Thursday, June 4, 2009

Not Quite Wikipedia But Should There Be a Geosciences Scitable?

Sometime back Brian at Clastic Detritus expressed his unwillingness for contributing geology articles to Wikipedia. He was concerned of getting trapped in endless edit wars where materials written by genuine experts are edited by people with no real expertise in the topic leading to corrections and re-corrections and so on..

I see his point. He has been through battling fringe views on geology before. So have I. Maybe that experience has colored his views on Wiki. I saw in his comments thread a somewhat rancorous debate on this topic. What I did get a sense was that ...well what is the alternative to Wiki? Now I do make it a point to link to as much primary literature as possible through my posts. But let's face it. Most primary literature is behind pay walls and secondly it is not much use if you want to refer to general concepts. Which means I end up linking to Wiki articles as well.

I agree with a lot of commentators who stress that Wiki articles should be considered good starting points and not necessarily the most authoritative view on the subject of interest. But much of the general public scanning the web may not see it that way or even realize that Wiki may not have the best content. There are scientists and faculty who do maintain web pages explaining geology general concepts. But these are scattered and may miss out being placed high on Google search index. Wiki dominates so much that invariably that is the first link you go to from search results.

So, my question to the geoblogosphere, is it time for a Geoscience Scitable?

Recently I came across this resource by Nature Education. It is a free science library which currently has only topics on Genetics and Evolution. But I like the concept very much. Articles on various subtopics are written by subject experts and there is a editor for each broad area. The authors and editors are clearly named along with their affiliation. And the Nature brand name is well respected and lends a certain credibility to the content.

You cannot edit the articles.... do I hear a sigh of relief?!!! ..But you can join a group - which could be either private or public - that matches your interest or you can start a discussion on that article if you feel like expanding on the topic or criticizing it. This ensures that your involvement need not be just a static reading experience but a more participatory one. You can post a question to an expert and there are faculty who are part of the discussion groups to mentor and guide discussions along.

Do check out this resource. Do you think this would be a useful platform for hosting geology content? Would you be willing to contribute to a Geosciences Scitable? I feel even without additional resources like virtual classrooms, just a well written article explaining general concepts by a named expert alongside a functionality to start a parallel discussion on it would be a boon.

There is a lot of potential in Scitable but I am not suggesting that it will replace Wikipedia in the short term as the prominent place to go to for reference. Even if a geosciences initiative takes off - and Nature Education will have to be persuaded to start a geology project - building content will take time. Early adopters of Scitable are likely to be educational institutions who could recommend it to students and that kind of a captive audience would give it a reasonable membership and a launching pad. But as a open resource for the general public there will be challenges to overcome .....even with the best written articles how do we get it be indexed higher than Wiki on your search results :)

Take a look though. It may just be the future alternative platform to Wiki that people are looking for in terms of reliable science content for general concepts and reference.


  1. I have contributed to around 100 Wikipedia articles after leaving academia. The reason? A library (good or otherwise) is not within easy reach for many people (including me).

    I often need some formula/basic equation at short notice. Should I give up and wait for the day when a self appointed expert will come up with their own freely available sources of information? Or should I wait for two months for a $200 book to be delivered to me which may or may not have the equations correctly printed?

    I think many are blinded by easy access to information and do not realize how difficult getting hold of a book or journal article can be.

    Wikipedia provides a basic point of reference and, as far as I am concerned, contains quite accurate information because I keep tabs on whether the information is correct or not (and point it out when it's not).

    Wikipedia works because people are willing to devote a lot of time to writing the articles without anything in return. Similar models that require credentialing haven't worked for the simple reason that people with lots of credentials are not necessarily altruistic.

  2. Suvrat, I hadn't heard of Scitable ... I'm gonna give that a look. Thanks for the link.

    jackofalltrades ... I think Wikipedia is a great resource for lots of things (e.g., equations, like you say) ... but for many geologic concepts it can be incomplete or articles simply don't exist. I also have found many good references listed at bottom of wikipedia articles that are great sources of info.

  3. jackofalltrades- i agree with some of the points you make about easy access and the difficulty of access to journals and I have mentioned them in my post. But as Brian pointed out the quantity and quality is irregular.

    Also you say that Wikipedia provides a basic point of reference and, as far as I am concerned, contains quite accurate information because I keep tabs on whether the information is correct or not (and point it out when it's not).

    This works for you since you do come from an academic background and have the expertise to keep tabs.

    But many people looking for information are not experts and dont have the training to critically evaluate the quality of information.

    No one doubts that Wiki has been a very useful information source albeit one where one has to be careful about the quality of content but Maybe forums like Scitable with a more controlled content can provide a more reliable alternative for the general public.

  4. Suvrat ... seems Scitable is also a social networking tool for scientists/educators/students ... I only browsed it briefly, didn't see too much discussion of the articles but is an intriguing format.

  5. yes I noticed people have formed groups for specific topics but no one seems to have started a discussion yet! I guess it might take a while to catch on. I have a feeling many users are simply using it for the content articles.

  6. Hi,

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    Warm Regards Team