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E-arts and E-minds

- a role for E-research in the arts and humanities?

Dr William Kilbride, Assistant Director, Archaeology Data Service, Dept of Archaeology, University of York

It's hard not to be impressed - and at times a little intimidated - by the relationship between innovative computing applications and cutting edge scientific research. It's often hard to know where one starts and the other stops. Famous examples, such as the serendipitous innovation of the world wide web, betray very many cases where necessity in one discipline has been the mother of invention for another. Viewed as a by-product of more serious endeavour, the Internet has rather more in common with Velcro and Teflon than the more familiar analogies of printing press or library.

The complicated interdependence of scientific research with innovative computing finds its most recent expression in 'E-science'. In formal terms E-science was a core programme of investment and development led by the Research Councils and supported by the government through the DTI and the Office for Science and Technology. At the heart of the programme was the identified need to support collaborative research through a distributed and global information architecture. The collaborative research finds expression in any number of virtual communities that are connected by shared research into grand challenges and with shared access to a complex and extensive information processing environment often referred as the Grid.

Astute readers will have noticed that these developments have tended to take place in the hard sciences. Although now more fashionably termed 'E-research' the leading proponents and test-bed applications are almost universally based in the positivist worlds of physics or chemistry rather than the interpretative world of critical hermeneutics. Arguably humanities researchers didn't need the Internet while the scientists were designing it, and so have been taken by surprise by the sudden ubiquity and have lacked the skills in depth to exploit it. More prosaically it could be argued that humanities research in the UK has only now come under the auspices of a research council and so humanities scholars have missed the opportunity afforded those in other sectors. Have we simply missed the boat or is there something inherent that inhibits humanities E-research?

It's easy to rehearse the structural problems. Humanities research is less likely to be collaborative than the sciences therefore less likely to require shared services; humanities research tends to be less well funded so finds it harder to buy expensive equipment or to retain highly qualified technical staff; humanities research places emphasis on periodicals and monographs as their principal outputs rather than technical processes or raw data.

Like all stereotypes, these arguments are only partially true. Humanities research has always been collaborative, even if the nature of the collaboration may be different. Although it is true that the humanities have less resource than other disciplines, many of these developments have taken place at an institutional level meaning the costs to individual scholars or departments are offset: moreover the humanities have a very good track record at presenting interesting case studies for technical research. Although RAE has concentrated minds on traditional outputs, it's clear that even the most traditional monographs and journals are changing rapidly.

More sophisticated objections emerge from the nature of humanities research. For example, very many tools developed on the semantic web take the subtleties of language for granted. The relationship between the dolphin and the whale can be expressed through traversing definitive nodes in a structured hierarchy; the relationship between colours can be expressed as a measurable wavelength; the actions of chemicals expressed as an equation. The relationships between Stalin and Ceausescu or Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are more difficult to describe and, depending on your perspective, the consequences of the French Revolution may not yet be fully apparent. Naming things is not so simple and their relationships are seldom so clear cut.

It's a moot point whether this is a challenge that E-research cannot resolve or an opportunity it can't afford to miss. One way or another, E-research is here to stay: it's time that the Arts and Humanities got involved.