Researchers have high hopes that semantic technology will help them deal with the issues of making academic and scientific information more easily explorable and accessible.
AcaWiki, built using Semantic MediaWiki, launched this month, its goal being the creation of a Wikipedia for academic research that often is locked behind firewalls or hidden in academic journals, where it languishes rather than ignites discussion and provokes action. The site lets scholars, graduate students and bloggers posts summaries under the Creative Commons Attribution license of peer-reviewed academic papers in disciplines ranging from anthropology to business to economics and psychology.
Started with seed funding from the Hewlett Foundation, AcaWiki was founded by Neeru Paharia, a doctoral student at the Harvard Business School and formerly the executive director of Creative Commons. Tags and RSS feeds help users share and organize summaries — and not exclusively for the benefit of those in the academic community. One of AcaWiki’s goals is to use new media to create public dialogue with science, according to a release announcing the project.
“AcaWiki can provide an important ‘sense-making’ function for enabling easier sharing of knowledge that can help to build bridges across disciplines–and even between academia and those outside,” reads a quote in the press release from Vijay Kumar, senior associate dean and director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology at MIT.
The ability to get the general public involved in such dialogue suffers when they might have to pay to download multiple academic papers that reside behind journal firewalls.
“AcaWiki’s approach takes advantage of the fact that copyright does not apply to ideas, only to the written expression of those ideas. Scholars can thus post summaries of their or others’ research online as long as they are not copying verbatim beyond what fair-use laws permit,” the organization notes.
There’s a stew of interesting summaries already live on the new site that are more likely to draw the interest of the general public — including one titled “Utopian Enterprise: Articulating the Meanings of Star Trek’s Culture of Consumption,” from the Journal of Consumer Research, whose summary states that the data behind the paper is based on notes and artifacts from 20 months of fieldwork at Star Trek fan clubs, at conventions, and in Internet groups, and 67 interviews with Star Trek fans. You could also see “The Dirt on Coming Clean: Perverse Effects of Disclosing Conflicts of Interest,” from The Journal of Legal Studies, as something that could work its way into cocktail party conversation. Others — Suppression of GATA-3 Nuclear Import and Phosphorylation: A Novel Mechanism of Corticosteroid Action in Allergic Disease — are probably going to have a more limited specialty audience.
Also this month, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Tetherless World Constellation [refer Hendler’s Goal Information Anywhere ] claimed $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation, through The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for a major semantic project.
It is creating “a toolkit for scientists and educators that allows them to gain access to data from a variety of sources and, importantly, outside of their direct area of expertise,” according to a statement by Peter Fox, the principal investigator for the project and Senior Constellation Professor in the Tetherless World Constellation at Rensselaer.
According to the release announcing the project, semantic technologies will make it possible for researchers, educators and policy makers to ask scientific questions without necessarily having within their grasp the specific technical language to get the results they need.
Given the growing specialization of scientific research, even experts in one field of science might not necessarily have the vocabulary to easily explore data related to other subjects â€“ even closely related ones â€“ to help them discover connections that could lead to breakthroughs.
The project aims to build customizable web sites leveraging semantic ontologies so that the semantically tagged data behind each site will be accessible to users asking questions using the vocabulary they understand at the level of expertise they understand in. Data also will be accessible in its raw form and semantically tagged with source data so that end users can reproduce, verify or cite it. The researchers say they also plan to create plug-ins for software such as Excel so the data can be accessed in a format that end users are comfortable with.
Other efforts involving the use of semantic technologies to resolve similar problems around scientific data include Noesis, a semantic web search engine developed by the University of Alabama in Huntsville.