|Writing papers is only half of your job
||[Dec. 21st, 2008|10:43 pm]
I was reading Yes!—an excellent book, and contrary to initial appearances, not about slimeball marketing tactics at all—when I had the curious feeling of reading my own words. I realized the paragraph I was looking at had been lifted from the Fischer-Spassky World Championship article on Wikipedia that I wrote several years ago. Which is totally awesome.
I wouldn't be surprised if a million pairs of eyes have pored over the words I've written on Wikipedia—my heaviest editing was in 2003, back when most of you hadn't heard of it, and therefore had a much greater footprint than current contributions would. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling because I often think about whether or not what I'm doing has an impact on the world.
I'm sure that my contributions to Wikipedia, in terms of the time people have spent reading them, dwarf my research work. You could argue that research is a specialized activity, whereas if I hadn't edited Wikipedia, someone else would have put in the same information. But my point is that research papers aren't disseminated nearly widely enough.
Academics are happy to win points by circulating papers among their colleagues via conferences and journals, but there is a huge bottleneck when it comes to propagating that knowledge further. The few researchers who blog about their work perform a valuable service, but the vast majority of us aren't bloggers. On the other hand, journalists usually do a horrible job of describing research because papers aren't written with a layperson in mind.
But things are changing. Videolectures.net has been making talks+slideshows available online in a very appealing format. There are a few blogs dedicated to accessible explanations of breaking research; This Week in Evolution is a great example. There is a concerted effort to improve Wikipedia coverage of theoretical computer science. Finally, the RNA Biology journal is requiring authors to create Wikipedia articles about their submissions. Woohoo!
Anyone submitting to a section of the journal RNA Biology will, in the future, be required to also submit a Wikipedia page that summarizes the work. The journal will then peer review the page before publishing it in Wikipedia.Academia is moving, albeit slowly, into the 21st century. My latest hobby project is along these lines—stay tuned.