Virtual research communities

This Issue This is a part of the Innovation and the future feature

By - , Build 109

Creating virtual research communities is one strategy that can increase the overall effectiveness of research, and BRANZ is assessing how these opportunities apply to the building sector.

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There is a growing international focus on bringing research communities together in an effort to increase the overall efficiency and effectiveness of research. Creating virtual research communities is one strategy that is being used, and BRANZ is assessing how such a strategy could make a significant contribution to inter-organisation communication and cooperation.

Attempts at creating virtual research communities range from international to local, and from technical to community-based communications. In any field of study, there would be benefits for the individual researcher and the organisation. There is the potential to improve research quality, timeliness and applicability. Such benefits would flow to the end-users of the research outcomes, and the virtual community may even be extended to include those who apply the research.

Current research inefficient

Because research is conducted by individuals, groups or organisations, communication with other researchers in the field often relies heavily on written publications, including journal papers, which may take years to be published, and intermittent conference attendance. This fragmented community environment can cause:

  • increased duplication
  • limited project sizes through lack of collaboration, cooperation and basic communication
  • lost opportunities to use research outputs and establish more robust research programmes through communication of ideas.

This collective inefficiency is widely recognised by both individuals and organisations across many fields of research.

Successful solutions

In response, different approaches have been trialled internationally with varying degrees of success. The attempted solutions range from large-scale technical data-sharing to smaller-scale community-building for connecting researchers.

Some examples of successful solutions include:

  • SPARC, a US government-backed data sharing community
  • CSI, a Japanese nationwide government-provided IT data-sharing infrastructure
  • NARCIS, a smaller-scale nationwide virtual community for the UK National Health System
  • NADE, a small-scale internally organised research-based virtual community without heavy IT involvement (USA and NZ)
  • KAREN, a New Zealand government-backed data-sharing infrastructure. There are current efforts to grow communities around the KAREN network.

Without user interest and participation, data-sharing databases lack current input and therefore usefulness, so the community needs to use the IT infrastructure of these networks.

Nothing has yet been applied in the fields of research in which BRANZ works. This provides an opportunity to assess the current situation in the building sector. Using proven collaboration tools and what we know about our research environment/researchers, we can look for more effective ways to communicate.

BRANZ project may design test

The BRANZ project aims to increase the efficiency of research through appropriate application and use of virtual research community frameworks.

There are four stages to the project plan. The first and current stage is a scoping study, designed to identify and assess key success factors from other successful virtual communities. Environmental challenges for initial test cases will be selected from BRANZ research fields. Results will provide recommendations for future direction.

If further research is identified, the recommendations will be used to design and implement a small-scale test case. Building on this experience, a larger-scale test case will be designed for an international research field in which BRANZ participates. This sample virtual community will be used to implement extensions of the community base. It will include people who use the research data and want to know what type of research is currently being undertaken.

Many benefits possible

The benefits of virtual/online research communities include the following:

  • Additional and more effective modes of communication between individual researchers and research organisations.
  • Improved time efficiency by facilitating: faster dissemination of research results; discussion of industry ‘hot topics’, incidents and current industry problems or questions about emerging research areas.
  • Easier access to senior international researchers (whose wealth of experience is difficult to preserve or make available to others on a large scale) that resembles the flavour of the communication between scientists and engineers at conferences.
  • Pathways for more efficient communication of ideas between individual researchers of current and recent research projects. This will lead to a better understanding of the current research environment that can be used when formulating project proposals and potential applications.

For more

This research has been funded by the Building Research Levy.

The findings of the initial scoping study will be presented in a BRANZ study report, to be published in January 2009.

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Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

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