Traditional research workflows are in flux with the introduction of new tools, approaches, and software into the way that research is conducted and disseminated. What stays the same is a need to communicate your work to others. All forms of research across disciplines communicate ideas and conclusions so that they may be built on by future scholars. Building on to work requires having enough information to understand how it was done. The increasing of use of new digital tools and methods means that truly understanding how a scholar came to a conclusion may be difficult to do. Providing context about the tools used in addition to source materials becomes more important as more digital tools are used. Whether this impacts a scholar who viewed a manuscript through a tool that removed a blemish on the page, a scholar who mistypes an Excel formula, or one who wrote a piece of software to accomplish a task but designed it specifically to run on their machine, sharing context helps future scholars understand why a conclusion was reached and contribute their own ideas more meaningfully.

This is all the more difficult because projects often have many collaborators, many different types of files, and many ways to work on, share, or save those files. This complexity poses challenges that can be hard to address. How we manage our files and workflows can have a major impact on the quality and usability of what we leave behind when a project is over. Imagine reading a paper but never being able to open the related data or see the working manuscript because the original materials that the author worked with no longer exist. What about if they do exist but you’re not sure exactly which version the author worked with, what tools they used, whether something else impacted their conclusions because their workflow is unclear. Worse yet, what if all of the work happened in proprietary software which, while necessary and relevant to use at the time, is no longer available. Not only is this a challenge within the scope of individual projects, it’s a challenge for whole disciplines where work is simply lost over time. 

Increasingly research communities are pushing back and recognizing the importance of openness in research workflows. With the rise of communities of practice that embrace open, reproducible, and replicable work across disciplines. Closed workflows that make use of proprietary tools and data formats may limit the number of people we can communicate our work to and make it more difficult for anyone to understand why we did things in the way that we did them in the future. While a proprietary tool might be the best tool for a job (for instance, a specialty scanner or a writing tool that your collaborators are familiar with) considering what happens when it ceases to exist can help buffer against future losses. Avoiding a worst case scenario in which work simply disappears can be as simple as a bit of planning around exporting backups into open formats or as complex as shifting your workflow to new, more sustainable, tools.

In the Open Software and Open Data modules in this unit, you will learn about best practices surrounding the use of open software to help buffer against this loss and around open data to ensure that core research artifacts are recorded and shared in meaningful ways. For now, though, we will consider the steps we take to complete research work. Small decisions such as the lack of a file-naming convention or the use of a proprietary tool without open backups can make it impossible to continue work even a few years down the line.

Dig Deeper

To learn more:

  • Armeni, K., Brinkman, L., Carlsson, R., Eerland, A., Fijten, R., Fondberg, R., … Zurita-Milla, R. (2020, October 6). Towards wide-scale adoption of open science practices: The role of open science communities. 10.31222/osf.io/7gct9
  • Bartling, S., & Friesike, S. (2014). Opening science: The evolving guide on how the internet is changing research, collaboration and scholarly publishing (p. 339). Springer Nature. http://book.openingscience.org.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/
  • Fenlon, K. (2019, September). Interactivity, Distributed Workflows, and Thick Provenance: A Review of Challenges Confronting Digital Humanities Research Objects. In 2019 15th International Conference on eScience (eScience) (pp. 510-513). IEEE. 10.5281/zenodo.3459770


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