."
Despite all the technical advances, collaboration also presents often unforeseen social and organizational challenges. The editors admit to having learned that "even when advanced technologies are available, distance still matters." Consequently, a number of earlier collaboratory projects failed. Because it was not immediately apparent why some projects were successful and others were not, a group of researchers set out to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying issues. They applied for funding under the NSF's Information and Technology Research program, succeeded in getting support for five years, and established the above-mentioned Science of Collaboratories (SOC) project in 2000. The project's goal was to "define, abstract, and codify the underlying technical and social mechanisms that lead to successful collaboratories." The project members engaged in three primary activities:
A primary task of the project was to identify and describe a large sample of collaboratories. More than 200 collaboratories were documented at a minimal level; many of the records can be viewed in the "Collaboratories at a Glance" database on the SOC Website. A smaller number of collaboratories were examined in greater depth; some of the case studies are found in the book. These studies involved interviews with multiple project participants and a few site visits to document internal processes, challenges, and successes.
Having looked at collaboratories and the SOC project, let us return to the subject and purpose of the book. According to the editors, "the challenges and rewards of collaboration that take place over space and time, approaches for overcoming the difficulties and evaluating the outcomes of such collaborative work, and conceptual frameworks for exploring and analyzing distributed scientific collaboration are the topics that are explored in detail throughout this book." One might rightfully say that the purpose of the book coincides with the goals of the SOC project mentioned at the beginning: Advance the science of collaboratories by presenting the project member's insights in a more general manner, provide a record of the SOC projects and the collaboratories studied, and support designers of new collaboratories by supplying all the information in the form of a book. Further information can be found on the above-mentioned SOC Website.
The book starts by defining collaboratories and similar concepts, such as e-science and cyberinfrastructure, and the "science of collaboratories" (SOC), which it intends to put on a firmer foundation. Then, the editors list questions and topics that they have identified: successes, failures and challenges, the role of technology, and management practices. The editors encouraged the authors, particularly those of chapters dealing with case studies, to address these questions so that it is easier to compare the chapters. The introduction closes with an overview of the book.
The 20 subsequent chapters are divided into six parts, starting with overarching articles in parts I (Vision) and II (Perspectives). In part I, authors outline visions for cyberinfrastructures. Part II is the most scientific section of the book, offering a taxonomy of collaboratories, a theory of remote scientific collaboration, and a study of collaboratory research across disciplinary and organizational boundaries.
The next three parts are organized by scientific discipline. Examples of projects from the following sciences are presented, discussed, and evaluated:
Part VI is devoted to the role of collaboration between scientists from developing and developed countries (sample: HIV Pathogenesis Program, a partnership between developed and developing countries in AIDS research).
In their conclusion (chapter Final Thoughts), the editors point the way toward a "true science of collaboratories." For this purpose, they explore the roots of the proposed new science in five disciplinary areas that they believe can contribute to it: computer science, science and technology studies, management science, the field of information, and behavioral economics. Finally, they look at the recent NSF cyberinfrastructure initiative and other emerging trends.
Note: A more extended overview of the book by chapters can be found on a separate page.
The editors position their book as a contribution to the science of collaboratories. As this science is just emerging, it is unclear whom they consider as their target audience. The audience seems to consist primarily of scientists from the disciplines that are represented in the book, including computer science, as well as from those sciences that the editors regard as possible roots for the new science of collaboratories. Furthermore, researchers from social sciences, including ethnology, and at least the "scientific branch" of HCI might also be interested in the book.
But will this book attract HCI practitioners as well? The book's style and structure make it evident that it is directed at a scientifically-minded audience. Many chapters are written in the style of research papers, presenting studies of collaboratory projects from a social science perspective. Other chapters are written like reports to be presented to a funding agency (some are indeed short versions of such papers) or are written from a project management perspective. Moreover, all presented projects are located in the science domain: none has a corporate or administrative background.
Given that neither style nor presentation make the book an easy read for HCI practitioners, should I conclude that book is not suited to the HCI community? For some HCI practitioners this may indeed be the case For others, however, particularly those who have an academic or scientific background and will thus find it a lot easier to understand a number of issues, the book will provide valuable information although it is a hard read. International collaboration, particularly using the Internet and other ICT, is already commonplace in many companies. And even if a number of issues covered in the book are specific to the academic world, there are many others that also apply to the corporate world – although they may not be easy to find.
In the following, I will briefly comment on a few topics covered in the book, based on the specific experiences of an HCI practitioner who works in a large software company. I will also look at the differences between the academic and corporate worlds as well as their shared features. These "snippets" are just to whet the appetite of the book's readers and are meant to make them aware of topics to watch out for.
As stated above, ICT is widely used in the corporate world, and HCI professionals are shaping them as user advocates. Interestingly, the most frequently used technologies are still the classic ones: the telephone, e-mail, file servers, and intranets (and the Web). More sophisticated technologies, such as screen sharing or video conferencing, are not used so much on a daily basis. Instant messaging, Wikis, and blogs seem to play niche roles, but may catch up in the future.
As the book demonstrates, the need for sophisticated and expensive instruments differs from discipline to discipline. In addition, some disciplines aggregate huge volumes of data to in the petabyte range, while others require far less data storage. Accordingly, interaction using ICT varies a lot between collaboration projects, with some projects using ICT only for communication purposes.
In the HCI domain, the most frequently used shared "instrument" is the remote lab, which allows colleagues from other locations to observe users or even conduct remote tests. Such a lab requires video and audio facilities at least, but ideally also facilities for remote control. However, local personnel are still needed in a remote lab for various reasons. File servers and intranets seem to be the technologies most frequently used for data sharing. Compared with science disciplines such as high-energy physics, astronomy, geophysics, or biochemistry, the data volumes are "modest" in HCI.
As many chapters in the book show, ICT infrastructures vary considerably between universities and often even within universities, particularly when different disciplines are involved. This is typically the case in collaboration projects. Whether solutions are easy to find or not, depends on the ways ICT is used (communication, data sharing, and remote instruments). In any case, many authors point to the need for standardization, not only with regard to the technology, but also to software and data structure.
In corporate settings, these issues also need to be taken in account but are less of a problem, because a company typically stipulates the use of certain hardware and software. Standardization of the data may still be an issue, though. Infrastructure issues may also arise due to company mergers – different companies typically use different technologies, procedures, and standards.
In most of the presented projects, face-to-face meetings of different sorts play a crucial role in the success of collaboration projects. These include all-hands meetings (once or twice a year), management meetings (more often, sometimes weekly), and exchanges between scientists in different locations, sometimes lasting for several months. These activities can also be found in corporate settings, but it seems that much more emphasis is put on the use of ICT there, particularly in the context of the current worldwide financial crisis. However, the importance of direct contact to the coherence and collaboration of teams cannot be overestimated. The authors observe that direct contact is especially important at the beginning. As soon as members of distributed teams have established sufficient trust through direct contact, it becomes less critical to the success of a collaboration project.
Many papers in the book highlight the scholarly aspect of collaboration projects. For example, some papers demonstrate how shared instruments can be used successfully for educational purposes. Training, particularly, on the job and throughout employees' working life, is also an important aspect in companies. For cost reasons, large corporation with sites all over the world invest a lot in remote education. Often, however, remote education seems to be reduced to the use of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations and video tutorials. Shared labs, for example, would offer additional opportunities for educating HCI practitioners.
Throughout the book, the question of how to motivate scientists to contribute to shared resources is raised. It is closely connected to the tradition of how scientists publish their research results and how they are rewarded throughout their scientific career. This issue is still awaiting a satisfying solution; it is exacerbated by the fact that funding agencies in the United States require data to be made public as soon as possible. As the book demonstrates, different disciplines have found different solutions to these issues, from not making data public at all, to making them public after the original authors published them, to putting thousands of authors on the author list of publications, as is current practice in high-energy physics.
In corporate settings, this is less of an issue but original authorship is important as well. Here, we have the additional issue of confidentiality, meaning that information exchange may be restricted for competitive reasons. Employees need to be encouraged and motivated to contribute to shared resources. Willingness to contribute is often low for a number of reasons: Contributing means additional work for already overloaded employees, there is little reward, and also often a lack of enforcement from management.
Generally, and as is the complaint in the book, contributions to the infrastructure often go unnoticed and seem to be largely undervalued – this is true for both worlds. In the academic world, students may not want to engage in such work because it is not acknowledged in the way publications are and thus does not advance their careers. I found that infrastructure work is not popular in corporate settings either. The long-term perspective of most collaboratory projects also makes these projects unattractive to young scientists, because they cannot publish articles covering a larger variety of topics. This issue should be less of a problem in corporate settings.
This review is not a typical book review, because it started with lengthy explanations of collaboratories and the science of collaboratories (SOC). However, I hope the readers of this review will find these details useful for gaining an understanding of the book. Toward the end of the review, I again did not discuss the book itself but looked at a number of issues that the book raises and discussed them from the viewpoint of an HCI practitioner in a large software company. Again, these comments are intended to help HCI practitioners find it easier to read the book. Eventually, however, it is time to come to a conclusion:
When I was asked by the publisher whether I would like to review the book, I knew only its title and authors. From the title I concluded that the book would be interesting to the visitors of our Website. However, when I actually read the book for the review, I was repeatedly torn between whether is was or not. This is by no means a judgment of the book and its value for the intended audience. It is only my own gripe regarding its appeal to the majority of HCI practitioners who visit our Website. I discussed this dilemma already earlier, coming to a conclusion that I would like to restate here. Readers interested in collaboration projects, particularly those over long distances and using ICT, and with some knowledge of the academic world plus some perseverance when it comes to reading scientific papers, will find this book a useful and valuable source of inspiration and resource for thinking about their own collaboration activities and for planning future collaboratory projects. To these readers, I definitely recommend that they read (and buy) the book.