Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Towards Open Access and Collaborative Research

WE use the word collaboration quite freely these days and point to collaborative research as a promising direction for humanities scholars to take. But in a field where lone scholars continue to dominate research output with single-authored articles and monographs, there is understandable resistance to growing institutional pressure to collaborate.

As those of us who work in the academy know all too well, measurement of research output is closely connected to the trajectory of our careers and so points scored are jealously guarded as tokens of value to be collected and redeemed at times of promotion or institutional movement. But as the potential of large-scale collaborative projects become more possible with the development of tools designed to enable contributions from a widely dispersed collection of scholars, this model of reward has become problematic.

The authoring tools being developed by the Aus-e-Lit Project fall right in the middle of this problematic area because of the support they give to multiple contributors from various levels of the academy, the community of independent scholars or, potentially, the general public.

The ANNOTATION TOOL will allow users to enhance AustLit records by adding information about a work or an author that would not normally be indexed by AustLit. For instance, information about the role of a literary agent in the publication of a particular edition could be added, providing a foundation for generating networks of influence in the publishing industry. If we can imagine scores of independent researchers contributing such information, cultural fields could emerge from the contributed data that tell us more about the publishing industry than we currently know.

The COMPOUND OBJECT AUTHORING TOOL allows users to define relationships between AustLit records and the growing number of disparate resources delivered via the internet by local, national and international archives and libraries. Using this tool a researcher could connect all available digital images and transcriptions of a work to their respective AustLit records and generate a digital archive to which the researcher's colleagues can contribute explanatory and textual notes that help to explain the work's textual transmission, its reception at various times, or its possible meanings in literary and cultural terms.

All of this connecting and describing is supported by a format known as RDF (Resource Description Framework) that delivers (currently) the internet resources through a Firefox browser. In this research environment, no images or text are saved, relieving the user of maintaining an archive or worrying about copyright. Ultimately, engagement with digitised archival material through the Aus-e-Lit interface will enrich the archival material by adding enhanced descriptions in stand-off markup that is stored in an Aus-e-Lit repository as RDF. Click on the Video Demo link to see the tools in action.

In the Aus-e-Lit interface all contributions can be identified by author with an associated date and time stamp. Such an environment supports peer-reviewing at a micro-level, allowing a researcher's work to be validated, quantified and assessed. At this early stage of development there is no established reviewing process, but such contributions to knowledge could provide an alternative or a supplement to the conventional article or monograph.

A fertile research environment emerges with tools that support the aggregation of disparate resources and annotations that describe these resources and the relationships between them. Such research environments have already emerged in the sciences, but an application in the data-rich environment already provided by AustLit is obvious. Models such as 'open notebook science' or 'enhanced publications' or 'mesotext' are available for AustLit researchers to consider, all of which favour open-source data with crowdsourcing contributions that make the most of publicly funded data and the publicly funded expertise that can contribute analyses.

Such models show the promise of Aus-e-Lit tools, but this promise pushes the boundaries of academic reward, publishing, copyright and the potential for collaboration in the near future. As we continue to test those boundaries, the annotation and compound-object authoring tools developed by the Aus-e-Lit Project will make a valuable contribution to the practice and theory of humanities research.