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December 02, 2009

Why not use Wikis to publish research?

The Internet has changed the way knowledge is created and shared, immeasurably, but the processes of academic research and publication have still to take full advantage of Web 2.0. 

I recently got involved in formal research after a gap of many years and the advances were immediately noticeable. Most publications are readily accessible via the Internet and, very quickly, a large knowledge bank is assembled on your computer, as files and as URL links. Yet the output is still commonly published as a plain document. Electronic access to that knowledge bank is consequently lost. Most papers are then published on the web, but all too often as PDFs for download. References in the text are as they always were, formal citations, usually leading to a bibliography at the end.

What if the same document were published as a Wiki page (or pages)? A simple change, but the references could lead directly from the text to the source and the bibliography would do likewise. Instead of a "paper" the same material would now become a valuable part of an interlinked, authoritative web of knowledge; easily referred, easily verified. Most important - it would provide an excellent platform for peer review and discussion.

Today, creating Wiki pages is no more complicated than Word Processing and there are many providers that operate free or quite inexpensive services. The Wikipedia provides a straightforward and effective format that is familiar to academics, which could be the basis for developing a new web format for academic publications. Here's an example, where the outcome of a literature review has been turned into a set of Wiki pages, in almost the same format as the original paper. http://linkasea.pbworks.com/2-Youth-in-the-Pacific

We could go even further with a Wiki: if the author were to allow it, peer review might extend to peer contribution, short-circuiting the somewhat cumbersome process where publication and/or public presentations at conferences are the main methods of interaction, supplemented by personal communications (as they were well before the Internet). If published on a Wiki, authors whose work was referenced would have the chance to respond directly and early. So would other researchers in related areas. With the fine-grained control available today, it would be simple to implement editorial policy, with some people allowed to "comment" as in a blog while others may be trusted to edit, and yet others, perhaps, trusted to edited without moderator intervention. The interaction between academics, students, industry and the interested public could become much more dynamic and meaningful. And the "paper" would become just the starting point of a real knowledge source that has the potential to be continually updated as long as there are people interested in the topic.