Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Make Research Papers Free for All!

Much research that is produced is at least part funded by the taxpayer. Those papers are then published by journals who charge taxpayers to read them! There is a rising movement to make all research paid for by taxpayers available free of charge or other hindrance to taxpayers - in the UK it has been possible to access millions of academic articles free of charge since early 2014, but all are not yet open and unrestricted and access is limited to UK public libraries.

The open information source Wikipedia has been used to provide links to more free resources - mainly University repositories - that provide more links to the work of University researchers.
This has triggered the following suggestion (and a workshop) at the recent Wikimania conference:

This discussion focuses on how Wikipedia could become the entry or discovery point to all significant research for the general public, and for scholars who are working just outside of the topic of interest. For most people, even researchers from closely related areas, summaries and explanations of a piece of research can be a crucial means both to discover and to begin to get into a new piece of research. 
Currently overviews of research topics are supported through two mechanisms: reviews and “front matter” content. A review is a systematic summary of a field, written by an expert. These go out of date quickly, particularly in rapidly moving areas of research. Front matter is “News and Views” pieces, often found at the “front” of scientific journals that explain newly published research and put it in context. This often includes a discussion of explaining how the research is an important advance and its broader societal implications. 
Both of these functions could easily be provided in a more up to date and scalable manner by tapping into a global community of experts. Wikipedia articles are often the top web search result for initial queries in many research areas and these articles are a major source of traffic for scientific journals. As the first port of call for many users of research and a significant discovery route the potential for Wikipedia as a form of dynamic, expertly curated “front matter” for the whole research literature is substantial. This facilitated discussion session will focus on how this role could be enhanced, what is currently missing and what risks exist in taking this route.

So not only could Wikipedia contribute further in the publication of original research, it could also play an important role in the summarisation of whole fields of research by experts in their fields in a way that expands on current 'static' methods of the review and journal article. Wikipedia currently provides a massive encyclopedia of information on many millions of subjects, many benefiting from contributions by field experts. These online documents are edited quickly and easily by people who read them and see mistakes that can be corrected - they can then login and start typing directly into the article - a form of expert community consensus is the result.

Perhaps this same style of article writing could be used to summarise current research? A review in a static paper such as we have now goes out of date rapidly as new papers are published - indeed they are oftwn already out of date by the time they are published. A 'Wiki-review' could prevent the loss of all the effort it takes to write a review, enabling editing of just those sections that are affected by a new paper rather than rendering the whole review useless. In that way the 'Wiki-review' stays up to date and is an effective description of the state of the art of its field of research.

Of course there will be problems when two scientists fail to agree on the nuances of a particular paper in a particular field, but experience has been that compromises rise naturally out of the dispute and a form of consensus is formed.

Worth a try?

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