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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Can Librarians Learn to Love Science Wikis?

The students in my lab have been posting their raw experimental data to a blog since February. Since that time we have evolved this process onto a wiki. This has been very useful for tracking the contributions of multiple students and editors. It has particularly convenient to annotate the text directly with temporary comments, such as, "dead link here" or "redo this analysis with these conditions" , etc. On a blog, the previous versions of a post are deleted, which makes comments inapplicable after revision.

However, the great flexibility of such a publication system has made many librarians uneasy, as I have learned through conversations with them.

One of the main issues is referenceability.

One of the advantages of using a wiki is that pages can be updated when new information becomes available. However, if that is the case, then how can morphing information sources be verified? Formal publications have already had to deal with this issue when citing websites for information that can only be found on the web. The current trend seems to be to state the time the website was accessed next to the hyperlink. This is a pretty weak form of referencing since there is no reliable way to verify what was on that site at that time. Of course, there is the Wayback Machine archiving the internet over time but that requires some forethought to submit the website and will only be updated about once a month.

Others have proposed services that freeze a copy of the web page on a third party site when making a citation. (I don't have a link for this - maybe someone can remind me of an example). The wiki (specifically Wikispaces) has both the third party time stamp and the version available automatically. If the publication time of a document is known, it should usually be possible to find the version of the wiki page available at that time. To make this explicit, one could just post the link to the version in addition to the current page.


  • I think your looking at solving the wrong problem. In chemistry at least I don't see any reason that you would want to cite a wiki anymore than you would cite your lab notebook. If a wiki truly has a wealth of information that you need to cite, it really should be published in some more tradition form, be it book, conference proceeding or journal article.

    As an aside, this is why chemistry needs something like ArXiv. That would be the place for these things that don't quite make the cut for traditional publishing, but would still be valueable as a citeable works.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:31 PM  

  • The wiki is our lab notebook. And the work that ends up being publishable in traditional form will be when we have enough data to assemble. This is not a replacement of peer reviewed publication. A pre-print repository like ArXiv is not appropriate for this type of information because it consists mainly of failed and sub-optimized experiments, as is the case for any scientific research. It allows us to expose our problems for feedback from our peers as they happen on a daily basis.

    By Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley, at 4:22 AM  

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