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This study was undertaken in response to an initiative of JISC, the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee. JISC has taken an active role in supporting VRE development in the UK through its VRE Programme that has just gone into its third phase1, and had commissioned four studies to look into different aspects of VREs. One of the studies was meant to look at VREs and research collaboration in a wider international context – the VRE Collaborative Landscape Study.

Virtual research environment collaborative landscape study

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This study investigated international developments in Virtual Research Communities (VRCs) and to evaluate them in relation to the activities in the JISC’s VRE programme. The study examined programmes in a number of key countries along with significant projects and communities as well as some countries where developments on this front are just beginning. There has been a great deal of activity over the past few years in terms of prototype and demonstration systems moving into the mainstream of research practice. Notable trends are emerging as researchers increasingly apply collaborative systems to everyday research tasks.

Executive Summary

Key recommendations
  1. Fundamentally, the most important point to have emerged from our study is that Virtual Research Environments (VREs) need to be conceptualised as community building projects rather than technology projects
  2. VREs have the potential to benefit research in all disciplines at all stages of research. The access to data, tools, computational resources and collaborators that VREs facilitate leads to faster research results and novel research directions
  3. By far the most important challenge faced by VREs is sustainability. VREs have to be supported and used by research communities in order to be viable, but without assurances that VREs will continue to be sustained in the medium and long term, it is far more difficult to get the commitment of time and effort by researchers. VREs need to be seen as vital elements of the general research infrastructure requiring the same long-term commitment as other parts of the infrastructure
  4. VREs have an international dimension, especially because of their promise to integrate resources from different origins. There is a need to gain clarity on legal, ethical and other policies and frameworks that govern the sharing of data and other resources, and to communicate these clearly to researchers and developers. When policies and laws constitute needless barriers to research, it is necessary to attempt to modify them
  5. Both the further development and sustainability of VREs require international co-operation. The establishment of an international VRE forum to coordinate activities could be a way forward, and funding councils could play an extremely important role in this
  6. A multi-pronged approach to sustainability needs to be implemented, from the planning stage and throughout the life of a VRE:

VREs need to be focused on the needs of researchers and specific research communities, to ensure usability, putting them in the driving seat of VRE development. This implies a user-driven, bottom-up mode of development. There is no one-size-fits-all mode of developing VREs. Instead VRE users need to be put into a position where they can create their own environments with tools and other resources that are relevant to their research. In terms of technologies, the more lightweight and the more customisable the better.

VRE initiators and developers need to plan in advance for engaging the broader research community, to ensure broader uptake, which will sustain the VRE in the medium- and long-term. It must be ensured that people in the necessary roles are involved in the VRE, including managers, librarians or archivists, champions or promoters, and the appropriate mix of established and early researchers. Awareness raising, targeted training of different types (face to face as well as web-based) and other engagement events are crucial for the uptake of VREs.

The broader institutional and broader context of VREs must be taken into account at the planning stage, including the priorities of specific research institutions, the relationship with national and international institutions, the relationship with libraries and digital repositories, the relationship between research and publishing.

A business plan needs to be considered from the outset taking into account this context and the research community supported by a VRE.

Key findings

The creation of a VRE is a social as much as a technical achievement. This is by far the most important point to emerge from the survey. It is not an entirely new point, as it has been highlighted in previous literature on VREs. However, it is a point which was strongly consolidated by the study. Any forward-looking strategy on VREs needs to approach them in a holistic fashion as community projects.

  • Potentially the most important trend identified by this study is an increasing focus on providing general VRE frameworks that can be used to develop and host different VREs. The frameworks would provide core services (such as authentication and rights management; repositories; project planning, collaboration and communication tools) and allow the development or easy integration of modules for specific uses.
  • It is clear that the most effective way of approaching the development process of VREs is a participatory mode of development, with researchers closely involved in generating the requirements and evaluating their implementation. Development needs to occur in an iterative fashion, with constant feedback form researchers. There is also a need to support researchers through training opportunities.
  • The development of a VRE needs to be broached not as a technological project but as a community building project, since without community buy-in, the VRE cannot fulfil its function. Community outreach beyond the initial community is also essential for the future sustainability of VRE projects, with members feeding new applications, new content, and the social context that allows for effective use of data and other resources, back into the VRE.
  • In terms of technology, the strongest trend seems to be in the preference for a Web 2.0 style of development and implementation. In general, more lightweight, customisable solutions are preferred.
  • Sustainability is a key issue and a major concern for many of the projects that we studied. It is important that national and international strategies, funding councils and institutions work together to address sustainability, since by their very nature, VREs cross institutional and national borders and only a concerted strategy will be successful. At the same time, it is important to consider new business models that will enable VREs to become self-sustaining as far as possible.
  • There is a need for funding councils to move beyond the traditional funding models of projects funded for the short-term. At the same time funding councils will increasingly play a role beyond national boundaries in the wider international development of research infrastructure.
  • Libraries have a key role to play in several aspects of VREs. They are increasingly becoming key stakeholders in the sustainability of the data outputs of VREs, and possibly for further aspects as well. Libraries also play a very important role in the development of VREs since they are instrumental in the data and resource management. This is likely to affect both the practices of librarians, and the research practices and processes they are supporting.
  • Institutions investing in VREs are motivated by their pursuit of research excellence. However, the model for the VRE needs to be driven by researchers rather than being imposed by the institution.
  • A major shift in research practices will occur through the formation of common vocabularies as researchers collaborate with others across disciplinary, institutional and national boundaries. This will occur through, for example, the production of common taxonomies, data standards and metadata. Semantic web approaches are seen as helpful in this context.
  • It is extremely important that all stakeholders in the development of VREs come together to promote a set of policies and legal frameworks that will allow sharing of data and other resources in a transparent and comprehensible way.

Documents & Multimedia

Dr Annamaria Carusi, Dr Torsten Reimer
Publication Date
31 January 2010
Publication Type
Strategic Themes