Week 1: All the world is a network

“The best ideas rarely arise in one isolated mind, but rather develop in networks of curious and creative thinkers.”  -Esther Perel

Networks describe relations among things, and the kinds of questions networks can answer are questions about interactions, influences, and interdependencies. The datasets curated by DataONE have an interesting story to tell about the interactions among scientists, the way data influence discovery, and the dependencies of everything on everything else. The goal of this project is to reveal the stories hidden in the connections among DataONE’s Earth observational data.

Two types of networks immediately suggest themselves: one based on people (as either contributors or users or both), and one based on the datasets themselves. A network of people links researchers through the datasets they either create or download. This type of network is similar to a citation network, which can map out research fields as well as track knowledge flows and the diffusion of ideas. In a citation network, a citation links an idea with the source of that idea. A dataset is not a paper, though, and while a publication may stand as a proxy for an idea, a dataset represents… what? A description of the world, perhaps. A snapshot–limited, specific, and highly detailed–of The Way Things Were.

So a network of datasets can map out research fields as defined not by ideas, but by an interest in related descriptions of the world. Research fields characterized by their empirical focus, rather than their conceptual core. A network of datasets can also track knowledge flows–knowledge about the specific state of the world captured in the dataset. Information flying from researcher to researcher through the medium of the dataset.

A network based on the datasets themselves links descriptions of the world through the researchers who use them. Datasets frequently downloaded together suggest a connection, and connections are the stuff upon which science is built. “Are you downloading dataset Alpha? Well, you might also be interested in datasets Gamma, Phi, and Xi. Other researchers were.” Networks can tell us these things.

….Next week: The nuts and bolts, or, The links and nodes.

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