Biological reference knowledge structured by experts and the public?
Scientific research is the systematic dwelling at the frontiers of knowledge. Since these are scattered in space and time, successful dwellers require reliable reference works that assemble existing knowledge. Diderot and d'Alembert created their "Encyclopédie" to serve this purpose, and over the two and a half centuries since, many other encyclopedias have been produced following their scheme: Written by scholars, they charged users for access to the information they provided at update intervals on the scale of years. This resulted in credibility, the core currency of reference works, but (by today's standards) in limited dissemination and slow reactions to new knowledge. Web-based wikis, spearheaded by the Wikipedias, have extended knowledge accumulation to fields far beyond any traditional notions of expertise, provide their information at no cost to the user, and invite anybody to contribute (even anonymously) on a voluntary basis. This makes them popular and updateable on scales way below years but vulnerable to vandalism, thereby precluding credibility. Due to such problems, wikis had a slow start into the academic world but expert-only wikis like Scholarpedia or the Encyclopedia of Earth are gaining ground, and with the continued growth, diversification and global availability of the Internet, knowledge and the structuring thereof are becoming ever more dynamic and participatory. Some key biology databases and communities are going wiki, as did OpenWetWare  -- a place where lab notebooks are being kept in public. Besides, collaborative learning by structuring knowledge is a good preparation for later collaborative knowledge production in research teams. Collaborative, peer-to-peer learning principles thus develop in parallel and lead to more student-centred learning environments.
Citizendium  is a web-based educational and reference platform that seeks to combine expert knowledge with public participation in a way that harvests the strengths of both worlds and avoids the major pitfalls of unilateral approaches. It allows anybody to contribute under their real names, provides all of its contents for free, and hosts two basic flavours of articles: As in Wikipedia , most content pages can be edited by any user but the information they contain will not be considered reliable. Credibility is lent to an article in a very traditional way, i.e. by means of approval by experts ("editors"). The approved articles then serve as a reliable introduction to a topic (much like in paper encyclopedias, just more up-to-date), and all the non-approved versions ("drafts") as an educational playground. Approved versions cannot be edited but work on an approved article can continue in the draft version which may eventually enter the approval process again.
This two-step (and potentially cyclic) approach is conceptually similar to the thermal ratchet, the principle behind molecular motors : Whereas Brownian motion can drive the paddle wheel randomly, the ratchet's movement will only follow if the pawl permits. The pawl's role (which requires energy) at CZ will be played by people whose life's work is to know things and who are willing to share the knowledge they have acquired during long years of dedication to their field. Consequently, CZ contributors are given credence for their work: The wiki allows to track individual contributions in a much more detailed way than any non-wiki system currently used in scholarly communication. This transparency of contributions to the structuring and expansion of global knowledge may well provide a fertile ground for the careers of knowledge workers and workers-to-be.
Education at CZ
Taking this educational concept one step further, Citizendium, in collaboration with teachers and lecturers, has launched Eduzendium , a project that allows students to write their course assignments online on the Citizendium. Students work for course credits, and their teachers grade the finished work based on the quality of the article drafts produced from each student's input. But by writing their assignments under this scheme, students not only get to earn grade credits, they can see their work online and add to the global store of knowledge. By collaborating with the rapidly growing Citizendium community of expert and non-expert authors, the chances are good that their essays will persist and develop into valuable encyclopedic articles. Not surprisingly, educators who opted for Eduzendium noticed a higher degree of enthusiasm amongst their students. This brings us to the key difference between CZ and Feynman's original Brownian ratchet: Given the incentive of presenting one's knowledge on a platform that regularly attracts putative employers or academic supervisors, the input provided by most registered users can be expected to average well above thermal noise, thereby facilitating the role of the pawl, or CZ editors. Finally, perhaps best of all, students get to learn in a highly collaborative real-time way, and rumours have it that they might actually have fun doing so. The educational potential of CZ is enhanced by the use of subpages which provide for an easy integration with other free educational materials like videos, e.g. the non-profit, K-12 educational video contest WatchKnow  or, at undergraduate level, the non-profit World Lecture Project .
Research at CZ
As in traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia, the main namespace of the Citizendium is not the location for original research. However, we realize that original research can mean many things, and our policy on original research tends to be closer to traditional encyclopedias than to the Wikipedia model. That is to say, we welcome the synthesis of pre-existing research, but Citizendium is not (yet) the place to publicize new research. Discussions are underway about incorporating novel research on subpages or other namespaces. Ways to take academic credit for contributions to CZ are also being discussed , whereas bot assistance for fact picking (as in ) can be made available on a case-by-case basis to facilitate data-intensive contributions.
Biology at CZ
CZ covers many fields, both academic and beyond, but activities in the biomedical fields have been especially visible: Biology is second to history in terms of number of articles (followed by health sciences), and second to computers in terms of number of authors (followed by history) and fourth (after computers, engineering and health sciences) in number of editors (for details, see the CZ statistics .
"Biology" was the first article to be approved in Citizendium (on December 15, 2006, half a year after the launch of the project) . The article Biology makes good use of subpages for related articles, bibliography, external links, gallery, videos and signed articles. This article's history also highlights how experts and non-experts work shoulder on shoulder, and that may be inspirational for others to join the bandwagon. A good opportunity for that will be "Biology Week" -- the first of a whole series of topic-dedicated weeks that will initially be held once a month (watch out for Health Sciences Week, Food Science Week, Agriculture Week and Anthropology Week).
"Biology Week" is scheduled to be held during September 22 to September 28, 2008. For all biologists, this is a chance to start sharing their expertise by creating and improving biology articles, or to satisfy their curiosity by browsing (and contributing to) articles on other subjects. As explained above, students can even get credits for that, while journalists can lend their phrasing skills to make articles more attractive to non-specialist readers, and all the interested public can participate -- it is a wiki.
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