Over the course of the next year Michael Schudson and I are facilitating a series of conversations on the current and desired state for curating knowledge in the social sciences under digital conditions. We define curation broadly and chose an active verb—curate—to highlight the set of decisions and actions starting with the first kindling of a research idea and research plan through its assessments, publication, circulation, archiving, and its reuse by others in the creation of new knowledge. The focus on digital conditions responds to and is intended to provide guidance for practices and policies that enable social scientists to deliver on the promise of research.
For scholars, students, publishers, librarians, and citizen enthusiasts there are many consequential changes of a digital nature that challenge and provide opportunities in the social sciences. We’ve focused our exploration on three domains of the production of social science knowledge in a time of ongoing digital transformation as they relate to:
• The research and writing process in social science
• The publishing and dissemination of social science research
• The stewardship of and access to existing and future forms of social science research
A distinguished group of scholars, information scientists, librarians, and researchers met in early May to discuss the first topic. Further blog posts and a detailed report with recommendations will be produced over the next year. My objective here is to provide an overview of our most recent and upcoming conversations, and invite you to share your own insights with the Social Science Research Council.
The discussion in May confirmed our assumption that changes in the very nature of information are profoundly impacting the means by which social scientists do their research. For the participants, information shifts were well understood to include the proliferation of big data (public and privately held), sensors that register human behavior in public and online environments, digital byproducts of non-research activities (e.g. administrative records, data used and left by social media users), and massive amounts of multimedia and digital sharing taking place every day. The new “normal” impacts how they do or do not become aware of digital resources, when and where they go to get the resources, the tools they use or create to conduct their research, other methodological shifts that disrupt or don’t easily translate between the physical and digital world, and the proposed emergence of a new cluster of sciences and engineering disciplines that are interconnected with well-established and developing disciplines, i.e. the emergence of whole new knowledge genres.
Our conversation touched on the institutional and industry changes that influence social science curation today. Changes highlighted by the attendees included the more networked iterative scholarship process, the changing role of deliberation and what this means for current standards of peer review, and the emergence of whole new sources of information. Research institutions (universities, policy institutes, nonprofit foundations) and private-sector research organizations remain the primary homes and providers of livelihood for social scientists–yet the composition of the faculty (tenure vs. non-tenure) and private-sector research jobs is changing. Peer review remains the fundamental process for evaluating the quality of scholarly work, yet questions remain about what type of work qualifies and for what purpose. Our upcoming conversations on publishing and dissemination and the stewardship of research will likely raise further questions about changes in institutions and industry.
The speed at which information travels, the networked nature of research, the explosion in data creation, and the resulting evolution of the institutions involved may be creating a new era of social science research. How best to achieve the ideal state is clearly a complex task with transformations occurring throughout. Our year will open up discussions with the aim of recommending standards, fellowships and grants for specific research topics, and other possible changes in what professional practice means. It forms part of a larger Digital Culture program at the SSRC and ideally will include your input as well.