Diane Sonnenwald, Mary Whitton, Kelly Maglaughlin
Today scientific collaboratories provide remote access to scientific data, specialized instruments and documents, as well as group work tools and information and communications tools, to support collaboration among scientists. While a number of collaboratories have been developed, few have been formally evaluated. Fundamental questions have yet to be answered: Can distributed scientific research produce high quality results? Do the capabilities afforded by collaboratories outweigh their disadvantages from scientists’ perspectives? Our goal was to address these questions by evaluating a specific scientific collaboratory.
The nanoManipulator Collaboratory
The collaboratory system we evaluated allows distributed, collaborative access to a nanoManipulator (nM), a specialized scientific instrument. The nM provides the user with haptic and three-dimensional visualization interfaces to a local atomic force microscope and with the ability to interact directly with physical samples such as DNA. The system (Figure 1) allows scientists at different locations to conduct scientific experiments synchronously. Scientists can dynamically switch between working together in shared mode and working independently in private mode. Mutual awareness is supported via multiple pointers (cursors), shared application software, video conferencing with a choice of two camera views, and high-quality audio from a wireless telephone headset and speakerphone.
Evaluation of the Collaboratory
The evaluation was a repeated measures, controlled laboratory study. Twenty pairs of study participants conducted two natural science research lab experiments, each requiring two to three hours to complete. Ten pairs collaborated first face-to-face and, on a different day, remotely, and the second ten pairs collaborated first remotely and then face-to-face. During each session, the pairs created a joint lab report that documented their research progress and results. Each participant also completed a questionnaire and participated in an interview after each session.
The lab reports were graded blindly and the scores were compared. Participants who collaborated remotely first scored significantly higher on the second lab report than did those who collaborated face-to-face first. However, differences in scores between working remotely and face-to-face in general were not statistically significant.
In interviews, participants reported advantages and disadvantages to collaborating remotely. Working simultaneously on the same task was an advantage, as was being able to explore the system and ideas independently. The fact that interactions were less personal was a disadvantage (although they reported this was not significant for the scientific work context). To reduce the impact of disadvantages, participants reported that they developed work-arounds. For example, to compensate for fewer visual cues, they reported they talked more frequently and descriptively.
We observed that participants were able to adequately complete natural science experiments when collaborating remotely and that participants developed work-arounds to compensate for inherent collaboratory system deficiencies. From these results we conclude that scientific collaboratories, with limitations, have the potential to achieve high-quality results in scientific research. For details, see our full paper in ACM’s TOCHI.
The development of the nM and this work were funded by the NIH National Center for Research Resources, NCRR 5-P41-RR02170. The nanoManipulator project is part of the Computer Graphics for Molecular Studies and Microscopy Research Resource at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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