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Internet and personal contacts in research activities: complement or substitute?

Teodora Erika Uberti, DISEIS, Department of International, Institutional and Development Economics, Faculty of Political Sciences, Università Cattolica del S. Cuore, Milan, Italy. erika.uberti @ unicatt.it

The diffusion of the Internet and its virtual interface, the world wide web (web), revolutionized the way to exchange information and communicate across the world.

Lyman and Varian (2003) estimated that, in 2002, the content of the web was equal to about 170 terabytes: 17 times that available at the US Library of Congress; and roughly 63 million emails circulate per day.

The diffusion of these technologies have positively affected the exchange of information and communication because transmission costs have dropped tremendously, making the globe a “small world” where geographical distance is less significant and international collaborations are easier. Therefore denser and global academic, organisational and institutional networks can be continuously created.

The aim of this work is twofold. The first aim is to detect the role played by new technologies in improving the density of collaborative networks; the second is to focus on the substitutability and/or complementarity of these new technological contacts and old personal contacts.

Firstly it is crucial to find mechanisms to detect technological diffusion. The easiest way is to use the attributive features and relational structure of the web. A model derived from economics will be used. The web is a virtual space where information and digital contents are available on web pages, linked together through Internet hyperlinks (links). Therefore, because of their directional nature, links may capture aspects of the structure of the digital information market and its contents. In particular outgoing links may reflect the demand, or importing, of information by a domain (at a lower domain level are enterprises, universities, institutions; at a top level domain are countries); incoming links may be a proxy of supply, or exporting, of information from a domain; intra-domain links may reflect the capacity to create an internal information market. Links may be useful as indicators but can be subjected to some criticism.

Inserting a new link in a web page is quite easy because it takes only few minutes and is quite cheap, hence you can add as many links as you like; it is difficult to detect if a link is really clicked on and information is actually imported; online link analysis surveys are limited to the amount of information available to the search engine used for raw data; and organisations and institutions (within the same country and/or across countries) organise their web space differently, hence huge dissimilarities can emerge. Therefore links are problematic for webometrics analyses.

It is important to further stress some points.

First of all the detection of link presence is important information, even if this represents only the potential use of a link.

Second, although adding a link does not cost anything, there exists a “virtual budget constraint” that stops most web designers from inserting an enormous number of links, as stressed in web design textbooks (Lynch and Horton, 2002).

Third, link analysis surveys limit the search to the space detected by the search engine used, but once sample of web sites has been identified, it should be possible to check the existing links by sending questionnaires to web masters or using appropriate software to perform these checks (e.g. Teleport Pro).

Finally, the differences in web design and link presence characterise the web heterogeneity of categories of sites (i.e. academic versus commercial sites; chambers of commerce versus local authorities sites) (Pennock et al., 2002; Uberti –Maggioni, 2004) which may allow additional information to be extracted from links.

Another way to assess collaboration across the globe could be the detection of email flows, focusing on emails characterised by the presence of attached files (which may indicate the exchange of codified knowledge). Unfortunately this detection is limited by privacy problems, and if these data are available they are mostly limited to a limited sample of users (i.e. within an organisation).

To conclude it should be interesting to investigate the substitution and/or complementary effect of “new” technological contacts and “old” personal contacts to create new collaborative networks and to maintain new ones.

Does the web really change the picture of collaborative networks removing all geographic, economic and cultural obstacles, and can we use web links to assess this?

References

Cioleck, M. T. (2002) Targets of Electronic Attention in Asia: who watches whom in the cyberspace? An explanatory study, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the National Institute for Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University of Canberra, on line http://www.ciolek.com/PAPERS/electronic-attention2002.html .

Lyman P – Varian H. R., (2003), How much information? 2003, http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/.

Lynch, P. J. & Horton, S. (2002) Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites, Second Edition, on line http://www.webstyleguide.com/ .

Pennock, D. M., Flake, G.W., Lawrence, S. et al. (2002) Winners don’t take all: Characterizing the competition for links on the web, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Scinces, vol. 99, n. 8, pp. 5207-5211.

Thelwall, M. & Smith, A. (2002) Interlinking between Asia-Pacific University Web sites, in Scientometrics, Vol. 55, n. 3, pp. 335–348.

Uberti T. E. – Maggioni M. A., (2004), Infrastrutture ICT e relazionalità potenziale. Un esercizio di “hyperlinks counting” a livello sub-nazionale, Quaderno DISEIS n. 0402, Università Cattolica del sacro Cuore, Milano, Vita e Pensiero.