Virtual organizations have experienced an exponential growth due to their flexibility, cost effectiveness, efficiency, and ability to overcome geographic constraints. This project investigates how two scientific virtual organization breeding environments (online communities of practice) in the life sciences use social networking site technology to understand the potential of this cyberinfrastructure to foster trust and social cohesion among potential virtual organizations team members and lead to virtual organization formation and success. The research uses ethnographic and case study data (including visual maps of two virtual organization breeding environments and their interactions) to build theory and hypotheses about whether the use of social networking site technology in virtual organization breeding environments promotes virtual organization development and innovation (and, if it does, how). Quantitative data will be derived from monitoring and coding patterns of communication among participants from both VBEs. The research will also develop and extend Actor-Network-Theory and Social Network Analysis to virtual organization breeding environments improving our understanding of them as sociotechnical communities in which associations can be traced and analyzed.

The formation of virtual organizations is an important issue in many fields of science and engineering, as well as in industry. This research focuses explicitly on understanding the role of women in science and attracting women (an under-represented group) into the sciences. It will improve our understanding of the role of Web 2.0 technologies in interactions between scientists and of virtual organization development. Addressing the central question of whether social network systems meaningfully facilitate the social interactions that are required for a successful virtual organization, this project will provide a rich understanding of the formation, evolution and success of virtual organizations to guide the development of cyberinfrastructure. Results will be disseminated through a Facebook group, Twitter page, project website, and a public workshop.

Project Report

Supported by this NSF grant, our understanding of the utility of social networking and social media technologies in virtual science was tremendously improved. Over three years, the PI studied how these technologies that were previously thoughts of as entertainment-related had real potential for facilitating the development of virtual scientific organizations. Specifically, these ‘social’ technologies were evaluated in terms of their ability to foster trust amongst scientists in virtual scientific platforms. Trust is a key ingredient to making virtual scientific organizations initially form and successfully continue. In addition to direct work in support of this aim, a PI-led effort entailed the development of software tools to visualize interactions between life scientists on two large-scale virtual scientific platforms. The project has directly shaped the study of social technologies and virtual organizations. A key way in which this occurred was via the project-funded workshop, Collaborative Organizations and Social Media. The workshop was live broadcast on social media and provided a forum for innovative dialogue between interdisciplinary researchers to begin building a field of work in this area. The workshop produced a transformative development for the scientific community by mapping out new directions of research for others to take up. To reach the widest possible audience, two special issues were produced which included papers by workshop participants. The project has directly benefited the cyberinfrastructure research community by highlighting new conditions and spaces raised by the diverse range of social technologies studied and this has challenged traditional notions of scientific collaboration and has opened up new directions in the design of virtual scientific environments and their ability to leverage social technologies to promote virtual scientific collaboration. Overall, the project provided exceptional educational opportunities for 18 undergraduate students from both science and humanities backgrounds at Bowdoin College, an undergraduate-only liberal arts college. The project also provided training in advanced computational research methods in Big Data, data visualization, and qualitative digital ethnography to these students, which resulted in several students pursuing graduate work. Four undergraduate senior theses contained specific results from the project. More than half the students working with the PI on this project came from underrepresented groups. Work under this grant also contributed to 13 journal articles, book chapters, and conference papers, which included undergraduate student authors.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Advanced CyberInfrastructure (ACI)
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Rajiv Ramnath
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Bowdoin College
United States
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