Six years ago I helped launch AcaWiki, a site based on Semantic MediaWiki (software for which I had very high expectations, mostly transferred to Wikidata) for summarizing academic research.
A substantial community failed to materialize. I’ve probably been the only semi-consistent contributor over its entire six years. The best contributions have come from Jodi Schneider, who summarized a bunch of papers related to her research on the semantic web and online discourse, Benjamin Mako Hill, who summarized his PhD qualification exam readings, and Nate Matias who did the same and added a bunch of summaries related to online harassment. Students of an archaeology course taught by Ben Marwick summarized many papers as part of the class. Thank you Jodi, Mako, Nate, Ben, and a bunch of people who have each contributed one or a few summaries.
I’m not going to try to enumerate the deficiencies of AcaWiki here. They boil down to lack of time dedicated to outreach and to improving the site, and zero effort to raise funds to support such work, following a small startup grant obtained by AcaWiki’s founder Neeru Paharia, who has since been busy earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. With Neeru I’ve been the organization’s other long-term director so bear responsibility for this lack of effort. In retrospect dedicating more time to AcaWiki these last years at a cost to non-collaborative activity (e.g., this blog) would have been wise. I haven’t moved to take the other obvious course of shutting down the site, because I still believe something like it is badly needed, not least by me, as I wrote in 2009:
This could be seen as an end-run around access and copyright restrictions (the Open Access movement has made tremendous progress though there is still much to be done), but AcaWiki is a very partial solution to that problem — sometimes an article summary (assuming AcaWiki has one) would be enough, though often a researcher would still need access to the full paper (and the full dataset, but that’s another battle).
More interesting to me is the potential for AcaWiki summaries to increase the impact of research by making it more accessible in another way — comprehensible to non-specialists and approachable by non-speedreaders. I read a fair number of academic papers and many more get left on my reading queue unread. A “human readable” distillation of the key points of articles (abstracts typically convey next to nothing or are filled with jargon) would really let me ingest more.
This has held true even given AcaWiki’s tiny size to date: I regularly look back at summaries I’ve written to remember what I’ve read, and wish I summarized much more of what I’ve read, because most of it I’ve almost totally forgotten! I recommend summarizing papers even though it is hard.
Much harder still and more valuable are literature reviews. These were envisioned to be a part of AcaWiki, but I now think that every Wikipedia article should effectively be a literature review (and more). A year ago I blogged about an example of Wikipedia article as literature review led by James Heilman. Earlier this year Heilman wrote a call to action around a genre of literature review, Open Access to a High-Quality, Impartial, Point-of-Care Medical Summary Would Save Lives: Why Does It Not Exist? (which of course I summarized on AcaWiki). I have a partially written commentary on this piece but for now I can only urge you to read Heilman, or start with and improve my summary.
This brings me to one of my excuses for not dedicating more time to AcaWiki: hope that it would be superseded by a project directly under the Wikimedia umbrella, benefiting from that organization’s and movement’s scale. But, I’ve done almost nothing to make this happen, either. I imagine the current effort that could lead in that direction is WikiProject Open Signalling OA-ness, as I’ve noted at the top of a page on AcaWiki listing similar projects. By far the best project on the list is Journalist’s Resource, also launched in 2009, with vastly greater resources. The projects listed so far as “similar” must only the tip of an iceberg of efforts to summarize academic research, for it’s widely recognized (yes, citation needed; I just created a placeholder on AcaWiki for gathering these) that summarization in various forms is valuable and much more is needed.
If this hasn’t been enough of a ramble already, I’ll close with miscellaneous notes about and unsorted to-dos AcaWiki:
- Very brief summaries, perhaps 140 character or not much longer, would be useful complements to longer summaries. It would be easy to add a short summary field to AcaWiki.
- For summaries of articles which are themselves freely licensed, it might be useful to include the author’s abstract in AcaWiki. Again, it would be easy to add a field.
- There’s lots of research on automated summarization, some of it producing open source tools. These could be applied to initialize summaries, either for human summaries, or en masse bot summary creation.
- I have added a field for an article’s Wikidata identifier. AcaWiki is one of a handful of sites potentially using Wikidata for authority control. There will be many more. But it’d be far more useful to do something with that identifier, most obviously to ingest article metadata from Wikidata and create Wikidata items/push metadata to Wikidata where items corresponding to summarized articles do not exist. I’ve not yet seriously looked into how much of this can be currently accomplished using Wikibase Client.
- Last month there was debate about a program giving some Wikipedia contributors gratis access to closed academic journals. Does this program help improve Wikipedia as a free resource, or promote non-free literature? It must do some of both; which is the bigger impact on long-term free knowledge outcomes probably depends on one’s perspective. My bias is that improving and promoting free resources is vastly more important than suppressing non-free ones. But I also think that free academic summaries could help in both respects. For Wikipedia readers, a reference with an immediately available summary would be more useful than one without. The summary would also reduce the need to access the original non-free article. AcaWiki in its current state is inadequate, but perhaps the the debate ought motivate more work on free academic summaries, here or elsewhere.
- Has any closed access publisher freed only article abstracts (including a free license; abstracts are almost always gratis access)? This would be useful to a site like AcaWiki at the least, especially if abstracts were more consistently useful.
- Should the scope of AcaWiki be explicitly expanded to include summarizing material that is somehow academic but is not in the form of a peer-reviewed paper published in an academic journal? Some of the summaries I’ve contributed are for books or grey literature.
- Periodically it’s been suggested to change the default license for AcaWiki summaries from CC-BY to CC-BY-SA. I should add updated thoughts at the link.
- Some time ago in order to put a stop to the creation of spam accounts, I enabled the ConfirmAccount extension, which forces users who want to contribute to fill out an account request form. I admit this is hugely annoying. I have done zero research into it, but I would love to have an extension which auto-enables account creation based on some external authentication and reputation, e.g., Wikimedia wiki accounts or even users followed/subscribed to/endorsed by existing AcaWiki users on other sites, e.g., social networks.
- Upgrade site to https when Let’s Encrypt becomes generally available. Alternatively, see if it is possible to move hosting (currently a $10/month Digital Ocean VPS) to Miraheze, which mandates https.
- I intended to write an update on AcaWiki for Open Access Week (October 19-25). I only realized after beginning that AcaWiki was recently 6 years old.
- I’m going to ping the people who have contributed to AcaWiki so far to look at this post and provide feedback. What would it take for them to feel good about recommending others do what they’ve done, e.g., summarizing PhD or research program readers, or assigning contributing or improving AcaWiki summaries to their classes? Or if something else entirely should be done to push forward free summarization of academic literature, what is that something?
- For some time Fabricatorz did a bit of work on and hosted AcaWiki. From my email correspondence I see that Bassel Khartabil did some of that. As I’ve blogged before (1, 2, 3), Bassel has been detained by the Syrian government since 2012. Recently he has gone missing and presumably is in grave danger. Props to his Frabricatorz and many other friends who have done more to raise awareness of Bassel’s plight than I would have imagined possible when writing those previous posts. See freebassel.org for info and links, and spread the word. I’ll add a note about #freebassel to the AcaWiki home page (which badly needs a general revamp) shortly.
If any of this interests you, get in touch or merely watch for updates on the acawiki-general mailing list, AcaWiki on pump.io, Twitter, or Facebook, or blog comments below, or the AcaWiki site.
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