About the Book

Virtual Knowledge

Edited by Paul Wouters, Anne Beaulieu, Andrea Scharnhorst and Sally Wyatt

The long-established hierarchies and practices of scholarly knowledge production are undergoing change, challenged from within and also by broader social developments. Over the past 50 years, universities have become accessible to a wider range of people and many new (inter)disciplines have emerged. National and international science and other policy makers have played an increasingly important role in steering and evaluating academic output in both teaching and research. They have also been engaged in promoting particular forms of work organization, by investing in research infrastructures and by encouraging large scale collaboration often on an interdisciplinary and/or international basis. A wider range of social actors, including for-profit corporations as well as civil society organizations, are no longer simply the passive recipients of knowledge produced elsewhere but are increasingly active in its production.

Digital technologies have a role to play in all of these processes, including the facilitation of collaboration, monitoring and evaluation as well as communication of results both within the scientific community as well as to wider audiences. The implications of digitization, globalization and commercialization for the natural sciences and engineering have already received a great deal of attention in the literature. The proposed volume starts from the observation that the social sciences and humanities (SSH) are also undergoing profound changes that bring to the fore the very notion of knowledge. Digital technologies provide a useful probe enabling a deeper understanding of the processes affecting SSH. This is not to suggest that these processes are reducible to technology (which certainly is the suggestion by some policy actors) but rather that analysis of the use of technology offers a way into understanding how traditional locations, hierarchies and processes of knowledge production in the SSH are being disrupted.

Contributors to this volume analyze changing work practices of scholars, involvement of new actors in new locations, development and use of new forms of representation, new and hybrid forms of data, as well as the content of research itself. The chapters do not simply report on individual research projects conducted at the VKS over the past years but rather integrate and develop themes that have emerged across projects and other research activities.

Related Publications

A small number of collections and monographs on related topics have been published. Virtual Knowledge critically addresses the conditions of contemporary knowledge production from a science and technology studies (STS) perspective.

The volume New Infrastructures for Knowledge Production: Understanding E-science (2006, Idea Group), edited by Christine Hine, focuses on studies of infrastructures and on the challenges to implementation of e-science. Virtual Knowledge takes knowledge production as a starting point and considers both continuity and change in relation to e-research.

The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (2008, MIT Press) contains related work by the authors and editors of Virtual Knowledge. Not only is the material in Virtual Knowledge expanded, the themes and discussions are updated and informed by five years of research.

Other volumes focus on infrastructures and specific platforms associated with e-science. From information science, Christine Borgmans’s Scholarship in the Digital Age; Information, Infrastructure and the Internet (2007, MIT Press) focuses on the challenges to information management encountered by librarians and other professionals and institutions. The collection edited by Dutton and Jeffreys, World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities (2010 MIT Press) largely take technological platforms as starting points and has ‘foundational’ aspirations, seeking to document the beginning of a new era of research and to present best practices. Another collection, E-Research: Transformation in Scholarly Practice (2009, Routledge), edited by Nicholas Jankowski (one of the contributors to this volume), considers the ‘emergence of e-science’, providing case studies from a variety of social science perspectives.

In contrast to these publications, Virtual Knowledge takes science and technology studies as a framework and turns a critical gaze to e-science and e-research as phenomena and mode of research. Furthermore, each chapter is theoretically-informed and empirically grounded, so that each addresses a key issue in the current transformations of research, through careful conceptualization and empirical discussion of these transformations. As such, the various contributions are not isolated case studies, but substantive discussions of each issue.

This book is therefore designed as a series of chapters that examine distinct issues, while being integrated into an overarching discussion. This discussion was pursued through interaction between the authors in the course of preparation of the book and is framed by the introduction. While the individual chapters can stand on their own and be used for teaching purposes, the book as a whole has the strengths of a coherent monograph.