A Virtual Research Environment (VRE) is a collection of tools and services to complement the activities of researchers and address their “pain points” in day to day activities. A VRE
should enhance the research process by facilitating collaboration among researchers and provide them a more effective means to work together. A VRE should be available as a service with minimal barriers to entry. Most of the technology comprising a VRE is evolutionary; it is the convergence of these technologies that is unique.
There are an increasing number of Virtual Research Environment projects and programs underway around the world as outlined in the recent report emanating from a JISC funded project[i]. As the report found, there has been “a great deal of activity over the past few years in terms of prototype and demonstration systems moving into the mainstream of research practice.” However, no VRE is ready for practical deployment on a large scale till date.
Research Information Centre Framework
Microsoft Research, being fully aware of the potential of VREs, has been developing a VRE framework called the RIC (Research Information Centre) based on Microsoft technologies in collaboration with the British Library since 2007. The RIC is a virtual research environment framework, offering an integrated suite of tools for collaboration, and for finding, creating, managing, sharing and disseminating all types of information associated with a research project. It provides a core set of functionalities supporting a research lifecycle organised around the four phases of idea discovery, funding, researching and dissemination. These functions can be used to build domain specific VREs into which additional modules can be added.
The RIC Framework is a collection of server-based tools that run on top of Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Server. While a SharePoint license is necessary to run it, the actual source
code for V1.0 has been released under an open source license and is available on Codeplex. The environment can be accessed through a web browser.
The RIC aims to reduce the time researchers spend on administrative tasks, to support collaborative research, provide easy access to relevant information, to facilitate networking and to help preserve not only project outcomes, but the whole process of research. A particular focus is to reduce inefficiencies in knowledge management over the research lifecycle by, for example, providing domain specific access to information, ensuring researchers are aware of relevant resources. Templates for projects can be created and specific project sites set up based on those templates. The RIC offers a range of features such as access control, workflows, sharing and annotation of resources, RSS feed integration, federated search over domain specific literature sources, full-text search over local resources, blogging, wikis, networking, creation of project groups and archiving of project sites.
The Research Information Centre Pilot at Trinity College Dublin
In 2009, Microsoft Research and Trinity College Dublin agreed to collaborate on a pilot project to develop and implement a working version of RIC suitable for humanities researchers to act as a ‘proof of concept’. The purpose of the pilot project was to build a VRE suitable for humanities researchers at Trinity College Dublin, and in parallel to make recommendations on the future development of a Humanities VRE in Trinity College Dublin. This was a collaborative venture between Trinity College Dublin, Softedge (Irish SME) and Microsoft Research involving the extension of proven technologies to bring together existing collaboration, communication, search and social networking technologies into a single coherent framework. The VRE was created by enhancing the core Microsoft Research Information Centre (RIC) 1.0 framework for use by humanities researchers[ii].
The focus of the Trinity College Dublin pilot project was on the idea discovery and research phases of the research lifecycle within the humanities domain.
Exciting opportunities exist to expand the VRE to cover all areas of the research lifecycle, for example, research planning and administration, scholarly communication, data management, and data preservation, and to integrate the VRE with other college systems already supporting these areas, for example the Research Support System and the Institutional Repository.
The RIC Development Community
A RIC development community has been established which has as one of its aims the gaining of a better understanding of how VREs can support future research. A forum for sharing information has been established on LinkedIn and user community workshops regularly take place at the British Library or at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. The community participants include Oxford, Southampton, Kings’ College, Trinity College Dublin, Leiden (Denmark), La Trobe (Australia) etc.
The RIC 2.0 Beta Toolkit is undergoing final testing, and will be available for download by June-end 2011. RIC 2.0 is built on top of SharePoint® 2010, which is a proven collaboration platform from Microsoft. RIC 2.0 is free; however a licensed SharePoint 2010 installation is required to deploy it. The source code will also be available under an open source license for free download from CodePlex.
The core tools of Version 2.0 of the RIC Framework have been developed by Softedge in collaboration with the British Library and Microsoft Research. Invest NI has provided financial support for this effort. A number of other institutions are actively developing additional tools for the RIC V2.0.
La Trobe University, Australia is working with Softedge to deploy RIC 2.0 in time for the next academic year.
Considering the significant effort that has been put into it by the community, the RIC is now ready as a practical VRE that can be deployed easily by any research institution.