For whom the web Knols

Tara Brabazon on competing visions of ownership, content and scholarship

October 2, 2008

It has been a depressing week. September is the month when European and North American academics pull themselves back from holidays – or away from panicked catch-up research and writing – to update courses for the coming semester. But the return to a more formal and structured working timetable has not been the cause of my scholarly slump.

Updating curriculum has always been one of my favourite tasks in university life. It involves thinking about the course that was, pondering the course that will be and shaping the changes to research from the last year.

The single goal is to ensure that readings and assessment are relevant to our new students. I had assumed that the 2008 summer break would be particularly rewarding. As a new academic to my university, I wrote six courses in the last year. It was frantic but also incredibly rewarding. However, I was looking forward to updating and revisiting curricula that had been written in a blast furnace of deadlines.

Early Monday morning, I searched through the databases and journals for articles, conference papers and reports published in the last year. By 10.30am, I had not only found far fewer readings than I had hoped, but less than in any previous annual search. What’s more, this lack of new scholarship was not caused by a sudden post-RAE “let’s party” period from academics. While the world is still ordered by Greenwich Mean Time, international research policies are not so deferential to the structures of the former British Empire.

Instead – and sharpening a trend seen in previous years – publishers and commercial aggregators have continued to buy journals and raise subscription costs. As a consequence, university libraries have reduced their range of titles.

It is a disheartening experience to enter Google Scholar. It is not a poor search engine. It has a great capacity to locate a diverse range of scholarly materials including conference papers and doctoral theses.

But in 2007, Google Scholar searches declined by a third on the previous year. One simple cause for this decline was that the usefulness of the search engine reduced when few of the returned articles were available in full text.

If we ever wonder why students use Wikipedia, it is not simply because it is written in a conversational way and is easy to understand. It is because there is a structural, commercial block on our students accessing – let alone reading – higher-quality material in an online environment. The restrictions and limitations on knowledge development have now reached a critical stage.

At this moment of frustration and deep worry for the future, Google has released another “product” that – as I expect from the company – not only appears to solve some of these curricula problems but also raises significant ethical and intellectual questions. If any company captures the ambivalence of post-millennium intellectual life, then it is Google. Every service has a sponsored link. Every extraordinary intellectual in(ter)vention is undercut by a dilemma. Now there is one more “service” for academics to address, but with a different type of cost to moderate.

"Welcome to Knol" is the bland entry into a website and project that could radically transform how we search for information and configure scholarly debates, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. It is the greatest threat that Wikipedia has confronted in terms of both its branding and reputation. The cause of this competition from Google was, not surprisingly, commercially motivated.

Google has been much more than a search engine for some time. The purchase of YouTube has ensured that the search engine is already a content generator. This process has not affected or dented the credibility of its PageRank algorithm, even though Google has produced – or at least owns – some of the content that is returned through its own search engine.

Knol is an extension of this principle, and it is here that the commercial imperative emerges. Approximately 30 per cent of all Google and Yahoo searches return links to Wikipedia. Wikimedia plays the PageRank linking game well. However, there is no income for Google from these searches, targeted through its AdSense advertisement serving program. Wikipedia does not take advertisements or “sponsored links”. It was a sensible business decision for Google to intervene in a commercial-free space that is dominating web traffic.

The Knol project was announced in December last year and on 23 July 2008, the beta version was publicly released. It is different from Wikipedia, Scholarpedia and Citizendium. Firstly, the anonymity of writers is not possible. Contributors must be named and checked, and a biography presented.

Qualifications can be listed. Also, these individuals maintain control over the entries they have written. Gone are the days when a bloke in Seattle, after a couple of house wines, can infiltrate an entry on Britney Spears and add the word “buttocks” for no apparent reason. Instead, as Google describes, “We value and promote authorship.” Comments can be offered in response to entries and corrections can be made.

But the wave of wiki edits is gone. Knol undermines the assumptions of collective, collaborative editing – the wisdom of the crowd – and affirms the importance of expertise, individuality and capitalism.

Yes, capitalism is important here and ethical questions wash over our cursors. Is it better to hang out with the collaborative Wiki-hippies, providing anonymous information for free to a non-profit “Foundation”?

Conversely, is it more useful to access an article where readers can view a profile of the author, find other analyses on the same topic and construct their own interpretation in response? Unlike Wikipedia, Knol permits many entries on the same topic to encourage debate and diversity, rather than “neutrality” and “consensus”.

But there is one reason that Knol may shatter Wikipedia in terms of both quality and scale in the medium term. A capitalist search engine provides a monetary sweetener to assist this project. If academics write for Knol and decide to add Google AdSense to their words, then they will receive a fee for links from that page. Google entered into this business of content generation so that a greater proportion of sites visited have a commercial opportunity. Knol is part of that project.

The question for academics is difficult but important. Does that ad – does the fee – corrode the project of independent scholarship? Should we as academics contribute to this site and refuse the advertising revenue? Often forgotten is that the strength and size of Wikipedia – and its commercial-free status – is built on a willing community of digi-serfs who write and edit.

It can afford to be without advertising because so many people contribute for free. Nicholas Carr convincingly argued in The Big Switch that companies such as YouTube, Craigslist and PlentyofFish grow because “each of these companies competes… with old-line firms that have long employed and paid decent wages to many people”.

YouTube does not pay for the hundreds of thousands of videos accessed from its site. While user-generated content has been the growth “industry” of the past decade, it has allowed companies to harness and profit from free labour. The market economy is harvesting content from the gift economy.

Academic work is commercialised by so many, and often without our permission. The inflated price of the journals, the same journals to which we provide free research, is one example. Publishers have sold the rights to a suite of our books to Amazon’s Kindle without notifying authors.

Contractually, Kindle editions are pushed into the already overstuffed bundle of electronic rights. Journals are selling our content as digital downloads. Five hundred word reviews written a decade ago are now being bought for either $5.95 or $9.95 from Amazon’s portal. The writers of these articles rarely received notification that their pieces were being sliced and sold from the journal. The academic authors are not receiving funding or compensation from this process.

At least if an academic writes a Knol, there is a clear determination of the commercial arrangement into which an author enters. Either he or she chooses to be paid, or releases the content without advertisements. Independence is part of the project. Knol entries are not edited by Google.

Consequently, the corporation does not enforce or frame the view of the writer or the writing. The goal is a multiplicity of informed and accountable individual voices and perspectives, rather than a collaborative “neutral” point of view with a history page that reveals the scars of a digital war. With Scholarpedia’s focus on neuroscience and computing and Citizendium’s slow but considered growth, Knol may be in the know. Knol may be Wikipedia 2.0.

Google is the new Microsoft. For e-libertarians, this new digital Darth Vader will once more strangle the birth of a wireless utopia. But Google is just a business. It is a corporation that has developed a series of services, a way to make money from those services and has then promoted a brand into ubiquity.

It was never the oracle proposed by Chris Anderson. It was never the devil promoted by Andrew Keen. But it is a business that faces competition. Cuil is one such challenger, describing itself as “the world’s biggest search engine”.

The Irish word for knowledge, Cuil bases its algorithm on relevance, not popularity. It provides fresh architecture and ranks and presents information in a new way. While it does not possess Google’s branding, it is useful for students and scholars to enter this portal and reframe and reconfigure our engagement with the information landscape.

It is not only difficult but pointless to predict the future. The most radical act any of us can undertake is to live in our present – fully and openly. Academics have a choice to submit our research to open-access journals or to the commercially aggregated publications.

We have a choice of accepting that our students will use Wikipedia or we can intervene through curriculum and the writing opportunities offered through Knol. When making these choices, there is some value in summoning the ideas of Marx – Groucho rather than Karl.

He once said, with his usual passionate commitment, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” In the midst of the radical flicking between information and knowledge, plagiarism and literacy, theft and purchase, there has never been a more important time to reflect on our principles and remember how and why they were formed.

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