Web 2.0 Science: Rise of the Wiki, Part II

14Sep07

In Part I: What, Me Wiki? I briefly introduced wikis as a different way of interacting with information on the web. In this second post, I’d like to connect those ideas to the `chores’ associated with science. In particular, I’ll speculate about applications to postgraduate reserach education.


Fig 1. Wikis can contribute more than just providing encyclopedic references.

Keeping Up With The Times

In my introductory post, I claimed that the `problems’ that the Web 2.0 can solve are aspects of the `chores associated with science’ that we take for granted. We can gain a lot by reducing the time we spend doing chores and spending more time doing science. For instance, a searchable arXiv made the `chore’ of literature reviews much easier, allowing researchers more hours-per-week to critique, amalgamate, and synthesize new ideas.

(It’s worth emphasizing that doing the `chores associated with science‘ is not the same as doing science, but the former is necessary to do the latter.)

The broad `chore’ that wikis address is keeping up-to-date. In the fast-paced environment of the Internet, we need to be able to communicate ideas to ourselves, our collaborators, and the rest of the community efficiently. Otherwise, these ideas risk obsolescence. For instance, how many faculty pages have you seen with woefully outdated reserach interests?

Teaching each other to teach ourselves

A particular manifestation of this that is of interest is postgraduate physics education. Every generation of physicist has a taller scaffolding of previous knowledge that they must master before they can `stand on the shoulders of giants.’ We can update our educational curriculum, write review articles, and otherwise condense and cut topics (farewell fluid mechanics) — but at the end of the day there’s just more and more that a graduate student needs to know before they get to the forefront of research.

The bottleneck here is the development of educational material that complements a modern background in the subject. By `modern’ I don’t mean post-1950s; I mean within the past five years. Bjorken and Drell was the standard for learning QFT until Peskin’s book came along, reflecting a modern (i.e. Wilsonian) perspective of the subject. Today’s students have very different undergraduate backgrounds than those in the 1970s. They may not even understand QFT from Bjorken and Drell — and the non-LaTex’ed typeface would just be the beginning. (Try reading 1950s physics books written on typewriters, if you can remember what those are.) As an extreme example, look at really old physics textbooks from the 1800s: they include chapters on the aether.

Textbooks take a generation to evolve: you need a faculty member well versed in the backgrounds of his/her students to really write an effective, up-to-date, and modern text that `speaks’ to that generation. Young disciplines, such as string theory, are particularly susceptible.

Until recently, students of the second string revolution only had two textbooks to guide them (and both were published by Cambridge U. Press). And so what developed? The String Wiki. It’s not a replacement for a textbook or an adviser, but it allows students to suggest review articles that they’ve found useful. Because these are suggested by fellow students, they are more likely to be pedagogically friendly to that generation of physics students. (Weinberg is a great QFT book, but I doubt any student would recommend it to a first year postgraduate trying to learn QFT for the first time.) The string wiki lists links to videos, reviews, and lecture notes broken down by topics.

The wiki is updated by the same students who reference it. Found a nice review article? Share it with other students by posting it. Disagree with the way topics are organized? Change it! Just be sure to explain yourself in the `discussion page’ or your changes may be undone by the next user. No worries about a lazy webmaster — the wiki literally grows by itself as it is used.

Ok, this hardly constitutes a `revolution.’ It does, however, expanding one’s learning community beyond the other 10 HEP theory students at one’s institution. It lays the foundation for incorportating Web 2.0 into scientific training. This can be built upon. Imagine if one borrows features from Amazon.com, where review articles can be rated? It would be very easy to include a comment system for each listed review article. One could further correlate ratings with users’ backgrounds and arXiv downloads to provide specific recommendations for individuals. With a database of publically available review articles lecture notes, video recordings, and problem sets, such a system could even form a tailor-made distance-learning course in current topics for a postgraduate beginning to do research.

Like I said, it’s no replacement for the guidance of a good adviser. But it’s a tool that can augment one’s learning experience.

Next time…

I’ve introduced and speculated about directions for educational resource wikis like the String Wiki. Next time I’ll be broader and will explore how wikis can be used (and are already being used) for a range of different scientific communities, from personal webpages to the physics community at large.



5 Responses to “Web 2.0 Science: Rise of the Wiki, Part II”

  1. This is a very interesting perspective. Could you see a science-subject wiki gaining the prominence of a Wikipedia?

  2. Hi Jason — I don’t think so. There’s no need to build a separate `science-pedia’ because Wikipedia is already accessible to anyone in the scientific community. The fact that it’s also open to everyone else shouldn’t (at least in principle) make it any less authentic. For encyclopedic knowledge, Wikipedia is doing just fine. You can already find some great and well-referenced articles on recent ideas in particle physics.

    Wikipedia has a bit of a monopoly on the `wiki encyclopedia’ sector, but there’s some economics of scale in play. If there are competing wiki encyclopedias, then the community is split. But such wikis are powerful only because of the size of the community that contributes to it. So I think it’s just fine having Wikipedia as the only show in town.

    What we can build on, however, are wikis of a different nature targeted at different communities. The String Wiki, for example, isn’t an encyclopedia of string theory — it’s really just an index of references to useful papers for string theory students.

    Another example that I think would be useful would be a wiki for the Physics GRE exam. There are four practice exams which are semi-available to the public from the Educational Testing Servce. However, there are no model solutions available. A few websites have their own solutions, but they’re not necessarily the best possible solution to given problems. A LaTeX-enabled wiki would be fantastic for this. I suspect that within a few years of its creation, such a wiki could generate a complete set of model solutions from its users. The key feature here is that a wiki allows several generations of revisions to occur simultaneously. A student can input solutions as s/he is studying for the exam, while other students error-check or provide more efficient solutions.

    I’ll get into this more in my next post.


  1. 1 Chores of scientists at Freedom of Science
  2. 2 Web 2.0 Science: Rise of the Wiki, Part III « An American Physics Student in England
  3. 3 Mediawiki + Students = TeX’d Lecture Notes « An American Physics Student in England

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