On Knol. Part 1

Google announced Knol a couple of weeks ago. It is an upcoming knowledge database, or encyclopedia, probably aiming to rival Wikipedia . Now, to start just a wikipedia clone would be futile, and Google knows this of course. Knol differs from Wikipedia on a few points though. The most important, or at least the most discussed, is that Google's system won't be wiki-based and thus open for public editing, but use named authors for each page.

I have seen quite a few comments on that during the last couple of days. I agree that it is the source of some interesting issues. I have seen texts on the economical aspects, such as the fact that Google may be doing this because much of its traffic now is directed to Wikipedia (this is probably true, I tend to use Wikipedia a lot these days, and sometimes I am to lazy to switch search engine in Firefox search field). Most talk actually focus on Knol vs. Wikipedia and if Google will succeed, if they have gone towards evil with the new non-open system and what moral implications there are. I have also seen some of debate on if such an encyclopedia can truly be neutral, and so on. These points are all very valid, and I may come back to them later if my interest in Knol continues, but I want to discuss another aspect of the author system here that I find really interesting. Namely what implications Knol will have for scientists.

There are two somewhat different issues that occurred to me when I thought about Knol and what it might mean.

First, having pages with a clear author given, I believe that Knol may be able to compete with Wikipedia in a, as far as I know, overlooked (well, maybe not by Google) area: scientific publications. Why? It is part of good academic standard to cite related work and sources. I suspect Knol is designed with that in mind.

Now, I would guess that many scientists actually use Wikipedia as a source today. At least on an early stage, maybe when trying to understand a particular method or such. They then move on to the references given in the page and then from those resources to further articles. However, in a possible future publication Wikipedia will almost never appear as a source. Most journals and conferences will not accept web sources like Wikipedia as valid citations, and many scientists will frown upon a paper with web references (although they may use the web themselves for their research). Now before you start complaining about conservative old men, and so on, let me say that there is good grounds for this kind of suspicion in the scientific tradition.

Basically the idea behind a scientific article is that the reader, if he or she so wishes, should be able to check the validity of the statements given in the text. Weather this is by re-examining the data, performing the same type of experiments independently, doing the maths, or just going through all the references trying to understand every step, it should be doable. This lies in the heart of science. For a scientific result, theorem, or statement to be accepted as valid it must be convincing, and not only rethorically so, but in such a way that a skeptic may see for himself. To keep it short, this is one of the cornerstones of science, a guarantee for its success. Proper tradition of citation in publications follows from this principle.

Combining the above with the concept of reputation, and it is clear that over time certain journals, publishers, institutions and book series will gain more trust than others. Such sources of information are easier to accept, for the skeptical reader. There are several ways of gaining a good reputation of course, a well known name, long and faithful service, attention to detail, and so on. However, the opposite is also true, in general readers are suspicious, and there are certain things which may make them less confident in a citation. One of those is something that Knol will be showing and Wikipedia hiding: the name of the author(s).

By stating this, I mean in no way to say that Wikipedia is in any way lacking validity or scientific truths. I do think that it is the best general knowledge resource on the Internet, and I am a warm supporter of the foundation's activities. However it may unfortunately take some time before it is accepted as a refereed source in the scientific tradition. Moreover, I do think that Google has designed Knol in a way to battle this and may well introduce its encyclopedia as a standard online reference. The simple fact that Knol has a named Editor for each page, and is invitation-only, battles one of Wikipedias disadvantages in scientific publishing. If this is combined with a versioning system and maybe automatically generated bibliography entries, much is won.

Note also, that I have not said anything about the quality of content. I do not think that having invitation-only editing is a guarantee for this compared to free-for-all editing. However, from the perspective of referring, it fits much better with the traditional requirements. Especially, as I wrote above, in combination with a functionality to view a specific version of the page.

This will allow Google to pitch Knol as a online Encyclopedia useful for citing in scientific publications. Citing of Internet resources has yet to be fully embraced by the scientific community, it lies, however, undoubtedly in the future. The problems that have existed thus far is the guarantee of "quality", that is required. The Internet is a melting pot of truths, myths and theories after all. What has made Wikipedia such a success is that it has made order out of chaos, knowledge out of information. Suspicion endures however, much due to the same facts that made it a success in the first place. My point here is that as Knol has some features that fits better into the already existing way of citing to gain trust. If someone disputes a fact in a publication, the author can point the finger at a named person or source and state "they said it was so!". Thus it will be easier for many authorities in the current publication system to accept. It gives an impression to be more trustworthy. (In fact it could very well be the other way around! I may come back to this in a later post sometime.)

It will take time for Knol to get accepted as a trusted source of information, but I think that it may be sooner used as an "official" source in publications than for instance Wikipedia. Academia can be a battlefield, and arranging the citations are at times a task worthy a master tactician. If one source has some feature which make it easier to defend than others, it will be chosen. The second issue that I would like to point out is also based on the invitation only, named author strategy of Knol. I think that this is a strategy chosen by Google for many reasons, but one of them is definitely to act as a reason for people to sign up as editors / authors. To have your name associated with an article on a subject of your expertise on the Internet and linked to (probably even bumped up in the results) by the largest search engine in the world is a good way of establishing in an area.

I predict that Google may have made a mistake here. This is not just a good way of getting people to sign up for writing an article, it is a explosively good. Too many will want to do it. It will be war.

Many researchers will see the chance of authoring a Knol page as an extremely good way of getting your name associated with a subject. Some just because they love the subject (I myself would love to edit the page on Computer Generated Holography, but I know a bunch a people who have been in the game longer than I have, and who may do it better) and others just to be able to write it on the CV. The reason does actually not matter. The consequences will.

For starters, I believe that Google started receiving emails asking to author pages very shortly after announcing Knol. Many people trying to stake a territory. Who at google will take the decision on who to invite and who not to? I hope they are prepared to handle some hot potatoes.

Then we have the issue of academic feuds. There are many subjects where several theories on what the "truth" is exists. If scientist A is assigned as author of some subject, will he invite scientist B who's theory he do not agree to co-author the page so that it shows a balanced view? Given how easy it is to access the Internet, and how much trust Knol has the potential to build up I think this will be a serious issue in the future. It can be used to force acceptance for theories.

In all fairness this has been the role of many scientific journals for a long time already, but Knol could work different as it is easy accessible for a huge amount of people. The route for a scientific theory to go from a proposal to accepted "truth" will change with the Internet. The public has a chance to expose themselves to early science without turning to exotic, expensive publications. Of course, much of the information will be require quite some background knowledge, and will be on quite another level than what Knol and similar concepts aim for. But the links will be there, and the pages on the concepts will be probably be written by the experts.

I can agree with the argument that also the traditional encyclopedias play the same role. It is an honor to be asked for a contribution, and the views in there may or may not be fully objective. However, now your name will be directly associated with the article, and indexed on all the search engines of the Internet. Knol pose itself as an encyclopedia, but at the same time pages are associated with a specific editor, and can link to external resources (I assume, at least.) Over 90 % (more, I am sure, but I can not remember the exact number) of all the scientists that have ever lived, lives today. Here, now. I have met but just a few, but more than one has a marketing approach to at least some of their career. In some areas it is seen as vital to associate your name with a specific subject. To show the world that you are the foremost expert in this area. How much will it be worth to some have their name on the online article at the top of the worlds number one search engine results? A lot I can venture.

I wonder if Google is prepared?