Collaborative Librarians

Data don't tell the whole story.

CI Article:Tensions across the scales: Planning infrastructure for the long-term January 17, 2011

Filed under: CI Article,Cyberinfrastructure,eScience — Betsy Rolland @ 12:05 pm

Ribes, D., & Finholt, T. A. (2007). Tensions across the scales: Planning infrastructure for the long-term Proceedings of the 2007 International ACM Conference on Supporting Group Work (pp. 229-238). New York: ACM.

Ribes & Finholt describe nine tensions inherent in the move from short-term to long-term infrastructure for science. These tensions are the intersection of three “concerns of actors” and three “scales of infrastructure.” Their aim is not to prescribe how to build infrastructure for the long-term, as no one yet knows how to do that, but to define a set of researchable questions around this topic so that we can begin to get an idea of what to pay attention to.

The first tension Ribes & Finholt discuss is “Project vs. facility,” noting that most CI endeavors are funded as projects, with finite timelines and scopes and no clear path to renewal of funding. This discourages the kind of long-term planning and thinking that could add stability to a CI infrastructure and most likely leads to wasting money. Rather than investing in one CI project for a domain community, funding agencies fund smaller projects, each of which builds its own CI.

Ribes & Finholt’s second tension speaks to “Individual vs. community interests.” This is a common theme in discussions of CI — building large infrastructure projects to support science requires not only computer scientists but also domain experts. Yet the reward system for scientists doesn’t give credit for that type of work. If  only a domain expert can generate appropriate metadata for a database of genetic structures but the time s/he spends on that task doesn’t help in the race toward tenure, the expert won’t be able to justify the time spent. But then the whole community loses out. This same argument applies to proactively preparing data to share, submitting to open access journals that aren’t yet valued by the community, etc. Some of the issues are also explored in the tension “Research vs. development.”

After describing the other tensions, Ribes & Finholt conclude with an emphasis on the human side of infrastructure, drawing upon the Charlotte Lee, et al, paper on human infrastructure (reference below).  Ribes & Finholt note: “[h]owever, while the work of design and development is ‘human,’ the challenges are more comprehensively described as technical, organizational and institutional. In considering design and enactment of infrastructure it is best to address ‘hard and soft’ foundations hand-in-hand, they are usually more intimately entwined than any raw distinction would suggest (236)” (emphasis in original).

One of the things I like about this article is that Ribes & Finholt focus not only on the domain scientists and computer scientists themselves but the project managers, as well. This group is often hidden or forgotten in the writing on CI but is a critical path in the success or failure of a project.


Lee, C. P., Dourish, P., & Mark, G. (2006). The human infrastructure of cyberinfrastructure Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 483 – 492). New York: ACM.

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