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


The application of diverse forms of eResearch infrastructures to support research has a long history. During the 1970s the genesis of eResearch in the shape of Internet was driven by the needs of the research community. In this latest stage of eResearch infrastructure development, also largely 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 exists in a free-flowing world of ideas, rather like all infrastructures, it exists in a complex, contested, and often contradictory world of varied manifestations of governance. As we will argue, the governance of any system has rarely been brought about in a planned and orderly manner; rather 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 governance are invented and deployed in the attempt to overcome the barriers. eResearch exists in a complex array of governing bodies and 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 transformation of computing and the infrastructure that supports it has not been planned. Rather it has evolved. At the end of the 1970s few understood that a computer on the desk would be of much use 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 tools 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 ‘eResearch’ and its applications have helped reshape the way business, universities and governments operate and even the way that we socialise with others.  Much more than in any time in the past, we now are able to see ourselves not just as members of a local and national community, but also in various senses, members of epistemic, cultural, and economic communities that cross the world.[1]

The Internet represents the most dramatic and visible outcome of the multiple developments that we could now some term ‘eResearch’. 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 to this 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 passing 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 uses for such a network were far from exhausted. Designed from the beginning as a sort of super net the Internet’s 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 operation of the Internet was the development and adoption of the set of international standards which became 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, losses of data along the way could be identified at the destination and a retransmission of the lost data could be triggered.

The Internet was designed from the start as a general communication system, rather than being shaped around any single system, 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 email. 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 major leap in accessibility and useability occurred when a range of these were brought together within the framework which became known as the World Wide Web. Although elements of the web had been suggested before; as a developed research proposal, it 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 key 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 mark-up language (HTML) and the Universal Resource Locator (URL); a formula for its extraordinarily rapid adoption.

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

Some of the cultural conditions which have opened the way for the 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), is composed of a set of communication devices networked together.  These comprise computers and the communication links between them, mediated by routers and servers which function to direct traffic from one computer to another.   The code layer comprises the computer software which enables this physical layer to be utilised for a range of evolving purposes.  It is often refereed to as ‘middleware’; being the software that connects the applications and software components together to allow multiple applications across a network. The content layer covers all the information which is transmitted by means of these other two layers.

Each of these layers can be international in scale and each of them is capable of evolving through the collaborative and competitive efforts of those working at this levels.  The most flexible is the content layer, which has proved to be extraordinarily versatile in terms of the capacity to invent new ways of packaging, processing and interpreting information.  Each of these layers is also to various degrees built upon and limited by the requirement for international standards and governance for it to operate.

The success of eResearch must be understood not only in terms of its technical versatility and capacity to allow dispersed collaboration, but also 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 possible directions of development. For instance, the Internet has never been a socially undifferentiated or ‘equal’ communication system; rather 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 in relation to the technical attributes of the eResearch not only at the hardware and code levels but also in relation to 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 largely without hindrance, but many governments and governance bodies see unfettered freedom of information 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 capacity of eResearch to be controlled by governments is thus a vexed issue which is sure to hinder further large scale investment in systems that cross national boundaries.

For example, government, military and intelligence agencies have a number of needs that are very different to those of the research community (and have caused conflict from the very first days of the Internet).  Secure information has long been important to protect sensitive communications amongst the military and indeed the modern electronic computer has its genesis from war time research to decrypt enemy encrypted communications. Likewise, governments and the military, especially in the UK and the USA, feel an increasing need to spy on their own citizens. 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]

Whilst 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 a diverse set of sources. Governments want to know more about what its citizens do and say. Corporations, such as Google and Amazon, want to know more about their markets to be able to reach consumers in order to 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 in order to create greater accountability, and academics and researchers what opensource 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 for the purposes of the advancement of knowledge. Whilst this may, to a growing extent, be undermined by the growing privatisation of research, and the emphasis on ownership and commercialisation of the products of research, the value of eResearch as an open, transparent forum for ideas, largely symmetric in the relations between author and user, is strongly held by a significant network of researchers. The contest over how the eResearch should operate thus largely depends on organisational interests and their shared values and ideals with other organisations

 3.  The evolving governance of eResearch

eResearch, that for the purposes here has included the Internet, is an arena in which governments, commercial organisations, and universities contest over the types of interactions and resources are available. Whilst there are many contested features which are of considerable value to universities, no single university or governance structure has the formal authority to dictate the outcome of the contest.  For this reason it has become important that the evolution of eResearch be governed, and given the increasing centrality of eResearch to the way universities and other public organisation 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 who were present at crucial moments of its development and by the challenges and response between contesting interests. Tensions have developed around the content that it allows and the technical standards facilitating this. The technical standards require high-level international coordination, whilst content can usually be governed at a local level. The basic architecture of the Internet needs to be centrally governed to some degree as it relies upon a coherent set of standards. Without these standards it would be difficult to find anything online and it would be difficult for people at distant geographical locales to communicate between one another.

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

The major player in terms of governing the infrastructure of the Internet is ICANN or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN has its headquarters in California and is a non-profit company that was created in 1998 to oversee a number of Internet-related tasks that were previously performed by the US. Government. The tasks of ICANN include managing the assignment of Domain Names and IP addresses.

A core standard of the Internet is its Domain Name System (DNS) that acts like the Internet’s directory making the link between 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. There are 13 root DNS servers around the world that hold all the Internet’s addresses and are 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 basic root servers; the US was adamant that it would keep the key 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, then the Internet could fall apart. The US however, remained intransigent and proclaimed that it will 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, but the attempt to use the Internet itself to allow a vote by the ‘at large’ constituency in the elections of ICAAN board members was considered a failure because only a very small percent 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 greater capacity to transmit, receive and process information, but the second is primarily social and deeply linked to innovation in governance.  It is the process of standardisation 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, there was great economic expansion supported by a vast increase in transported goods. [10] Although the individual modes of transport; trucks, trains, ships and, airplanes, increased in size and efficiency, a bottleneck was created at every point they were loaded or unloaded. Goods needed to be loaded onto road or rail vehicles, transported and unloaded and then loaded again onto ships or planes and then unloaded again.

Each of these processes was time-consuming and laborious. The solution was to enclose the goods in containers of standard dimensions which could be mechanically transferred by crane from one mode of transport to another. The establishment of the standard ISO TC104 was reached and promulgated by the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO).  It was this act of governance which 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 standards which have come about through some formal legislative governance process. Standards, 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 a number of 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.

But 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 process of development, including the use of eResearch for research and other purposes, has been an important process of standardisation. Whether imposed centrally and formally, or through a decentralised process, were the standards cease to be adhered to, the organisation and successful operation of any infrastructure is deeply 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 much lacking in terms of governance structure to shape coming eResearch investments, the likelihood that the complex interactions which shape it will be transparent and accountable is unlikely.

The above is clear in relation to many aspects of the development of the Internet. Nevertheless, it is also true that accountability in technical systems has been conceived of in a different way to traditional forms of governance. To make the point we return once again 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 logon, whether there is symmetry between the capacity of individuals and large institutions to mount commercial transactions, and whether the capacity is there for new reliable systems to engage with and modify data.

To some considerable extent the decisions about these issues reflects 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 basic decisions tended to place a value on the development of features which facilitate open collaboration.

Consistent with this, in terms of the code or software layer of the Internet, the dominant form of development has been through ‘open standards’. 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 standard will be set 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 standard is required to be royalty free.

The above approach forms the basis for many of the working processes of international standards institutions.  This means that there is considerable openness to those technically capable of contributing to the discussions of features of the Internet and its standards.   Nevertheless, it does mean that the general public has little influence upon the general 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’s 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, its applications, and innovations in its processes come from the US, so it is perhaps not surprising that many of the emerging governance structures are heavily influenced by the US. The nature of the US economy, which is primarily based upon ‘intangible’ goods produced by its massive service sector, means that the Internet is a medium more suited to the American economy perhaps than any other.

The World Summit of the Information Society was the main international forum that sought to open up discussions of governance 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 relevant to the development of the Internet.  Not all the recommendations were taken forward and some were addressed through a series of international consultations coordinated by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).[12]

At best, the WGIG and the WIS together represented a new forum in which old battles were fought out about a new medium.  In this case the old battles were about equity: the implications for the developing world of inequitable access to the new 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 calls 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? We can make the assumption that as these systems grow that the contest over technical attributes and other contested interests also grows. The key issue here is that if the benefits of cross-institutional collaboration are to be realised—a central tenet of the eScience and eResearch agenda—then the tensions over the contested attributes need to be managed.  This is dependent upon the effectiveness of the cooperation between countries, commercial interests, and universities, and the ability for governance systems to evolve to manage the tensions between these interests. This in turn depends on the extent to which there is agreement on the need to subject intuitional independence to the broader needs of common standards. Many of the 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 edifice of government but rather may be a more complex process including the development of various larger scale institutions in conjunction with the development of a wide 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 important precursor to the development of more effective eResearch systems.

Systems of governance have evolved in response to growth in a system or in response to a crisis within the system. As government structures reach their limits, new forms of governance have evolved in response to growth 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, the rise of political parties, and the rise of modern forms of campaigning were all assisted by technical innovation and growth in communication systems. Likewise, the rise of high-capacity eResearch systems also facilitates the rise of new research cultures, new constituencies, and new challenges and opportunities for governance. 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 to them.

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 be producing a qualitative change in how governance can be undertaken. From the point of view of governance, an increasing flow of information is itself 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 demands ever larger 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 at a relatively early stage.  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 developments. As eResearch steadily migrates to ever higher capacity networks, new tensions, 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 policy makers and regulators, both nationally and internationally.
  • There is a need to develop an overall and enduring architecture based on national policy, legal and regulatory initiatives, with inter-institutional collaboration, and capacity building.
  • The uses of this communication network will evolve and become richer with new technologies and new standards
  • These networks are likely to become the key space for institutional and international organisation 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, new governance structure will appear that will in turn 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. Hobsbawn, 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] Initial developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland. CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory and the web was developed ‘to meet the demand for automatic information sharing between scientists working in different universities and institutes all over the world’.  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 10 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 Hobsbawn, 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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