Welcome to the Oxford e-Social Science Project

Advances in information and communication technology are transforming the way scholarly research is conducted across all disciplines. The use of increasingly powerful and versatile computer-based and networked systems promises to change research activity as profoundly as the mobile phone, the Internet, and email have changed everyday life. The Oxford e-Social Science (OeSS) research project studies the use and impacts of these new approaches—called 'e-research' — and their ethical, legal, and institutional implications.

Scientific collaboration is increasingly coming to be seen as critically dependent upon effective access to shared digital research data and the advanced information tools that enable data storage, search, retrieval, visualization, and higher level analysis. The increasing role that advanced ICTs play in the practice of scientific research promises the potential to transform the way facts about the physical and social world are acquired, shared, analyzed, and translated into useful knowledge.

Building large, collaborative systems is not just a technical challenge: by looking at e-Research from a social shaping perspective, we are able to understand how researchers shape the technologies they use, and how they in turn have their behaviour shaped by the technologies and by social, ethical, legal and organizational forces.

By understanding how e-Research projects negotiate various constraints, we hope that our work can help researchers avoid the problems others have faced as they build these scientific collaborations.

Project Phase 1: 'Identifying the Problems'

Phase I (2005-08) undertook an empirically anchored synthesis of emerging legal, ethical, institutional and other social issues including confidentiality, anonymity, privacy, data protection, ownership, accountability, and distributed collaboration. This work has been disseminated widely, through publications, conference papers, workshops, and presentations.

The major research highlight of the first phase of OeSS (2005-08) was the development of case studies and issue-based studies that identified a set of critical social, legal and ethical issues raised by early attempts to build infrastructure and tools to support digital research. The case studies cover a variety of distinct domains. Studies spanned a range of data sets (qualitative data, quantitative data, bio-medical data on humans, non-human biological data) and on a variety of tools (collaborative tools for research and analysis, research 2.0 collaboration tools, geo-simulation and visualization tools). These case studies, combined with additional data, have allowed us to identify a number of cross-cutting themes (reconfiguring access, open science, sustainability, the social shaping of e-research, and impacts on the quality of research) and cross-cutting issues (ownership and intellectual property rights, disciplinary cultures, institutional infrastructures, privacy and data protection, anonymity and confidentiality, new collaborative networks, social and ethical values).

Project Phase 2: 'Identifying Possible Solutions'

Phase II (2008-11) is focused on initiatives aimed at addressing these issues, specifically asking how changes in policy and practice reconfigure access in ways that shape the quality and impact of research. By studying solutions, the project seeks to stimulate and inform debate over innovations and improve the design of technologies, institutions and practices.

In Phase II (2008-2011), OeSS is progressing from the identification of these ethical, legal and institutional issues to empirical studies of the effectiveness and consequences of technical, legal and research policy initiatives aimed at addressing them. How well do these initiatives resolve the issues they are targeted to address? How do competing approaches to these issues further redefine practices, and with what effect on the quality and sustainability of digital research?

Across the two phases of research, the OeSS team has conducted a wide range of interviews, archival research, participant-observer case studies, historical case studies, scientometric and webometric studies, and focus groups, along with a limited set of legal analyzes, surveys, and ethnographic studies. These are being brought together to build an evolving set of 'issue-based studies' of the social science of digital research.

The team has augmented the empirical methods used in the first phase (focus groups, interviews and case studies) with longitudinal ethnographic research. Outreach activities reach beyond the e-research community to engage all who have a serious stake in the quality and impact of research.

Partners and funding

This project is a cross-disciplinary collaboration between the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), the Oxford eResearch Centre (OeRC) and the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (INSIS), Said Business School, drawing on connections with the humanities, social and computer sciences and engineering across the University of Oxford. It is funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Phase I: Oxford e-Social Science (OeSS) Project: Ethical, Legal and Institutional Dynamics of Grid-Enabled e-Sciences (1 October 2005 until 30 November 2008, Award Number RES-149-25-1022)
Phase II: The Oxford e-Social Science Project: Ethical, Legal and Institutional Responses to Emerging e-Research Infrastructure Policies and Practices (1 December 2008 until 30 November 2011, ESRC Award Number RES-149-25-1082)

Main Funder

Primary funding for this research programme has been provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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Additional Funding

Funding for associated research has been provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the European Union, JISC, RIN, and the Oxford Martin School (University of Oxford).

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