Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Virtual Research Environments: From portals to science gateways. Robert Allan. Chandos Publishing, Oxford, 2009. 266 pp. ISBN 978-7-84334-562-6. $85.00
This is a book about the nuts and bolts of systems for doing e-science. It describes what the author terms "virtual research environments" (VREs), which are web-based portals to various services, designed for use by scientific researchers. According to Allan, such portals should include access to data repositories and grid computation services, but also collaboration tools (including e-mail, Wikis, virtual meeting rooms, and more) for working with other researchers, tools for sharing data, and the ability to search for related information. The system might also include a desktop environment, all built with reusable, open-standard software. The VRE is envisioned as a "one-stop shop" for researchers looking for relevant data and information.
The first three chapters of the book give an introduction to VREs and their requirements and design methodology, including lists of example e-research projects, and provide a brief description of data types and how data is produced and analyzed by researches. Chapter 4, described further below, is perhaps of most direct relevance to librarians; it discusses managing sources of digital information. Chapter 5 discusses tools for collaboration and authentication in a VRE system, while the very short Chapter 6 (which feels more like an appendix to a previous chapter or the introduction) describes a survey of researchers in different research domains and spends a page on usability. The book then moves to the technology behind VREs: the next four chapters describe VRE architecture, grid computing services, desktop environments, and Sakai (which is given as an example of a platform that can be used to build a VRE). The book ends with two lengthy examples of current VRE systems, a research infrastructure for social science research and a research infrastructure for an experimental facility (the Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron in Oxfordshire). The book includes references, an index, and a list of existing e-research portals and tools. Allan is a researcher in the Computational Science and Engineering Group at the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the United Kingdom, and there is a bias towards describing UK-based research initiatives in the book.
According to the specifications laid out, VREs should include the ability for researchers to directly search for and access information and documents (such as published articles and preprints) related to their work. Chapter 4, "Managing and using digital information," discusses this topic, although the chapter primarily consists of an undifferentiated list of resources that researchers might use (including national library and archive services in the UK, library catalogs, databases, free web sites, software platforms that support open standards, and related organizations). Most of these resources will already be familiar to sci-tech librarians. Though the chapter touches on issues such as metadata standards and managing a data repository, there is little detail on how to actually accomplish attaching these resources to a VRE or how librarians might work best with e-researchers.
This is a technical book, with an emphasis on describing existing VREs and related research projects. A glossary of acronyms is provided; however, the text is so dense with acronyms and project names that it is difficult to read for someone unfamiliar with the projects or technologies described. For many topics (such as data curation) descriptions of projects that have tackled the issue are given instead of a clear introduction, and the text seems somewhat disorganized.
However, despite the technical subject matter the book does stay at a fairly high level, though some familiarity with web architectures is assumed. Allan does not describe the programming specifics of coding the software and network services for a VRE system, but rather describes the various pieces of a VRE architecture and gives examples of relevant tools, including standards and portal engines, which could be useful for someone building a system. Appendices B and C also give lists of tools and resources for developers. The world of web software changes rapidly, however, so there is a risk that these resources will become dated.
For librarians who simply need an introduction to the basic issues involved in e-science, Virtual Research Environments is unsatisfying. However, for a technical manager or researcher looking for ideas and resources for designing their own virtual research environment project, or for readers interested in learning about previous projects in this field, the book could be a valuable resource.