Framework for Understanding Research Infrastructures

Higher Education in Prison Research is a project that aims to facilitate the development of an Higher Education in Prison (HEP) research infrastructure in the US.This working paper aims to lay a foundation and serve as a starting point for engaging the HEP community around this goal and next steps to that end. Before we outline the need for an HEP research infrastructure and survey the present or developing elements of one, we present a framework for the concept of a research infrastructure.

The term “infrastructure” is often associated with very large sets of buildings and equipment required to conduct human activities, such as roads, bridges, ports, and communications networks.1 Infrastructures allow and enable these activities to go on effectively and efficiently even though different aspects of the infrastructure are controlled by different stakeholders.

A research infrastructure (RI) is the network of stakeholders and their collective operations, which are required to coordinate research activities effectively and efficiently.2 It is the set of social, technical, human, and material resources developed for and drawn on by the various stakeholders operating within a particular community of inquiry – both those conducting research and those using its findings. An RI serves to enable and accelerate rigorous, sustained, and ethical scientific inquiry in a particular field or discipline. For domains examining human participants, an RI can be especially useful for coordinating research in ways that will ultimately help better serve that population, for example by establishing practices and standards that prioritize the study and promotion of high-quality interventions and equitable outcomes for participants.

A robust, ethical, and sustainable RI involves a complex network of structures, resources, and services that work together to refine, grow, and then maintain the research activity over time. The specific make-up and goals of an RI, and how it develops and evolves, depend on the nature of the field at hand, as well as its needs at a given time and the research it requires accordingly. An RI’s constituents continually adapt their practices and processes as their field matures—an exercise made possible by the very work an RI catalyzes.3 Typically, RIs either form organically within a specific area of inquiry or are constructed by special intervention;4 for many areas of inquiry, it requires a little bit of both. Regardless of how it is formed, its sustainability is key–that its constituents continue to maintain, grow, and adapt it in ways that serve its evolving goals.

Typically, an RI is facilitated by both special intervention as well as organic developments within a specific area of inquiry. While the individual elements within any given RI ecosystem vary greatly across different communities, thinking of an RI in terms of a dynamic, interconnected, and interdependent network of relationships, agreements, and incentives provides a framework for understanding how it operates:

Each field of inquiry builds its relationships, agreements, and incentives around its own particular research goals and disciplinary needs. Though our framework groups the various parts of an RI into three distinct components, in practice these components are highly interdependent.5 Below, we briefly outline the most central and relevant elements within each component to help readers build a foundational schema for an RI. In subsequent sections of this working paper, we further flesh out where and how such elements may exist in the context of HEP in specific—or how they may be used for future development of an RI for postsecondary education in prison.

An RI creates a self-generated community of practice made up of individuals and organizations that work in concert to shape, support, and facilitate research in a given area of inquiry. These entities rely on their formal and informal relationships to connect and coordinate with one another, and may collectively (through mutual trust and respect) develop and share guidelines, frameworks, and standards. For example, professional associations in a certain field may bring together content and practice experts to formulate standards for conducting research and rely on its members to disseminate those standards more broadly. The relationships that make up a well-functioning RI help to create, implement, and evaluate all aspects of the research process using their shared understanding of the field. They also centralize, host, and promote the research and its outputs in forms and formats that are used by others in the RI. In practice, this can involve communities that are tasked with translating research findings into actionable steps, digital spaces where key stakeholders can interact to discuss and promote relevant research, or formal connections between governments and entities they regulate. The affiliated stakeholders use their existing and developing relationships to push the field to question and revisit existing practices, bring different stakeholders together to maintain coherence and integrate research in applied practice, and help secure buy-in, validation, and support from internal and external individuals or groups.
An RI establishes and regulates the ways in which the research community in a given field conducts its work. In many cases, these standards of practice involve accepted modes of inquiry, shared understandings of rigor, and the ethical principles that should guide research. When an RI has been established within a given discipline, internalization of these standards becomes part of the training, initiation, and gatekeeping processes for those entering the field. Professional development that covers standardized measurement instruments and research design as well as ethical guidelines for data collection, storage, and analysis could become the norm for a field with a developed RI. Similarly, the application of these agreements around practices, methodologies, and ethics serve as a marker of membership in that specific community of inquiry. Further, agreements within the research and practice community govern the dissemination and consumption of research products, including where and how findings are released or data shared, the criteria used to evaluate the quality of the research, and how the work and its participants are described. Two examples of this are common understandings around scholarly journal quality and impact as well as widely accepted standards for methodological rigor.

As part of becoming self-sustaining, an RI both creates and provides a variety of incentives for all of the stakeholders involved, and continuously reevaluates incentives structures’ impact on the research and its outcomes. Agencies and institutions with resources and influence must adequately reward the research community’s relationships and agreements in order to encourage the continued advancement of the field. Incentives also facilitate and guide the movement of material and social resources throughout an RI–an essential part of what coheres its various stakeholders to one another that is critical to its acceptance and sustainability.

Oftentimes these incentives are financial. Funding organizations, for example, seek to fulfill aspects of their mission by providing resources to research efforts aligned to a philanthropic or social cause. These organizations can incentivize researchers to examine otherwise unexplored phenomena and adhere to specific practice standards or guidelines developed by the field at large. Other incentives are structured around professional prestige and ambition. Individual researchers and research centers seek answers to questions, and in many cases, the esteem, recognition, and professional opportunities that come from providing those answers. Incentives such as credit in a tenure application for academic researchers, for example, encourage the conduct and dissemination of field-specific research according to set standards. Conversely, some incentives can move a field in counterproductive or even problematic ways, even if inadvertently. For example, certain tenure requirements may discourage researchers from pursuing lines of research or methodologies that are critical for a given field. Similarly, while a government entity’s funding requirement for proof of an intervention’s positive return on investment (ROI) can prioritize evaluation efforts in useful ways, it can also cement narrow success measures that privilege the needs of stakeholders other than the direct intended beneficiaries of the intervention. A successful RI can help mitigate the issue of perverse incentives by reassessing, restructuring, and bolstering incentive structures that are aligned with its core goals and better serve its community’s core missions.

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  1. Geoffrey C. Bowker, Karen Baker, Florence Millerand, and David Ribes, “Toward Information Infrastructure Studies: Ways of Knowing in a Networked Environment,” (2009), p. 97-117.
  2. Matthias Korn, Wolfgang Reißmann, Tobias Röhl, and David Sittler, “Infrastructuring Publics: A Research Perspective,” (2019), p. 11-47.
  3. The field of social work, for example, offers a compelling and well-documented instance of how a field developed an RI based on its existing structure and needs, with the explicit intention of accelerating and disseminating research to the benefit of the populations it intends to serve as well as that of the field at large. See “Create a Coordinating Body to Formally Implement an HEP RI” and Joan Levy Zlotnik and Barbara E. Solt, “Developing Research Infrastructure: The Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research,” (2008), p. 201-207.
  4. Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder, “Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces,” (1996), p. 111-134.
  5. For instance, specific stakeholders often perform several functions within the RI and therefore occupy more than one category. Also, developments within one component are often contingent upon and influence others; for example, incentive structures may dictate the types of agreements and relationships that get built and actively utilized.