Sunday, June 03, 2007

Cooking up an eResearch system for Australia

The Australian Partnership for Sustainable Repositories presented "eResearch: policy and practical perspectives" on 1 June at ANU in Canberra.

Adrian Burton gave an overview of national and international policy issues. Margaret Henty and Danny Kingsley, then made the argument for libraries to be involved in managing eResearch repositories. Adrian used a conventional slide show, while Margaret and Danny dressed in aprons and used a cooking analogy.

Adrian's talk has useful facts, while Margaret and Danny were entertaining. But they could have made a better case for Australian contribution to eResearch, by emphasizing smaller, local social science and cultural examples.

The problem is that the usual eResearch examples, which Adrian used, are for large scale, large budget, hard science projects, such as nuclear physics. These projects are typically based in Europe or the USA, with thousands of researchers and costing billions of dollars. This can give the impression that Australia can contribute little to such projects, could never hope to have such a project in Australia and can't really afford to be involved.

Margaret and Danny made a good case for university libraries to be involved in eResearch repositories, as traditional custodians of scholarly information. However, they failed to connect this local and homely approach to Adrian's view of global big science. If eRepositories are being created for billion dollar projects in Europe and the USA, why would the data be held on a campus in Australia, run by a couple of librarians?

This is partly a problem of perceptions. Some major eResearch projects are based in Australia, in areas such as astronomy. Also Australian scientists in Australia make a contribution to global projects. Australian computer researchers contribute to the tools used for eResearch so that it is not inconceivable that the data would be held here.

Also a case needs to be made for the social sciences and "small" eResearch. The tools and techniques can be applied to projects which link hundreds of researchers, rather than thousands and to ones involving collections of information about people and culture, rather than subatomic particles and super nova. These projects will be collecting far less impressive volumes of data, but this is still valuable data which needs to be cared for and made available.

An example is the Bidwern Project to capture metadata on indigenous knowledge in the Western Arnhem Land Plateau. This will feature in a presentation at the National Library of Australia in Canberra on 15 June.

Also the use of eResearch repositories and libraries for making results more readily available could be emphasized. The contents of eRepositories are of interest to only a few specialists using them. It is only after the data has been turned into useful results that they become valuable to anyone else. This production process can be sped up using electronic means. Australian universities can make a valuable contribution by linking electronic repositories to electronic publications to make more of the data more accessible more quickly. The research results can then be used in online education systems for research based education.

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