Proceedings of the AoIR-ASIST 2004 Workshop on Web Science Research Methods























An ethnographic approach to understanding scientific web use

Christine Hine, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK. c.hine @ surrey.ac.uk http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/christine_hine.htm

In this paper I will briefly outline an ethnographic approach to understanding scientific web use. This approach, I suggest, provides a way to explore both how the structures that we observe online arise, and what meaning they have for their creators and for the wider scientific community. It makes sense for an investigation like this to limit itself to a specific scientific discipline or area of research, since cultures and practices vary so widely between disciplines. The case study discussed in this paper is the area of biology known as systematics or taxonomy, concerned with the classification of living organisms and investigation of the relationships between them. Systematics has made increasing use of the web in recent years to make available nomenclatural databases and information on the extensive specimen collections held in museums and herbaria. Use of the Internet for informal communication has also become routine, and there have been discussions about the possible role of the Internet in formal publication. These developments have occurred against a backdrop of the increasing political significance of systematics on a global scale, and, of course, prevailing cultural discourses about the importance of digital information.

To understand these issues it is useful to explore the web, to find relevant initiatives, to examine the ways in which data is presented and made available, and to map emerging structures. This can, in itself, be an ethnographic approach. To find out how the patterns found online have come about, and what they might mean for the practice of systematics, it is also important to visit offline sites, talk with practicing systematists, and explore the wider literature of the field. By integrating online and offline ethnography in this way, it is possible both to do justice to the online setting as a field in its own right and find out how it forms a part of the ongoing practice of the discipline.

An ethnographic approach to understanding scientific web use, and particularly one which crosses the online/offline boundary, uncovers the following issues as key for understanding the patterns and significance of web use:

  • material culture. How do virtual objects and structures interact with, replace and augment the existing material culture of the discipline? What do participants understand as the role of virtual objects, and how are these incorporated into working practices?
  • communication practices. How does virtual communication add to, replace or challenge the established communication practices of the discipline? How are the formal properties of online communication negotiated in relation to the established scientific publishing system? How do informal online communications add to existing practices?
  • institutional and spatial arrangements. Do virtual structures map on to traditional institutional and spatial ways of organizing work in the field? Are new forms of collaboration arising? Are new opportunities for sharing data occurring, and what challenges is this seen to pose in terms of the need for standards and formal agreements? How far are online activities understood as covered by existing practices of sharing, trust and norms of behaviour.
  • political and public status of disciplines and technologies. How do developments in use of the web fit in with the political and funding climate which the discipline inhabits? How do general cultural expectations about digital technologies shape the ways in which they are used by scientific disciplines?