cameronneylonWikimedians and the wider open information community are academics’ natural allies in knowledge creation, dissemination, research engagement and ultimately justifying public research funding. Cameron Neylon argues there is much these ‘amateurs’ can teach us about managing information at scale and making it accessible and usable. Scholarly knowledge is special because of the validation and assessment processes it goes though. But if we don’t make academic content easy to use then it will simply be passed over for other more accessible, more easily usable materials. 

The Wikimania meeting is the annual jamboree of the Wikimedia movement. The sessions cover museums, pop culture, politics, technology, communities and tools. Two thousand people have descended on the Barbican Centre in London to talk not just about Wikipedia (or more properly the Wikipedias in various languages) but a myriad of other projects that use the platforms or infrastructure the foundation stewards or take inspiration from the successes of this movement. The energy and the optimism here is infectious. The people around me are showing in session after session what happens when you give motivated people access to information resources and platforms to work with them.

From the perspective of academia, or of scholarly publishing it is easy, even traditional, to be dismissive of these efforts. There is perhaps no more pejorative term in the academic lexicon than ‘amateur’. This is a serious mistake. The community here are a knowledge creation and curation community – the most successful such community of the digital age.

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Wikipedia puzzle ball by Valter Wei (Flickr, CC BY-SA)

There is much that they can teach us about managing information at scale and making it accessible and usable. The infrastructure they are building could be an important contribution to our own information platforms. There are tools and systems I have seen demonstrated here, many of them built by those ‘amateurs’, which far outstrip the capabilities we have in the academic information ecosystem. And we don’t come to the table empty handed – we have experience and knowledge of curation and validation at different scales, on how to manage review when appropriate experts are rare, on handling conflicts of interest and the ethical conduct of information gathering.

But we are just one contributor to a rich tapestry of resources, just one piece in a puzzle. One of the things I find most disappointing about the STM Association response to last week’s letter is the way it perpetuates the idea that it makes sense to keep scholarly publishing somehow separate from the rest of the web. The idea that “Creative Commons Licenses…are not specifically designed for academic and scholarly publishing” aside from being a misrepresentation (a subject for another post) makes very little sense unless you insist on the idea that scholarly work needs to be kept separate from the rest of the world’s knowledge.

Now don’t get me wrong – scholarly knowledge is special. It is special because of the validation and assessment processes it goes though. But the containers it sits in. They’re not special. The business models that provide those containers aren’t particularly special. But most importantly the ways in which that knowledge could be used by a motivated community aren’t any different from that of other knowledge resources. And if we don’t make it easy to use our content then it will simply be passed over for other more accessible, more easily usable materials.

This community, this massive, engaged and motivated community are our natural allies in knowledge creation, dissemination, research engagement and ultimately justifying public research funding. We disengage from them at our peril. And we don’t get to dictate the terms of that engagement because they are bigger and more important than us. But if we choose to engage then the benefits to both our communities could be enormous.

It is comfortable to be the big fish in the small pond – to put up barriers and say “but we are different, we’re special” – but if we want to make a difference we should choose to swim actively in the main stream. Because that’s what this community is. The main stream of information and knowledge dissemination in the digital age.

Creative Commons LicenseThis piece originally appeared as Wikimania: We need to choose the main stream over our small pool at PLOS Opens, and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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About the Author

Cameron Neylon is a biophysicist and well known advocate of opening up the process of research.  He is Advocacy Director for PLOS and speaks regularly on issues of Open Science including Open Access publication, Open Data, and Open Source as well as the wider technical and social issues of applying the opportunities the internet brings to the practice of science. He was named as a SPARC Innovator in July 2010 and is a proud recipient of the Blue Obelisk for contributions to open data. He writes regularly at his blog, Science in the Open.

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