Wednesday, 6 April 2011

What do scholars actually do?

One of the great bugbears of supporting digitally enabled research is understanding what scholars actually do. Not what research they carry out, but actually what they do, and what they use in the course of their daily work.

For example, it's generally believed that collaboration is a good thing and enables productivity. This of course begs the question what collaborative technologies do scholars use?

According to a recent report on the use of digital technologies in the humanities it's fairly prosaic, but none the less interesting:

  • Google Docs for collaborative editing and to share documents
  • Dropbox for sharing files
  • Yousendit to send large files to colleagues elsewhere
  • Skype for discussions
  • Blogs/RSS feeds/Twitter to keep ahead of the field
Besides this of course they used a range of specialist tools such as tapor for text analysis. However we shouldn't get distracted by the specialist tools - as technologists we have this tendency to get distracted by shiny things with blue lights - preferably ones that flash - we should rather focus on the prosaic, and if we are to build a collaboration environment aka a VRE or virtual research environment
  1. It needs to provide easy access/integration to Google Docs and other tools - Colwiz and Ojax ++ offer possible routes to building a VRE with third party tool integration
  2. They need a decent blogging platform - which basically means a local install of wordpress. But, they also need a way to do joint blogs and comments with people elsewhere, which takes us to the interesting lands of authorization and authentication. We could say shibboleth, but we need to encompass collaborators overseas and at institutions such as museums and art galleries who may not have access to shibboleth enabled authentication. As we want to maximise ease of use this probably means supporting mutiple authentication methods such as Shibboleth, OpenID and the Google API
  3. Researchers want to share big files. They may be high resolution photographs of cuneiform tablets, survey datasets, astronomical images and the like, but the key thing is that they are big. Given that no one understands ftp anymore services such as Cloudstor are of great potential value, but remember, if we are talking about collaboration we are talking about AuthN and AuthZ, which means paying attention to collaborators not in the traditional academic frogpond
  4. Skype - much the same can be said about Skype versus evo, as could be said about yousendit versus cloudstor.
  5. People also need an RSS feed aggregator. There's just too many potentially valuable feeds out there. It's also interesting the way that people increasingly treat twitter as a curated RSS feed - ie as a feed of interesting miscellanea recommended by colleagues they trust and respect.
However there's another very important point here - researchers have already gone out and found these services for themselves. They havn't come and demanded it from IT, they've gone out found them and their use has spread virally. As IT professionals we need to be realistic about this and seek to integrate these services rather than build parallel service just to prove we can (although it's perfectly valid to build such services as competence building exercise, just a building a private academic compute cloud could well be a valuable competence building exercise)

It's also very interesting what they didn't mention:
  • Sharepoint
  • Wikis
  • Microsoft Live docs and Skydrive
  • Zoho
suggesting that these products havn't gained a lot of traction in academia.

Wikis are an interesting case - quite a few research projects make use of wikidot to maintain a project wiki, yet researchers don't mention using wikis. I don't have an answer to this - it could be that the ease of creating content for a project blog is more appealing than a wiki, but then I thought the implicit non-linearity of a wiki might also be attractive for some multi threaded projects.

The other interesting case is Windows Live. Most academic seem to use Microsoft Word. All the previous competitors have fallen by the wayside, and Open/Libre Office is regretably not quite there. Yet given their need to share as part of collaboration there seems little use in the Microsoft alternatives to the Google ecology, despite also being free and integrated with the most recent versions of Microsoft Office.

So, the non-adoption of the Microsoft products tells us that offering an alternative isn't a solution, even if its as good or better than what people already use - if people want to use Google Docs or Wordpress that's what they want to use, not some odd geeky equivalent.

Strangely enough I've been here before. A long time ago I built a managed desktop service for a university that didn't use Microsoft tools and instead used a range of either open source or low licence cost Microsoft compatible tools. The justification was of course cash saving, by not having to pay the Microsoft tax. Users (mostly) loved the predictability and stability of the managed environment but the number one request for optional individually licenced and paid for software we got was for Microsoft Office, and the reason invariably given was to collaborate more effectively with colleagues at other institutions and secondly to reduce the risk of data interconversion errors.

There are a lot of reasons for wanting to use certain tools in preference to others, starting with usability and being compatible with colleagues elsewhere but the important takeaway is that people want to use what they're already using. These tools are of course out there and universally accessible - which means that there is no way their use can be curtailed by mandating an alterative.

The consequence of this is that you need to provide a mechanism to integrate them, meaning your research and collaboration vre starts looking a lot like a portal or a dashboard with gadgets linking to standard tools ...

1 comment:

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I'm certainly not the typical researcher, being too old and habit-bound to really deal comfortably with Web 2.0 etc. and too young to have trouble with the machines generally, but I don't use OpenOffice or StarOffice or whatever for the very simple reason that I can't open files in it that I create or created in Microsoft software: old Word files with embedded links; Access databases (without going through a double format conversion)... As you say it's not quite there. So your last point about people using what they use even if a better alternative exists is I think moot for Office; no better alternative does exist, only a nearly-as-good one the edges of whose box are much too easy to hit. Obviously no-one ever said cloning proprietary software was going to be easy, but for the moment it hasn't been done.