Quality equaliser

February 16, 2007

Technology facilitates long-distance collaboration between researchers, reducing the dominance of elite institutions and allowing students access to top-level data. Olga Wojtas reports

Abertay Dundee University does not pretend to be research-intensive, but a number of the research groups it has are emerging as major players in their disciplines. Abertay was the top-rated Scottish department in environmental sciences in the last research assessment exercise. And Iain Young, director of its Simbios (Scottish Informatics, Mathematics, Biology and Statistics) Centre, believes it is the use of innovative technology that is boosting its success. "In a single handful of soil there are more individual organisms than the total number of human beings who have ever lived. Many of these still haven't even been identified by science, much less the huge complexity of the way they interact. Our sophisticated X-ray tomography equipment allows soil to be studied from the inside without disrupting its delicate internal ecosystems."

But alongside the high-tech equipment is the ease of internet communication with researchers in other institutions and the accessibility of existing research through Abertay's digital and virtual libraries. "We've been incredibly impressed by the standard of people coming here. Technology is able to raise our profile and put us on a different level," Young says.

The dominance of elite institutions in recruiting top researchers may be on the wane. They arguably lose their intellectual advantage as the internet facilitates long-distance collaboration between researchers, allowing general access to top-level research data.

Andrew Hugill, director of De Montfort University's Institute of Creative Technologies, says: "The new grid technologies and general networked research are enabling a democratisation of research studies."

But he stresses that this is not simply elite institutions offering their data to the others. "What you have in this world of high-level research is different strengths in different univer-sities, and what's happening is a sharing of that on quite a level playing field. Oxford and Cambridge universities don't do what we do - they come to us."

The IOCT, one of whose projects was runner-up in the 2006 Times Higher Award for Distance Learning, carries out research at the intersection of e-science, the digital arts and the humanities. It is investigating how robots work together socially and artistically, developing an internet orchestra in a project linking the virtual and the physical in dance and music, and is working on the world's first 360-degree interactive hologram.

"Lots of different researchers from different silos are coming together and starting to share information," Hugill says. This is not only across three faculties at De Montfort, but also includes other universities' researchers and experts in the creative industries.

Susan Copeland, senior information adviser for research at Robert Gordon University, says the internet offers huge opportunities for collaborative national and international research. The university's library service is involved in joint research projects that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. It recently completed a ground-breaking project on e-theses, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee and the research libraries' consortium Curl. This aims to make theses generally available rather than accessible only in the postgraduate's home library and the British Library. It also potentially revolutionises theses, transforming them from something that has to be paper-based to work that includes hyperlinks and video clips.

"This was led by Glasgow University and involved RGU, the British Library, the National Library of Wales, the Sherpa consortium represented by the universities of Nottingham, Cranfield, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Southampton and Warwick," Copeland says. "The successful outcome of the work was largely due to excellent communication between the participants via the internet."

RGU is now involved in a European e-theses project with the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, and in a joint UK-US consortium "to improve ways of promoting access to high-level research output and to highlight the work of PhD students who will be the research leaders of the future," Copeland says.

In November, RGU joined the small but growing band of UK universities with OpenAIR@ RGU, an institutional repository making its research publications available to an international readership. This "open access" approach heralds a shift from a supply-led to a demand-led attitude to research.

Anyone wanting details about a particular subject can easily follow the work of specific research groups, and some repositories can even send e-mail alerts to interested parties when new publications appear. This is particularly useful for researchers in interdisciplinary areas who would otherwise struggle to track findings across a wide range of journals. It also bridges the divide between researchers at institutions that can afford subscriptions to large numbers of expensive journals and those that cannot.

The Joint Information Systems Committee is behind many of the innovations and wants to help researchers across the country to use the technology. Joseph Hutcheon, secretary of Jisc's committee for the support of research, says: "What we want to do is spread the benefits of innovative ICT. Everything we do should benefit the wider community, not just be of interest to a few high-end research universities." It is just about to announce training grants for new academics and those in disciplines that have not used advanced ICT.

"The skills shortage is something we're very aware of," Hutcheon says. "The new universities will have greater need because the high-end research universities will be doing training themselves." A key facility is the Access Grid, high-quality audio and video conferencing with wall-sized screens showing full-size images of other people in the conference.

Participants can share information on their laptop or via PowerPoint in real time.

"It saves people jetting across the Atlantic: you may not be able to spare three days to go overseas, but you can spend half a day on a meeting,"

Hutcheon says. "It's an evolving technology, and part of what we're funding is the development of the underlying software. At the moment, it's usable if you know what you're doing. Novices can do something wrong without realising what they've done. We're working on user-friendliness for people who aren't technologically aware or from technological disciplines."

But as the technology becomes easier to use, Young warns that it is not advances in software and hardware that determine research success. "Quality is always the main thing. Unless you're really producing quality research as assessed by your peers, it doesn't matter whether you can use technology to your advantage or not."

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