eResearch in an international information environment: developments, challenges and responses


The application of diverse eResearch infrastructures to support research has a long history. During the 1970s, the genesis of eResearch in the shape of the Internet was driven by the research community’s needs. In this latest stage of eResearch infrastructure development, also primarily driven by the needs of the research, we are witnessing large-scale investments in grids, clouds, federated repositories, and high-end eScience and eResearch projects to support research across institutional, regional, and disciplinary boundaries. But as eResearch expands, there is an increasing need to address the tricky questions of governance. eResearch does not exist in a free-flowing world of ideas; instead, like all infrastructures, it exists in a complex, contested, and often contradictory world of varied manifestations of governance. As we will argue, the power of any system has rarely been brought about in a planned and orderly manner; instead, it is usually brought about by a crisis in a system and a contested set of attributes that have forced the extension of governance. As existing capacities meet limits, new approaches to management are invented and deployed to overcome the barriers. eResearch exists in a complex array of governing bodies. Without a realistic grounding of its technical vision within the limits of these structures, new infrastructural developments to support eScience or eResearch, or even the Digital Humanities will be hindered by institutional divergence.

1. The evolution of eResearch

The computing transformation and the infrastructure supporting it have yet to be planned. Instead, it has evolved. At the end of the 1970s, few understood that a computer on the desk would be helpful to anyone other than a scientist (let alone a digital humanist). Then came the applications: word processors evolved into authoring tools; spreadsheets made accessible numerical modelling, simulation, and charting; scanners, digital cameras and photo software opened up the means of a movie director; music software and digital synthesisers turned our computers into recording studios and the Internet-connected our computers as entry points to a global digital library and electronic mail system. In past decades, eInfrastructure or, more recently, research and its applications have helped reshape how businesses, universities, and governments operate and even how we socialise with others  Much more than at any time in the past. We can now see ourselves as members of a local and national community and, in various senses, members of epistemic, cultural, and economic communities worldwide.[1]

The Internet represents the most dramatic and visible outcome of the multiple developments we could now term research. Initiated in the 1960s by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central motivation was to develop a communication system that would be robust in the face of nuclear war.  The key was to create a method of addressing and routing packets of information between computers from receiver to sender by any possible route.

The Internet has passed through several stages of evolution; at the beginning of the 1970s, the concept was proved in the development of ARPANET, a communication network capable of carrying email. This killer application dominated its use for many years, along with various early forms of bulletin boards. But the benefits of such a network were far from exhausted. Designed from the beginning as a super net, the Internet infrastructure was to be comprised of a network of multiple networks. Construction began by combining APRPANET-style networks but grew to include satellite, ground-based radio and other communication systems.[2] The networks were connected by devices, which came to be called gateways and routers.

Key to the Internet operation was developing and adopting the set of international standards known as the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).[3] These allowed data to be broken into information packets, forwarded to their destination and reassembled. Using these standards, data losses along the way could be identified at the goal, and the lost data could be retransmitted.

The Internet was designed as a general communication system rather than being shaped around any method, disciplinary practice or program.  The packets of information could be sent as far as the growing network of interconnections permitted.  They could be shaped into emails. But they could also be shaped into voice communication, pictures, and other applications without upsetting the basic infrastructure.

A wide variety of applications were developed and tried within the Internet.   But a significant leap in accessibility and useability occurred when various of these were brought together within the framework known as the World Wide Web. Although elements of the web had been suggested before, a developed research proposal was first advanced by a single innovator in 1989, Tim Berners Lee.[4] He proposed a way of efficiently sharing information across a dispersed institution.[5] This proposal anticipated the critical features of the web: standards for representing information, allowing words and other items to be linked, not just on one computer, but across a network. These standards later became the basis for web servers, hypertext markup language (HTML) and the Universal Resource Locator (URL), a formula for its extraordinarily rapid adoption.

The adoption of the Internet infrastructure through applications such as the Web has been nothing less than spectacular, and it is essential to consider what may lie behind this rapid uptake. It is not only the technical characteristics that shape the types of information that can be transmitted through it but also the cultural characteristics of the interests and institutions this information serves.

Some of the cultural conditions which have opened the way for rapid development include the collapse of the Cold War and the Soviet Union allowing free flows of trade, information and finances across the globe; the corresponding strength and success of the free-trade movement; the development of consumer acceptance and demand for information commodities, which have further accelerated the supply and demand for information.

2. Laying the foundations of eResearch

eResearch can crudely be understood as a network composed of three layers: the physical layer (forming the base), the code layer (above), and the content layer (above that).[6]  The physical layer (i.e. the Internet) comprises a set of communication devices networked together.   These comprise computers and their communication links, mediated by routers and servers, which direct traffic from one computer to another. The core layer comprises the computer software, enabling this physical layer to be utilised for various evolving purposes.  It is often referred to as middleware, the software that connects the applications and components to allow multiple applications across a network. The content layer covers all the information transmitted using these other two layers.

Each of these layers can be international in scale and evolve through the collaborative and competitive efforts of those working at this level. The most flexible is the content layer, which has proved extraordinarily versatile in inventing new ways of packaging, processing and interpreting information. Each of these layers is also built upon and limited by the international standards and governance requirements for it to operate.

The success of eResearch must be understood in terms of its technical versatility and capacity to allow dispersed collaboration and by the interests which engage with it. As with numerous technologies, institutions which need them have developed in parallel with them, each facilitating the evolution and growth of the other.

eResearch, especially in a university context, usually consists of open systems, symmetrically useable by all participants. But even to the extent that this is true, these qualities are by no means fixed or predetermined as their capacities are open to widely different development directions. For instance, the Internet has never been a socially undifferentiated or equal communication system; instead, its capacities permit and privilege some particular forms of communication and obstruct or undermine others.   It may thus be expected that there is a relationship between the roles of significant players in influencing the development of eResearch along lines which accord with their particular interests. These interests, not infrequently conflicting, are often expressed from the view of commerce, universities, national governments, civil society and the international treaties and legislation/s which bind them. These interests intersect and contest the technical attributes of eResearch not only at the hardware and code levels but also about what is offered at the content level.

A central value of eResearch is that it is international, cutting across state and jurisdictional boundaries. This enables information to move without hindrance, but many governments and governance bodies see unfettered data freedom as a threat. Amongst these concerns are cultural and religious ones associated with issues such as the depiction of women, the lack of capacity to tax revenues, and the availability of information that undermines government assertions and policies.  The ability of eResearch to be controlled by governments is thus a vexing issue that will hinder further significant scale investment in systems that cross national boundaries.

For example, government, military and intelligence agencies have several needs very different from those of the research community (and have caused conflict from the first days of the Internet). Secure information has long been essential to protect sensitive communications in the military. Indeed, the modern electronic computer has its genesis from wartime research to decrypt enemy encrypted communications. Likewise, governments and the military need to spy on their citizens, especially in the UK and the USA. The so-called war on terror created a permissive environment where all forms of electronic communication are monitored, including those from the research community. Specific legislation has included the US Patriot Act and the Pentagon’s contested attempt to set up the Total Information Awareness Office, the UK Crime and Security Act and the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Treaty.[7]

Governments have expressed a desire for effective surveillance; this conflicts with the desire by corporate players to maintain communication for their sensitive financial transactions, secure from commercial eavesdropping by competitors. The desire for this privacy has been reflected in many national jurisdictions, and most have enacted some forms of privacy protection legislation. However, these types of protections are undermined by pressures from diverse sources. Governments want to know more about what their citizens do and say. Corporations like Google and Amazon want to know more about their markets to reach consumers and sell them goods and information crafted to their desire. Civil Society groups want to make various databases and communications of commercial and government organisations more transparent to create greater accountability, and academics and researchers wish to open source eResearch that facilitates collaboration and the free flow of ideas.

In large part, universities and research institutions enjoy considerable public funding and can thus pursue the free exchange of ideas and critical thought to advance knowledge. To a growing extent, this may be undermined by the increasing privatisation of research. The emphasis on ownership and commercialisation of the products of research, the value of eResearch as an open, transparent forum for ideas, essentially symmetric in the relations between author and user, is firmly held by a significant network of researchers. The contest over how eResearch should operate thus primarily depends on organisational interests and their shared values and ideals with other organisations.

3.  The evolving governance of eResearch

eResearch, including the Internet, is an arena in which governments, commercial organisations, and universities contest over the types of interactions and available resources. Whilst many contested features are of considerable value to universities, no single university or governance structure has the formal authority to dictate the contest’s outcome.   For this reason, it has become essential that the evolution of eResearch be governed, and given the increasing centrality of eResearch to the way universities and other public organisations operate, the operation of this governance and its accountability are of increasing importance.

For instance, Internet governance has developed through a mixture of decisions and authority by innovators present at crucial moments of its development and by the challenges and responses between contesting interests. Tensions have developed around the content it allows and the technical standards facilitating this. The technical standards require high-level international coordination, whilst content can usually be governed locally. The Internet’s fundamental architecture must be centrally managed to some degree, as it relies upon a coherent set of standards. These standards make it easier to find something online, and it would be easier for people at distant geographical locales to communicate with one another.

One of the most essential features of the Internet is its global reach. Still, it only achieves this through technical standards maintained and advanced by various standards bodies and treaties between countries. Most countries have vested interests in maintaining the Internet’s international status, so they are willing to support and contribute to forums where these standards are discussed. However, other countries, most notably China, perceive a political threat from a global Internet, so they are less willing to benefit from and adhere to this particular feature.

ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is the major player in governing the Internet’s infrastructure. ICANN’s headquarters in California is a non-profit company created in 1998 to oversee several Internet-related tasks we previously performed. Government. The functions of ICANN include managing the assignment of Domain Names and IP addresses.

A core standard of the Internet is its Domain Name System (DNS), which acts like the Internet directory, linking computer addresses based on words (such as and numeric Internet Protocol addresses (which can be handled by the underlying hardware layer). The IP Addresses thus act like telephone numbers for a computer, allowing them to contact each other.

Historically, ICANN has been dominated by the US, which gave birth to the Internet. Whilst the DNS system is administered by ICANN, the control of the basic technical infrastructure is even more tightly confined. 13 root DNS servers worldwide hold all the Internet addresses, and nearly all of them are in the United States (although there are servers in Europe and Asia). In 2005, a battle erupted over who should control the bare root servers; the US was adamant that it would keep the crucial role in the network it helped to create, but other countries wanted more control. [8] The EU warned that if a deal on governance could not be reached, the Internet could fall apart. The US, however, remained intransigent and proclaimed that it would maintain control of the computers because of growing security threats.

There have been efforts in the past to make ICANN a bottom-up, consensus-driven and democratic institution, but these have failed. ICAAN did experiment with a structure to allow broad-based input from the broader public. Still, the attempt to use the Internet to allow a vote by the large constituency in the elections of ICAAN board members was considered a failure because only a tiny per cent of the potential voters participated.[9] Many argue that ICAAN is now in control by a few special interests.

Thus, the development of eResearch infrastructure on the international stage is shaped by two areas of innovation.   The first is primarily technical, building a greater capacity to transmit, receive and process information, but the second is predominantly social and deeply linked to innovation in governance.   It is the standardisation process and is so common that it is frequently overlooked. The development of the infrastructure to transport physical goods provides another familiar illustration.

In the quarter century following the Second World War, significant economic expansion was supported by a vast increase in transported goods. [10] Although the individual modes of transport, trucks, trains, ships and aeroplanes, increased in size and efficiency, a bottleneck was created at every point they were loaded or unloaded. Goods must be loaded onto road or rail vehicles, transported and emptied, loaded onto ships or planes, and opened again.

Each of these processes was time-consuming and laborious. The solution was to enclose the goods in containers of standard dimensions, which the crane could mechanically transfer from one mode of transport to another. The establishment of the standard ISO TC104 was reached and promulgated by the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO). This act of governance provided the social organisation necessary for the bottlenecks to be overcome and the confidence for the large-scale investment to be made in the transport infrastructure.[11]

It should be noted that when we talk of standards, we are not restricting our attention to measures which have come about through some formal legislative governance process. Actions, such as those which characterise language use, may evolve through a process more akin to the adoption of fashions than that of legislation.  Standards may develop in several ways to be brought to a greater level of clarity, certainty and breadth of acceptance through a formal governance process which may then unleash the capacity for rapid improvements in efficiencies.

However, the process of standardisation is not without its cultural costs.   It tends to sweep diversity aside and, in this way, can undermine a long history of cultural richness, customs and skills. But it is also true that the development process, including using eResearch for research and other purposes, has been an essential standardisation process. Whether imposed centrally and formally or through a decentralised approach, where the standards cease to be adhered to, the organisation and successful operation of any infrastructure are profoundly undermined.

4. Governance and accountability

For governance to be enduring, legitimate and in the long-term effective, it must be accountable.   However, given that there is a lack of governance structure to shape coming eResearch investments, the likelihood that the complex interactions that shape it will be transparent and accountable is unlikely.

The above is evident in many aspects of Internet development. Nevertheless, it is also true that accountability in technical systems has been conceived of differently than traditional forms of governance. To make the point, we return to the basic standards upon which the Internet was constructed.   We recall that these standards determine crucial questions, such as whether users can be identified when they log on, whether there is symmetry between the capacity of individuals and large institutions to mount commercial transactions, and whether new reliable systems can engage with and modify data.

The decisions about these issues reflect the history of the development of the Internet, which has, to a large extent, been via a technical community which tended to operate within the particular norms of university researchers.   For this reason, the fundamental decisions managed to place a value on the development of features which facilitate open collaboration.

Consistent with this, the dominant form of development has been through open standards regarding the code or software layer of the Internet. For example, the web is built on open standards, such as HTML/XHTML (set by WC3) and TCP/IP. The basic concept is that an open bar will be selected by a process where the debates over the ongoing development of the standard are not controlled by one single company or enterprise but are managed on a non-profit basis by a non-profit organisation. Decision-making follows a consensus or majority process once the standard has been published and made freely available. Use of the bar is required to be royalty-free.

The above approach forms the basis for many of the working processes of international standards institutions.  This means there is considerable openness to those technically capable of contributing to the discussions of Internet features and its standards. Nevertheless, it does mean that the general public has little influence upon the available directions in which this increasingly vital eResearch is developing.

Despite its global image, the Internet is not a level playing field, and access is not evenly distributed amongst nations, communities, and sectors of research communities. For example, The US is the country that continues to invest the most heavily in the Internet infrastructure and is the country that has the most to gain by it being a global medium. Many of the leading brands on the Internet, their applications, and innovations in their processes come from the US, so it is perhaps not surprising that we heavily influence many emerging governance structures. The nature of the US economy, primarily based upon intangible goods produced by its massive service sector, means that the Internet is a medium more suited to the American economy than any other.

The World Summit of the Information Society was the leading international forum that sought to open governance discussions to a broader constituency. Representatives from universities and research agencies, government, corporations, and civil society participated during the preparatory processes leading up to the Summit.  In these processes, an effort was made to prioritise relevant areas of governance pertinent to the development of the Internet.   Not all the recommendations were taken forward, and some were addressed through international consultations coordinated by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).[12]

At best, the WGIG and the WIS represented a new forum in which old battles were fought about a new medium. In this case, the old wars were about equity: the implications for the developing world of inequitable access to the latest information resources and the desire for more accountable control of their development. For this reason, WGIG recommendations have been hostile to the continuing role of ICANN and call for an International Internet Council or a Global Internet Council (GIC).   However, so far, with the strong support of the US, ICANN has survived this threat.

5. Conclusions: emerging implications for eResearch infrastructures and governance

What can we learn from the historic expansion of the Internet to help direct the newer forms of high-capacity eResearch to facilitate research and other interactions that cut across institutional and national boundaries? The contest over technical attributes and other contested interests grows as these systems grow. The critical issue is that if the benefits of cross-institutional collaboration are to be realised as” a central tenet of the eScience and eResearch agenda, ” the tensions over the contested attributes must be managed.   This depends upon the effectiveness of the cooperation between countries, commercial interests, and universities and the ability of governance systems to evolve to address the tensions between these interests. This depends on the extent to which there is agreement on the need to subject intuitional independence to the broader requirements of common standards. Many present governance systems are reaching their limits, and current arrangements will not suffice for the longer term.

The evolution of governance may not involve simply the rise of a single tower of government but rather may be a more complex process, including developing various larger-scale institutions in conjunction with developing a broad spectrum of agreements, principles and practices involving the institutions that seek to collaborate. In this sense, the emergence of a culture of cooperation may be an essential precursor to developing more effective eResearch systems.

Governance systems have evolved in response to growth in a design or a crisis within the system. As government structures reach their limits, new forms of governance have developed in response to change or crisis within these systems. The nation itself was, in part, a product of crisis and innovation in political communication that allowed the expansion of modern governance across vast territories.[13] The rise of mass constituencies, political parties, and modern forms of campaigning were all assisted by technical innovation and growth in communication systems. Likewise, the increase in high-capacity eResearch systems also facilitates the increase in new research cultures, constituencies, challenges and governance opportunities. Investments in eResearch systems, such as institutional repositories within our universities, will not only be shaped by these institutions but will shape the institutions themselves and the options available.

It is clear enough that governance is intrinsically shaped by access to information.   It is easy to suppose that the higher speed, higher quality, and higher volumes of information carried through eResearch infrastructures must produce a qualitative change in governance. From the point of view of governance, an increasing information flow is a two-edged sword.   The two faces of governance, management, and accountability of more densely interconnected institutions operating at ever greater scales and depths of complexity demand ever more significant amounts of information. But at the same time, the availability of that information creates the need for ever more filtering and analysing of it. Whilst governments and corporations may have the resources to manage the data deluge, members of the general public and many research academics do not.

The developments in eResearch that we have discussed here, currently exemplified by the Internet, are still relatively early.   The potential for interconnected cultural and technical transformation is thus also at an early stage. Nevertheless, the development of eResearch infrastructures casts into relief a series of emerging tensions and actions. As eResearch steadily migrates to ever higher capacity networks, new pressures and opportunities for governance develop. To summarise:

  • A new generation of high-capacity eResearch, eScience and ‘cyber-infrastructure’ collaborative infrastructures will introduce dramatic new challenges for policymakers and regulators nationally and internationally.
  • There is a need to develop an overall and enduring architecture based on national policy, legal and regulatory initiatives, inter-institutional collaboration, and capacity building.
  • The uses of this communication network will evolve and become more prosperous with new technologies and new standards
  • These networks are likely to become the critical space for institutional and international organisations supported by face-to-face meetings
  • This is true for universities, the market, governments, and civil society.
  • The space will have new attributes
  • Old battles will be fought in new ways.
  • New battles will be fought in old ways
  • To manage this, a new governance structure will appear that will use the new infrastructure to make new options for themselves.


  1. Bimber, Bruce, Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power, Cambridge University Press, New Your, 2002.
  2. Bush, Vannavar ‘As We May Think’ The Atlantic Monthly; July 1945; Volume 176, No. 1; 101-108.
  3. Castells, Manuel The Rise of Network Society, Blackwell Publishers, New York, 1996
  4. Edwards, P.N., Jackson, S.J. Bowker, G.C. and Knobel, C.P. Understanding Infrastructures: Dynamics, Tensions, and Design. Report of a Workshop on “History and Theory of Infrastructure: Lessons for New Scientific Cyberinfrastructures, National Science Foundation, 2007.
  5. Egyedi, T.M., Infrastructure Flexibility created by Standardised Gateways: the Cases of XML and the ISO Container, Knowledge, Technology and Policy 14(3) pp.41-54 (2001).
  6. Hobsbawm, Eric, Age of extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London, 1994.
  7. Mueller, Milton L, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002.
  8. Nelson, Theodore H. A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Intermediate Proceedings, Association for Computing Machinery, 1965.

[1] See Manuel Castells, The Rise of Network Society, Blackwell Publishers, New York, 1996.

[2] See, for example, N14/7/5-1

[3] Initially developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland. CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and the web was designed to meet the demand for automatic information sharing between scientists working in different universities and institutes worldwide. CERN (Accessed 15 October 2007).

[4] Prior relevant contributions included that of Vannavar  Bush, As We May Think™ The Atlantic Monthly; July 1945; Volume 176, No. 1; 101-108  and Theodore H Nelson, A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Intermediate Proceedings, Association for Computing Machinery, 1965.

[5] G10/8/5-1

[6] Lessig p. 3 fn ten cited in Caral  G30/11/4-6

[7] G22.12/4-6 p. 515

[8] Milton L Mueller, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002.

[9] See ICANN Membership Advisory Committee Commentary on the Principles of the At-large Membership (Accessed 15 October 2007).

[10] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London, 1994.

[11] TM Egyedi Infrastructure Flexibility created by Standardised Gateways: the Cases of XML and the ISO Container, Knowledge, Technology and Policy 14(3) pp.41-54 (2001).

[12] However, despite the broad mandate, many viewed the outcomes from the WSIS as disappointing, even in terms of the limited expectations that the more pragmatic observers had for the event.

Working Group on Internet Governance (Accessed 15 October, 2011).

[13] Bruce Bimber, Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power, Cambridge University Press, New Your, 2002.



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