Zeitgeist

Digging data

Managing an international research partnership

Berton Woodward

A successful research partnership requires specific attributes, says UTSC political scientist Christopher Cochrane. He should know—he’s currently engaged in a major international research effort involving seven principal investigators in three countries.

To Cochrane, the participants need to have varied areas of academic expertise. But they do need to have the same views on what they want to do with the research.

Cochrane and a UTSC colleague, computer scientist Graeme Hirst, have embarked on a project that will make the entire archive of transcripts of parliamentary debate in Canada, Britain and the Netherlands accessible by computer. These records, called Hansard in Canada and Britain, date largely to the pre-digital era and must be converted from paper to electronic format.

That’s just step one. Step two is to create complex search systems that will allow researchers to analyze the debates in a highly sophisticated way for a variety of purposes. Cochrane, for instance, is an expert in anti-immigrant sentiment, and wants to delve into the debates to show how such exclusionary positions have evolved over time in different countries.

To mount the project, Cochrane and Hirst have teamed up with specialists in history, informatics, computing and web infrastructure at the University of London and the University of Amsterdam. Such academic diversity may sound challenging. But Cochrane says the range of disciplines is a major strength. “The project will be able to do more things than any of us could do on our own.”

This, he says, stands in stark contrast to collaborations involving researchers with the same specialization. “If you have two people with the exact same skill set, it produces inefficiencies, and it lends itself to a situation where one person ends up doing the whole thing.”

But projects can suffer from another kind of clash, he says, involving collaborators’ approaches to the data. “There are some people who are incentivized by the desire to get out as much stuff as they possibly can in the shortest possible time—papers, publications, contributions. And in other cases you have people who want to take time to think about things and make sure they get it right. That dichotomy in the social sciences can be a real point of contention.”

In an era of hyper-specialization, “the only way to bridge that desire for big-impact work, done well, is to collaborate.” In two years, Cochrane expects we’ll see the impact of his collaboration in the parliaments of three nations.