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EthicShare: A Model for Virtual Research Communities

Free and open collaborative resource draws scholars from across disciplines

The proliferation of Web 2.0 social networking Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and even Flickr got some people thinking: Which scholarly disciplines need better ways of researching, collaborating, and communicating, and could a social networking model play a role?

"Bioethics and applied ethics scholars are very interdisciplinary in their work," said Kate McCready, EthicShare project director at the University of Minnesota, "The departments that most bioethics and applied scholars studied in and received degrees from don't have the same names as the departments where they now work. They came from philosophy, religious studies, medicine, public health, etc., but now work in 'bioethics.'"

The variances make it more difficult for these scholars, who are working in humanities, philosophy, theology, medicine, law, journalism, and more, to find each other and each other's work.

Those challenges were examined during a 2004 Scholarly Communication Institute symposium hosted at the Council on Library and Information Resources. Over the next couple of years that followed, researchers at the University of Minnesota Libraries began studying the behaviors and methodologies of humanities and social science scholars to identify gaps in the research process and conceptualize technological solutions. At the same time, a National Science Foundation-funded project (Helping Hands) involved computer scientists at the University of Minnesota exploring how to encourage participation in collaborative tools.

All these disparate efforts, the principal investigators of the project realized, were actually quite compatible, and each could contribute to creating something entirely new to serve this community. "Collaboration and interdisciplinary research are not only encouraged but sometimes mandated," said McCready, "but the time, the distance, and the funding required to do collaborative work are often daunting to scholars." A social networking model could close the gap and make resources more accessible to the research community.

"It is a field that was ripe for experimentation," said McCready.

The result is EthicShare, a virtual research community for bioethics scholars. Currently in the beta phase, it was designed for bioethics scholars, in a collaboration of the scholars themselves, librarians, and computer scientists. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation, EthicShare is a central location where these scholars can search electronic content (records for articles, books, news stories, etc.) and find new, easier ways to collaborate.

"We knew from talking to scholars that finding resources and materials was challenging because they were so dispersed throughout multiple databases, so we are pulling those into one repository to make multiple information types findable in one location," said McCready. "We knew consolidation of resources would be a major draw to the scholars, and we hoped that benefit would then ease them into the social features that allow them to find each other and form an online community of like-minded scholars interested in the same topics."

The repository feature is a hit, she said. It reduces the need for Bioethics scholars to search through multiple databases and modify searches to find different document types. EthicShare gives all the search results from scholarly medicine and scholarly philosophy journals, books, popular press items, and more. Then when the scholar decides to find the full text or access to a video, for example, EthicShare points back to their location at the scholar's home institution.

EthicShare has grown to 1,000 registered accounts in the beta phase since April, and because it was developed so closely with the community it serves the response has been positive, McCready indicated. The virtual research environment has great potential to solve the problems the scholars are facing.

There are, of course, challenges.

"The newness--asking someone to try a new tool after they have done things the same way for 20 years--can be daunting, so it needs to be truly compelling," said McCready. "It is also tricky to serve the humanities scholars. They tend to be more solitary in how they do their work and are less immersed in technology, especially social technology, so the features we offer are new to this community. This challenge will ease with future scholars, who may already adopt new technologies."

One of the unexpected developments of EthicShare is the types of users. "We not only have scholars, but 20 percent are practitioners in the field of medicine, then pastors, community members and teachers make up another 20 percent, so what we are doing is important to the general community as well."

She said graduate students and faculty are finding the content management aspect of EthicShare ideal for classroom work. Private or public communities can be formed, so, for example, a teacher can form a private community for a current course. Using EthicShare, they now have a space to have discussions around a body of literature. "These types of uses are where we believe we are unique and starting new conversations. We want to add more teaching materials and learning objects to support not only scholarly research but the teaching too."

Critical to the concept was building a virtual research community that was easily adoptable by other disciplines. There are plans to expand EthicShare later on to accommodate applied ethics scholars as well, but McCready said any other discipline in any department can use the platform for their field too. "We were very committed to open source software," she said. "We wanted to ensure that the platform could be a model that other scholarly fields could use, so that English scholars, for example, can create their own virtual research community using our platform."

EthicShare is freely available and open to all. Further information can be found here.

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