Friday, 24 October 2014

Wikipedia as the Front Matter to all Research for Public Use

Wikipedia is a initiative that has become extremely successful at providing encyclopedic coverage of almost any subject you might be find interesting or useful. It has a very simple modus operandi in that it permits anyone to write articles on any subject they wish. Others are then given open permission to edit those articles. No-one owns any part of the project, neutrality and freedom are prized. There are only five rules governing content generation, the fifth of which is that there are no firm rules!

A recipe for chaos? Not at all - in practice acts of ignorance or vandalism are quickly removed - this has been a huge success for collaborative work and free access. Quoting Wikipedia:
Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest reference websites, attracting 470 million unique visitors monthly as of February 2012. [1] There are more than 76,000 active contributors working on more than 31,000,000 articles in 285 languages. As of today, there are 4,630,235 articles in English. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia. (See the statistics page for more information.) Where once it took huge amounts of work to maintain comprehensive encyclopedias and it could only be done at high cost we now have far larger bodies of work that are maintained free of charge.

Many of the articles featured are contributed by researchers using their most recent research results.
There is a suggestion that this could be taken a step further for the research communities themselves:

 A session at the recent Wikimania conference provided an opportunity for discussion: “The fount of all knowledge – wikipedia as the front matter to all research“. 
The abstract describes how: 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. 

There are difficulties to overcome but it is easy to see  the attraction of the availability of constantly updated extensive reviews for the use of the professional community. Currently reviews are out of date by the time they are published, this technology may make that delay in disseminating and summarising scientific research a thing of the past.

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