Monthly Archives: June 2006

google and the myth of universal knowledge: a view from europe

jeanneney.jpg I just came across the pre-pub materials for a book, due out this November from the University of Chicago Press, by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the Bibliothè que Nationale de France and famous critic of the Google Library Project. You’ll remember that within months of Google’s announcement of partnership with a high-powered library quintet (Oxford, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford and the New York Public), Jeanneney issued a battle cry across Europe, warning that Google, far from creating a universal world library, would end up cementing Anglo-American cultural hegemony across the internet, eroding European cultural heritages through the insidious linguistic uniformity of its database. The alarm woke Jacques Chirac, who, in turn, lit a fire under all the nations of the EU, leading them to draw up plans for a European Digital Library. A digitization space race had begun between the private enterprises of the US and the public bureaucracies of Europe.
Now Jeanneney has funneled his concerns into a 96-page treatise called Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: a View from Europe. The original French version is pictured above. From U. Chicago:

Jeanneney argues that Google’s unsystematic digitization of books from a few partner libraries and its reliance on works written mostly in English constitute acts of selection that can only extend the dominance of American culture abroad. This danger is made evident by a Google book search the author discusses here–one run on Hugo, Cervantes, Dante, and Goethe that resulted in just one non-English edition, and a German translation of Hugo at that. An archive that can so easily slight the masters of European literature–and whose development is driven by commercial interests–cannot provide the foundation for a universal library.

Now I’m no big lover of Google, but there are a few problems with this critique, at least as summarized by the publisher. First of all, Google is just barely into its scanning efforts, so naturally, search results will often come up threadbare or poorly proportioned. But there’s more that complicates Jeanneney’s charges of cultural imperialism. Last October, when the copyright debate over Google’s ambitions was heating up, I received an informative comment on one of my posts from a reader at the Online Computer Library Center. They had recently completed a profile of the collections of the five Google partner libraries, and had found, among other things, that just under half of the books that could make their way into Google’s database are in English:

More than 430 languages were identified in the Google 5 combined collection. English-language materials represent slightly less than half of the books in this collection; German-, French-, and Spanish-language materials account for about a quarter of the remaining books, with the rest scattered over a wide variety of languages. At first sight this seems a strange result: the distribution between English and non-English books would be more weighted to the former in any one of the library collections. However, as the collections are brought together there is greater redundancy among the English books.

Still, the “driven by commercial interests” part of Jeanneney’s attack is important and on-target. I worry less about the dominance of any single language (I assume Google wants to get its scanners on all books in all tongues), and more about the distorting power of the market on the rankings and accessibility of future collections, not to mention the effect on the privacy of users, whose search profiles become company assets. France tends much further toward the enlightenment end of the cultural policy scale — witness what they (almost) achieved with their anti-DRM iTunes interoperability legislation. Can you imagine James Billington, of our own Library of Congress, asserting such leadership on the future of digital collections? LOC’s feeble World Digital Library effort is a mere afterthought to what Google and its commercial rivals are doing (they even receive private investment from Google). Most public debate in this country is also of the afterthought variety. The privatization of public knowledge plows ahead, and yet few complain. Good for Jeanneney and the French for piping up.

the commodification of news / the turns 10

It began with what is still referred to as the “Kaiser Memo” within the Washington Post organization. In 1992, Bob Kaiser, then managing-editor, wrote a handwritten memo on the way back from a technology conference in Japan. In the memo, he posits the development of an electronic newspaper. In 1996, was launched. Last week, it marked its 10th year with three insightful articles. The first, gives a brief overview of the effect of the Kaiser early vision, recounting some of the ups and downs, from losing millions in the heady bubble of the 90s to turning its first profit two years ago. Lessons were learned in this new form be it from the new growth from coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to traffic bottlenecks during 2000 US presidential election to the vital role online news played during 9/11 and its aftermath. Ten years later, the online news landscape looks nothing what people, including Kaiser, originally envisioned, which was basically a slight modification of traditional news forms.
The other two articles serve as counterpoints to each other. Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor and blogger on PressThink, reflects on the Internet as a distruptive technology in the world of journalism. Washington Post staff writer Patricia Sullivan argues that traditional journalism and news organizations are still relevant and vital for democracy. Although, both authors end up at the same place (having both traditional and new forms is good,) their approaches play off each other in interesting ways.
There is a tension between to the two articles by Sullivan and Rosen. In that, they are focusing on different things. Sullivan seems to be defending the viability of the traditional media, in terms of business models and practices. She acknowledge that the hugh profit margins are shrinking and revenues are stagnant. This is not surprising, as the increases in citizen journalism, “arm chair” news analysts, as well as, free online access to print and born-digital reporting all contribute to making news a commodity, rather than a scarce resource. Few cities still have more than one daily newspaper. Just as cable news channels took market share from the evening network news, people can read online versions of newspapers from around the country and read feeds from web news aggregators.
With the increasing number of voices in print, network television and cable, news is becoming increasingly commodified. Commodified here means that individual news coverage is becoming indistinguishable from one another. It is useful to note Sullivan’s observation that the broad major weekly magazines as Time, Newsweek, and US Weekly are losing readers while the weekly magazines, The Economist and the New Yorker with their specialized perspectives, have increasing circulation. If a reader cannot distinguish between the reporting of Time, Newsweek, or US Weekly, then it is easy to move among the three or to another commodified online news source. Therefore, the examples of the Economist and the New Yorker show the importance of distinct voices, which readers come to expect, coupled with strong writing. Having an established perspective is becoming much more important to news readers.
If general news is becoming commodified, then news sources that differentiates its news will have an increased value, which people are willing to pay money to read. Rosen comes to a similar conclusion, when he mentions that in 2004 he called for some major news organizations to take a strong left position with “oppositional (but relentlessly factual)” coverage of the White House. His proposal was decried by many, including staff at the CNN, who claimed that it would destroy their credibility. Rosen asks why a major news organization cannot do for the left what Fox News has done for the right?
Rosen directly and Sullivan indirectly suggests that one key feature in the reshuffling of news will be the importance of voice and perspective. If a new publication can create a credible and distinct voice, they claim it will attract a sustainable audience, even in the age of free, commodified news.
Sullivan closes by discussing the importance of investigative reporting that reveals secret prisons, government eavesdropping is expensive, time consuming, and requires the subsidies from lighter news. However, history shows that the traditional news room is not infallible, as seen with the lack of rigor journalists examined the claims of weapons mass destruction during the events that lead to the invasion of Iraq. When Sullivan sites that “almost no online news sties invest in original, in-depth and scrupulously edited news reporting” it is clear that her conceptualization of new journalism is still tied to the idea of the centralized news organization. However, in the distributed realm of the blogosphere and p2p, we have seen examples that Sullivan describes, not from single journalists, but rather by a collaborative and decentralized network of concerned “amateurs.” For example, citizen journalists can also achieve these kinds of disruptive reporting. Rosen notes how the blogosphere was able to unravel the CBS report on President Bush’s National Guard Service. As well, technical problems with the electronic voting machines in the 2004 election (an example Yochai Benkler often recounts) were revealed by using the network. People using individual knowledge bases to do research, uncover facts, and report findings in a way that would be quite difficult for a news organization to replicate.
Where as, Rosen finishes with a description of how during the India Ocean tsunami, that despite Reuters’ 2,300 journalist and 1,000 stringers, no one was in the area to provide reporting, as the concerned world waited for coverage. However, tourists armed with amateur equipment provided the watching world with the best and only digital photographs and video from the devastated areas. For Reuters to report anything, they had to include amateur journalism, until professional journalists could be deployed to supplement the coverage.
Not surprisingly, ten years on, along with the rest of the news media industry is still figuring out how to use and grow with the Internet. Nor it is surprising that their initial strategy was to re-purpose their content for the web. We understand new media based on the conventions of old media. The introduction of the Internet to newspapers was more than adding a new distribution channel. With increases in the access to information and the low cost of entrance, news is no longer a scarce resource. In the age of commodified news,, the political blog network, major daily newspaper columnists, and the editor-in-chiefs of weekly new magazines are all striving to create credible and reliable points of view. Active news consumers are better for it.

on the future of peer review in electronic scholarly publishing

Over the last several months, as I’ve met with the folks from if:book and with the quite impressive group of academics we pulled together to discuss the possibility of starting an all-electronic scholarly press, I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking and talking about peer review — how it currently functions, why we need it, and how it might be improved. Peer review is extremely important — I want to acknowledge that right up front — but it threatens to become the axle around which all conversations about the future of publishing get wrapped, like Isadora Duncan’s scarf, strangling any possible innovations in scholarly communication before they can get launched. In order to move forward with any kind of innovative publishing process, we must solve the peer review problem, but in order to do so, we first have to separate the structure of peer review from the purposes it serves — and we need to be a bit brutally honest with ourselves about those purposes, distinguishing between those purposes we’d ideally like peer review to serve and those functions it actually winds up fulfilling.
The issue of peer review has of course been brought back to the front of my consciousness by the experiment with open peer review currently being undertaken by the journal Nature, as well as by the debate about the future of peer review that the journal is currently hosting (both introduced last week here on if:book). The experiment is fairly simple: the editors of Nature have created an online open review system that will run parallel to its traditional anonymous review process.

From 5 June 2006, authors may opt to have their submitted manuscripts posted publicly for comment.

Any scientist may then post comments, provided they identify themselves. Once the usual confidential peer review process is complete, the public ‘open peer review’ process will be closed. Editors will then read all comments on the manuscript and invite authors to respond. At the end of the process, as part of the trial, editors will assess the value of the public comments.

As several entries in the web debate that is running alongside this trial make clear, though, this is not exactly a groundbreaking model; the editors of several other scientific journals that already use open review systems to varying extents have posted brief comments about their processes. Electronic Transactions in Artificial Intelligence, for instance, has a two-stage process, a three-month open review stage, followed by a speedy up-or-down refereeing stage (with some time for revisions, if desired, inbetween). This process, the editors acknowledge, has produced some complications in the notion of “publication,” as the texts in the open review stage are already freely available online; in some sense, the journal itself has become a vehicle for re-publishing selected articles.
Peer review is, by this model, designed to serve two different purposes — first, fostering discussion and feedback amongst scholars, with the aim of strengthening the work that they produce; second, filtering that work for quality, such that only the best is selected for final “publication.” ETAI’s dual-stage process makes this bifurcation in the purpose of peer review clear, and manages to serve both functions well. Moreover, by foregrounding the open stage of peer review — by considering an article “published” during the three months of its open review, but then only “refereed” once anonymous scientists have held their up-or-down vote, a vote that comes only after the article has been read, discussed, and revised — this kind of process seems to return the center of gravity in peer review to communication amongst peers.
I wonder, then, about the relatively conservative move that Nature has made with its open peer review trial. First, the journal is at great pains to reassure authors and readers that traditional, anonymous peer review will still take place alongside open discussion. Beyond this, however, there seems to be a relative lack of communication between those two forms of review: open review will take place at the same time as anonymous review, rather than as a preliminary phase, preventing authors from putting the public comments they receive to use in revision; and while the editors will “read” all such public comments, it appears that only the anonymous reviews will be considered in determining whether any given article is published. Is this caution about open review an attempt to avoid throwing out the baby of quality control with the bathwater of anonymity? In fact, the editors of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics present evidence (based on their two-stage review process) that open review significantly increases the quality of articles a journal publishes:

Our statistics confirm that collaborative peer review facilitates and enhances quality assurance. The journal has a relatively low overall rejection rate of less than 20%, but only three years after its launch the ISI journal impact factor ranked Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics twelfth out of 169 journals in ‘Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences’ and ‘Environmental Sciences’.

These numbers support the idea that public peer review and interactive discussion deter authors from submitting low-quality manuscripts, and thus relieve editors and reviewers from spending too much time on deficient submissions.

By keeping anonymous review and open review separate, without allowing the open any precedence, Nature is allowing itself to avoid asking any risky questions about the purposes of its process, and is perhaps inadvertently maintaining the focus on peer review’s gatekeeping function. The result of such a focus is that scholars are less able to learn from the review process, less able to put comments on their work to use, and less able to respond to those comments in kind.
If anonymous, closed peer review processes aren’t facilitating scholarly discourse, what purposes do they serve? Gatekeeping, as I’ve suggested, is a primary one; as almost all of the folks I’ve talked with this spring have insisted, peer review is necessary to ensuring that the work published by scholarly outlets is of sufficiently high quality, and anonymity is necessary in order to allow reviewers the freedom to say that an article should not be published. In fact, this question of anonymity is quite fraught for most of the academics with whom I’ve spoken; they have repeatedly responded with various degrees of alarm to suggestions that their review comments might in fact be more productive delivered publicly, as part of an ongoing conversation with the author, rather than as a backchannel, one-way communication mediated by an editor. Such a position may be justifiable if, again, the primary purpose of peer review is quality control, and if the process is reliably scrupulous. However, as other discussants in the Nature web debate point out, blind peer review is not a perfect process, subject as it is to all kinds of failures and abuses, ranging from flawed articles that nonetheless make it through the system to ideas that are appropriated by unethical reviewers, with all manner of cronyism and professional jealousy inbetween.
So, again, if closed peer review processes aren’t serving scholars in their need for feedback and discussion, and if they can’t be wholly relied upon for their quality-control functions, what’s left? I’d argue that the primary purpose that anonymous peer review actually serves today, at least in the humanities (and that qualifier, and everything that follows from it, opens a whole other can of worms that needs further discussion — what are the different needs with respect to peer review in the different disciplines?), is that of institutional warranting, of conveying to college and university administrations that the work their employees are doing is appropriate and well-thought-of in its field, and thus that these employees are deserving of ongoing appointments, tenure, promotions, raises, and whathaveyou.
Are these the functions that we really want peer review to serve? Vast amounts of scholars’ time is poured into the peer review process each year; wouldn’t it be better to put that time into open discussions that not only improve the individual texts under review but are also, potentially, productive of new work? Isn’t it possible that scholars would all be better served by separating the question of credentialing from the publishing process, by allowing everything through the gate, by designing a post-publication peer review process that focuses on how a scholarly text should be received rather than whether it should be out there in the first place? Would the various credentialing bodies that currently rely on peer review’s gatekeeping function be satisfied if we were to say to them, “no, anonymous reviewers did not determine whether my article was worthy of publication, but if you look at the comments that my article has received, you can see that ten of the top experts in my field had really positive, constructive things to say about it”?
Nature‘s experiment is an honorable one, and a step in the right direction. It is, however, a conservative step, one that foregrounds the institutional purposes of peer review rather than the ways that such review might be made to better serve the scholarly community. We’ve been working this spring on what we imagine to be a more progressive possibility, the scholarly press reimagined not as a disseminator of discrete electronic texts, but instead as a network that brings scholars together, allowing them to publish everything from blogs to books in formats that allow for productive connections, discussions, and discoveries. I’ll be writing more about this network soon; in the meantime, however, if we really want to energize scholarly discourse through this new mode of networked publishing, we’re going to have to design, from the ground up, a productive new peer review process, one that makes more fruitful interaction among authors and readers a primary goal.

the least interesting conversation in the world continues

Much as I hate to dredge up Updike and his crusty rejoinder to Kevin Kelly’s “Scan this Book” at last month’s Book Expo, The New York Times has refused to let it die, re-printing his speech in the Sunday Book Review under the headline, “The End of Authorship.” We should all thank the Times for perpetuating this most uninteresting war of words about the publishing future. Here, once again, is Updike:

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

I was reading Christine Boese’s response to this (always an exhilarating antidote to the usual muck), where she wonders about Updike’s use of history:

The part of this that is the most peculiar to me is the invoking of the Renaissance. I’d characterize that period as a time of explosive artistic and intellectual growth unleashed largely by social unrest due to structural and technological changes.
….swung the tipping point against the entrenched power arteries of the Church and Aristocracy, toward the rising merchant class and new ways of thinking, learning, and making, the end result was that the “fruit basket upset” of turning the known world’s power structures upside down opened the way to new kinds of art and literature and science.
So I believe we are (or were) in a similar entrenched period like that now. Except that there is a similar revolution underway. It unsettles many people. Many are brittle and want to fight it. I’m no determinist. I don’t see it as an inevitability. It looks to me more like a shift in the prevailing winds. The wind does not deterministically affect all who are buffeted the same way. Some resist, some bend, some spread their wings and fly off to wherever the wind will take them, for good or ill.
Normally, I’d hope the leading edge of our best artists and writers would understand such a shift, would be excited to be present at the birth of a new Renaissance. So it puzzles me that John Updike is sounding so much like those entrenched powers of the First and Second Estate who faced the Enlightenment and wondered why anyone would want a mass-printed book when clearly monk-copied manuscripts from the scriptoria are so much better?!

I say it again, it’s a shame that Kelly, the uncritical commercialist, and Updike, the nostaligic elitist, have been the ones framing the public debate. For most of us, Google is neither the eclipse nor dawn of authorship, but just a single feature of a shifting landscape. Search is merely a tool, a means: the books themselves are the end. Yet, neither Google Book Search, which is simply an apparatus for extracting new profits off of the transmission and search of books, nor the present-day publishing industry, dominated as it is by mega-conglomerates with their penchant for blockbusters (our culture haunted by vast legions of the out-of-print), serves those ends very well. And yet these are the competing futures of the book: lonely forts and sparkling clouds. Or so we’re told.

a girl goes to work (infographic video)

It’s not often that you see infographics with soul. Even though visuals are significantly more fun to look at than actual data tables, the oversimplification of infographics tends to suck out the interest in favor of making things quickly comprehensible (often to the detriment of the true data points, like the 2000 election map). This Röyksopp video, on the other hand, a delightful crossover between games, illustration, and infographic, is all about the storyline and subverts data to be a secondary player. This is not pure data visualization on the lines of the front page feature in USA Today. It is, instead, a touching story encased in the traditional visual language and iconography of infographics. The video’s currency belies its age: it won the 2002 MTV Europe music video award for best video.
Our information environment is growing both more dispersed and more saturated. Infographics serve as a filter, distilling hundreds of data points down into comprehensible form. They help us peer into the impenetrable data pools in our day to day life, and, in the best case, provide an alternative way to reevaluate our surroundings and make better decisions. (Tufte has also famously argued that infographics can be used to make incredibly poor decisions–caveat lector.)
But infographics do something else; more than visual representations of data, they are beautiful renderings of the invisible and obscured. They stylishly separate signal from noise, bringing a sense of comprehensive simplicity to an overstimulating environment. That’s what makes the video so wonderful. In the non-physical space of the animation, the datasphere is made visible. The ambient informatics reflect the information saturation that we navigate everyday (some with more serenity than others), but the woman in the video is unperturbed by the massive complexity of the systems that surround her. Her bathroom is part of a maze of municipal waterpipes; she navigates the public transport grid with thousands of others; she works at a computer terminal dealing with massive amounts of data (which are rendered in dancing—and therefore somewhat useless—infographics for her. A clever wink to the audience.); she eats food from a worldwide system of agricultural production that delivers it to her (as far as she can tell) in mere moments. This is the complexity that we see and we know and we ignore, just like her. This recursiveness and reference to the real is deftly handled. The video is designed to emphasize the larger picture and allows us to make connections without being visually bogged down in the particulars and textures of reality. The girl’s journey from morning to pint is utterly familiar, yet rendered at this larger scale and with the pointed clarity of a information graphic, the narrative is beautiful and touching.
via information aesthetics

open source dissertation

exitstrategy-lg.gif Despite numerous books and accolades, Douglas Rushkoff is pursuing a PhD at Utrecht University, and has recently begun work on his dissertation, which will argue that the media forms of the network age are biased toward collaborative production. As proof of concept, Rushkoff is contemplating doing what he calls an “open source dissertation.” This would entail either a wikified outline to be fleshed out by volunteers, or some kind of additive approach wherein Rushkoff’s original content would become nested within layers of material contributed by collaborators. The latter tactic was employed in Rushkoff’s 2002 novel, “Exit Strategy,” which is posed as a manuscript from the days unearthed 200 years into the future. Before publishing, Rushkoff invited readers to participate in a public annotation process, in which they could play the role of literary excavator and submit their own marginalia for inclusion in the book. One hundred of these reader-contributed “future” annotations (mostly elucidations of late-90s slang) eventually appeared in the final print edition.
Writing a novel this way is one thing, but a doctoral thesis will likely not be granted as much license. While I suspect the Dutch are more amenable to new forms, only two born-digital dissertations have ever been accepted by American universities: the first, a hypertext work on the online fan culture of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” which was submitted by Christine Boese to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1998; the second, approved just this past year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was a thesis by Virginia Kuhn on multimedia literacy and pedagogy that involved substantial amounts of video and audio and was assembled in TK3. For well over a year, the Institute advocated for Virginia in the face of enormous institutional resistance. The eventual hard-won victory occasioned a big story (subscription required) in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
kuhn chronicle.jpg
In these cases, the bone of contention was form (though legal concerns about the use of video and audio certainly contributed in Kuhn’s case): it’s still inordinately difficult to convince thesis review committees to accept anything that cannot be read, archived and pointed to on paper. A dissertation that requires a digital environment, whether to employ unconventional structures (e.g. hypertext) or to incorporate multiple media forms, in most cases will not even be considered unless you wish to turn your thesis defense into a full-blown crusade. Yet, as pitched as these battles have been, what Rushkoff is suggesting will undoubtedly be far more unsettling to even the most progressive of academic administrations. We’re no longer simply talking about the leveraging of new rhetorical forms and a gradual disentanglement of printed pulp from institutional warrants, we’re talking about a fundamental reorientation of authorship.
When Rushkoff tossed out the idea of a wikified dissertation on his blog last week, readers came back with some interesting comments. One asked, “So do all of the contributors get a PhD?”, which raises the tricky question of how to evaluate and accredit collaborative work. “Not that professors at real grad schools don’t have scores of uncredited students doing their work for them,” Rushkoff replied. “they do. But that’s accepted as the way the institution works. To practice this out in the open is an entirely different thing.”

meanwhile, back in the world of old media . . .

One of the most interesting things about new media is the light that it shines on how old media works and doesn’t work, a phenomenon that Marshall McLuhan encapsulated precisely with his declaration that a fish doesn’t realize that it lives in water until it finds itself stranded on land. The latest demonstration: an article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. (The version in the International Herald Tribune might be more rot-resistant, though it lacks illustrations.) The Times details, with no small amount of snark, how the conservatives have taken it upon themselves to construct an Encyclopedia of American Conservatism.

We’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing encyclopedias on this blog. What’s interesting to me about this one is how resolutely old-fashioned it is: it’s print-based through and through. The editors have decided who’s in and who’s out, as the Times points out in this useful chart:

who is in and who is out of the conservative encyclopedia

Readers are not allowed to argue with the selections: American Conservatism is what the editors say it is. It’s a closed text and not up for discussion. Readers can discuss it, of course – that’s what I’m doing here – but such discussions have no direct impact on the text itself.

There’s a political moral to be teased out here – conservative thinking is dogmatic rather than dialectical – but that’s too easy. I’m more interested in how we think about this. Would we notice the authoritarian nature of this work if we didn’t have things like the Wikipedia to compare it to? Someone who knows more about book history than I can confirm whether Diderot & d’Alembert had to deal with readers disgruntled by omissions from their Encyclopédie. It’s only now, however, that we sense the loss of potential: compared to the Wikipedia this seems limiting.

rosenzweig on wikipedia

Roy Rosenzweig, a history professor at George Mason University and colleague of the institute, recently published a very good article on Wikipedia from the perspective of a historian. “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” as a historian’s analysis complements the discussion from the important but different lens of journalists and scientists. Therefore, Rosenzweig focuses on, not just factual accuracy, but also the quality of prose and the historical context of entry subjects. He begins with in depth overview of how Wikipedia was created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and describes their previous attempts to create a free online encyclopedia. Wales and Sanger’s first attempt at a vetted resource, called Nupedia, sheds light on how from the very beginning of the project, vetting and reliability of authorship were at the forefront of the creators.
Rosenzweig adds to a growing body of research trying to determine the accuracy of Wikipedia, in his comparative analysis of it with other online history references, along similar lines of the Nature study. He compares entries in Wikipedia with Microsoft’s online resource Encarta and American National Biography Online out of the Oxford University Press and the American Council of Learned Societies. Where Encarta is for a mass audience, American National Biography Online is a more specialized history resource. Rosenzweig takes a sample of 52 entries from the 18,000 found in ANBO and compares them with entries in Encarta and Wikipeida. In coverage, Wikipedia contain more of from the sample than Encarta. Although the length of the articles didn’t reach the level of ANBO, Wikipedia articles were more lengthy than the entries than Encarta. Further, in terms of accuracy, Wikipedia and Encarta seem basically on par with each other, which confirms a similar conclusion (although debated) that the Nature study reached in its comparison of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The discussion gets more interesting when Rosenzweig discusses the effect of collaborative writing in more qualitative ways. He rightfully notes that collaborative writing often leads to less compelling prose. Multiple stlyes of writing, competing interests and motivations, varying levels of writing ability are all factors in the quality of a written text. Wikipedia entries may be for the most part factually correct, but are often not that well written or historically relevant in terms of what receives emphasis. Due to piecemeal authorship, the articles often miss out on adding coherency to the larger historical conversation. ANBO has well crafted entries, however, they are often authored by well known historians, including the likes of Alan Brinkley covering Franklin Roosevelt and T. H. Watkins penning an entry on Harold Ickes.
However, the quality of writing needs to be balanced with accessibility. ANBO is subscription based, where as Wikipedia is free, which reveals how access to a resource plays a role in its purpose. As a product of the amateur historian, Rosenzweig comments upon the tension created when professional historians engage with Wikipedia. For example, he notes that it tends to be full of interesting trivia, but the seasoned historian will question its historic significance. As well, the professional historian has great concern for citation and sourcing references, which is not as rigorously enforced in Wikipedia.
Because of Wikipedia’s widespread and growing use, it challenges the authority of the professional historian, and therefore cannot be ignored. The tension is interesting because it raises questions about the professional historians obligation to Wikipedia. I am curious to know if Rosenzweig or any of the other authors of similar studies went back and corrected errors that were discovered. Even if they do not, once errors are published, an article quickly gets corrected. However, in the process of research, when should the researcher step in and make correction they discover? Rosenzweig documents the “burn out” that any experts feels when authors attempt to moderate of entries, including early expert authors. In general, what is the professional ethical obligation for any expert to engage maintaining Wikipedia? To this point, Rosenzweig notes there is an obligation and need to provide the public with quality information in Wikipedia or some other venue.
Rosenzweig has written a comprehensive description of Wikipedia and how it relates to the scholarship of the professional historian. He concludes by looking forward and describes what the professional historian can learn from open collaborative production models. Further, he notes interesting possibilities such as the collaborative open source textbook as well as challenges such as how to properly cite (a currency of the academy) collaborative efforts. My hope is that this article will begin to bring more historians and others in the humanities into productive discussion on how open collaboration is changing traditional roles and methods of scholarship.

nature re-jiggers peer review

Nature, one of the most esteemed arbiters of scientific research, has initiated a major experiment that could, if successful, fundamentally alter the way it handles peer review, and, in the long run, redefine what it means to be a scholarly journal. From the editors:

…like any process, peer review requires occasional scrutiny and assessement. Has the Internet bought new opportunities for journals to manage peer review more imaginatively or by different means? Are there any systematic flaws in the process? Should the process be transparent or confidential? Is the journal even necessary, or could scientists manage the peer review process themselves?
Nature’s peer review process has been maintained, unchanged, for decades. We, the editors, believe that the process functions well, by and large. But, in the spirit of being open to considering alternative approaches, we are taking two initiatives: a web debate and a trial of a particular type of open peer review.
The trial will not displace Nature’s traditional confidential peer review process, but will complement it. From 5 June 2006, authors may opt to have their submitted manuscripts posted publicly for comment.

In a way, Nature’s peer review trial is nothing new. Since the early days of the Internet, the scientific community has been finding ways to share research outside of the official publishing channels — the World Wide Web was created at a particle physics lab in Switzerland for the purpose of facilitating exchange among scientists. Of more direct concern to journal editors are initiatives like PLoS (Public Library of Science), a nonprofit, open-access publishing network founded expressly to undercut the hegemony of subscription-only journals in the medical sciences. More relevant to the issue of peer review is a project like, a “preprint” server hosted at Cornell, where for a decade scientists have circulated working papers in physics, mathematics, computer science and quantitative biology. Increasingly, scientists are posting to arXiv before submitting to journals, either to get some feedback, or, out of a competitive impulse, to quickly attach their names to a hot idea while waiting for the much slower and non-transparent review process at the journals to unfold. Even journalists covering the sciences are turning more and more to these preprint sites to scoop the latest breakthroughs.
Nature has taken the arXiv model and situated it within a more traditional editorial structure. Abstracts of papers submitted into Nature’s open peer review are immediately posted in a blog, from which anyone can download a full copy. Comments may then be submitted by any scientist in a relevant field, provided that they submit their name and an institutional email address. Once approved by the editors, comments are posted on the site, with RSS feeds available for individual comment streams. This all takes place alongside Nature’s established peer review process, which, when completed for a particular paper, will mean a freeze on that paper’s comments in the open review. At the end of the three-month trial, Nature will evaluate the public comments and publish its conclusions about the experiment.
A watershed moment in the evolution of academic publishing or simply a token gesture in the face of unstoppable change? We’ll have to wait and see. Obviously, Nature’s editors have read the writing on the wall: grasped that the locus of scientific discourse is shifting from the pages of journals to a broader online conversation. In attempting this experiment, Nature is saying that it would like to host that conversation, and at the same time suggesting that there’s still a crucial role to be played by the editor, even if that role increasingly (as we’ve found with GAM3R 7H30RY) is that of moderator. The experiment’s success will ultimately hinge on how much the scientific community buys into this kind of moderated semi-openness, and on how much control Nature is really willing to cede to the community. As of this writing, there are only a few comments on the open papers.
Accompanying the peer review trial, Nature is hosting a “web debate” (actually, more of an essay series) that brings together prominent scientists and editors to publicly examine the various dimensions of peer review: what works, what doesn’t, and what might be changed to better harness new communication technologies. It’s sort of a peer review of peer review. Hopefully this will occasion some serious discussion, not just in the sciences, but across academia, of how the peer review process might be re-thought in the context of networks to better serve scholars and the public.
(This is particularly exciting news for the Institute, since we are currently working to effect similar change in the humanities. We’ll talk more about that soon.)

future of flickr

xmen_sl.jpgWired News reported last week, that some users of Flickr were upset at the enforcing of, until now a rarely mentioned, Flickr policy of making non-photographic images unavailable to the public if the account does not mostly contain photographs. Although Flickr is mostly known as a photo sharing site, people often post various digitized images into Flickr including our collaborator, Alex Itin. Currently, users of Second Life are receiving particular attention with Flickr’s posting policies.
The article quotes Stewart Butterfield saying, “the rationale is that when people do a global search on Flickr, they want to find photos.”
I can appreciate that Flickr wants to maintain a clear brand identity. They have created one of the most successful open photo sharing websites to date and, they don’t want to dilute their brand. However, isn’t this just a tagging issue? It is ironic that Flickr, one of the pioneering Web 2.0 apps, whose success strongly relies on the power of folksonomy, misses this point. Flickr was one of the primary ways the general public figured out how tagging works, and their users should be able to figure out how to selection what kinds of images they want.
How much of a stretch would it be for Flickr to become an image sharing website, including tags for photographs, scanned analog images, and born digital images?
FInally, Second Life had a recent event with a tie-in to a virtual X-Men movie premiere, whose images made their way into Flickr. When asked to comment about it, Butterfield goes on to say, “Flickr wasn’t designed for Universal or Sony to promote their movie. Flickr is very explicitly for personal, noncommercial use” rather than “using a photo as a proxy for an ad.”
Again, I appreciate their sentiment. However, is there a feasible way to enforce this kind of policy? Is it ok to for me to post a picture of my trip to Seattle, wearing an Izod shirt, holding a Starbucks cups, in front of the Space Needle? Isn’t this a proxy for an ad? As we have noted before, architecture, such as Disneyland, the Chrylser Building and Space Needle are all copyrighted. Our clothes are plastered with icons and slogans. Food and drinks are covered with logos. We are a culture of brands and increasing everything in our lives is branded. It should come to no surprise that the media we, as a culture, produce reflects these brands, corporate identities, and commercial bodies.
The decreases in cost of digital production tools have vastly increased amateur media production. Flickr provides a great service to users of the web to support the sharing of all the media people are creating. However, Flickr created something bigger than they originally intended. Rather than limiting themselves to photo sharing, there is much more potential in creating a space for the sharing of and community building around all digital images.