August 2007
The Coming Revolution in Scholarly Communications & Cyberinfrastructure
Timo Hannay, Nature Publishing


Wikis: These have existed since the mid-1990s,16 but it took the astonishing rise of Wikipedia during the middle part of this decade for the potential of wikis to become widely appreciated. We can now see numerous examples of scientific wikis, from collaborative cataloguing and annotation projects like WikiSpecies 17 and Proteins Wiki 18 to open laboratory notebooks like OpenWetWare 19 and UsefulChem.20 These all represent sensible uses of wikis, which are best employed to enable groups of geographically dispersed people to collaborate in the creation of a communal document with an identifiable objective aim (as in Wikipedia, WikiSpecies and Proteins Wiki), or to allow individuals or small, real-world teams to share freeform information with others around the world (as in OpenWetWare and UsefulChem). In contrast, experiments at the Los Angeles Times 21 and Penguin Books 22 have demonstrated that wikis are not well suited to the creation of opinioned or fictional content – because the end goal cannot possibly be shared by all contributors at the outset. A particularly interesting recent development has been the launch of Freebase,23 the latest brainchild of parallel computing pioneer and polymath Danny Hillis. This takes a wiki-like approach to open contributions, but provides an underlying data model more akin to relational databases and the Semantic Web,24 allowing specific relationships between entities to be expressed and queried. Whilst Freebase is not aimed mainly at scientists, scientific topics are among those covered. It will be interesting to see how this approach fares over the less technically sophisticated but arguably less restrictive approach represented by traditional wikis.

Voting: Slashdot 25 and more recently digg 26 have become staple information sources for computer nerds and web geeks everywhere. Their traffic, which ranks them among the top media organisations on the planet,27 belies their meager staff numbers (which, compared to a daily newspaper's, are as near to zero as makes no difference). Like all good Web 2.0 sites, they exert their influence by getting readers to contribute: in this case by providing stories, links and comments – then other users to decide what's most interesting by casting votes. In the case of digg, the users even decide which stories get elevated to the front page. Such sites, like search engines, are sometimes criticized for being parasitical on the mainstream media stories to which they link (after all, they generate no content, only link to it). But this is to misunderstand the value they add, which is to help people decide where to direct their scarce attention in an age of often oppressive information overload. They are no more parasitical on journalism than journalism is on the newsmakers themselves (after all, journalists don't make the news, only report it – well, most of the time). Yet these services do have a very different feel to those in which the content is selected by an editor, and the optimum approach in some cases may be to marry the 'wisdom of crowds' (to highlight interesting stories) with professional editorial expertise (to provide a final selection and put these items in context). These systems are also vulnerable to the 'tyranny of the majority' and to cynical gaming, so even while they save on traditional editorial staff, the operators of these sites do face other challenges in maintaining a useful service.

Of course, similar problems of information overload apply in science, so it is natural to ask whether it is possible to use these approaches to help scientists to help themselves. Sure enough, sites like ChemRank,28 SciRate 29 and BioWizard 30 have appeared. Nature Publishing Group has a few of its own experiments in this area, including: DissectMedicine,31 a collaborative news system for medics; Nature China,32 which includes summaries of the best Chinese research as submitted and voted on by readers; and Scintilla,33 a scientific information aggregation and personalization tool that employs user ratings in its recommendation algorithms. It is too early to say which of these scientific applications will prevail, but given the demonstrable success of this approach outside science, it seems almost inevitable that some of them will.

File sharing: This is one of those rare areas in which scientists – or at least some of them – have blazed a trail well ahead of the mainstream. Physicists (and a few others) have been sharing preprints (unpeer-reviewed manuscripts) through the arXiv.org server 34 since 1991 (and even before that, they shared their findings with each other by email or post). Now, the web is replete with ways of sharing various types of content, from documents 35 to videos 36 to slides.37 And scientific services, too, have begun to diversify, from Nature Precedings,38 a preprint server and document-sharing service for those outside physics, and the Journal of Visualized Experiments,39 a way for scientists to share videos of experimental protocols.

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Reference this article
Hannay, T. "Web 2.0 in Science," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 3, August 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/08/web-20-in-science/

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