What is e-Research? This question was asked at the Victoria University workshop on the Framework for e-Research Adoption and gnerated considerable discussion. A few weeks before I had considered this question for a presentation on e-Research and thought I would share my thoughts.
There are various definitions. When Tony Hey was Director of the UK e-Science programme he often described e-Research as enabling faster, better or different research. This describes the expected outcome rather than indicating how it might be achieved. The iVec website defines e-Research as the use of advanced information technology to enable better research outcomes. This now includes ICT tools but still doesn't explain what is actually happening.
My suggested definition is that e-Research is the (rapid) evolution of research methodologies enabled by information technologies and tools. It is a fundamental step change in the research process. Jim Gray agreed, arguing that the explosion of data was in fact a new dimension to the research process.
A typical research methodology consists of a set of steps such as observe phenomena, propose hypothesis, experiment, measure, analyse, conclude and publish. The experimental step is aided by new instrumentation such as sensor networks, able to measure and collect data as never before. Indeed Gray's argument was that we could now carry out a successful experiment by examining existing data. We don't even need instruments! Simulation is also a powerful tool enabling researchers to use models to investigate processes that defy measurement, such as geologic processes over tens of thousands of years. All of these tools: instruments, networks, data mining and simulation, make use of advanced ICT technology.
All of these processes may generate enourmous amounts of data that present all sorts of challenges. If the data is to be reused it needs to be discoverable and searchable. The researcher must also analyse large amounts of data. Increasingly this involves the use of visualisation tools to aid understanding. And visualising one experiment's results often leads to new hypotheses, so ICT can also contribute to the start of the process.
Finally publication is changing dramatically. When did you last visit the library?
But this is only the tip of the iceberg seen in the changing research process. Underpinning this are ICT services that are not dependent on particular disciplines, such as high performance computing, data management, collaboration tools and a network infrastructure.
The key point is not the underpinning technology but how it is changing the research process and how rapidly that change is occurring. The old processes aren't invalidated, they just don't enable the range of research paths that the new processes do.