Knowledge Networks

from Technology & Learning

Showcasing quality, academic work that remains isolated on the Web.

The blogosphere and the Internet are both examples of complex, self-organizing networks. So too is the world of academic publishing. Some faculty members are prolific article and book writers. Their publications often are hubs, or even superhubs, in the scholarly literature, cited regularly by others. Some scholars might just be nodes, with perhaps only a few citations from others, or isolates, not cited by anyone despite the quality of their work.

Together, this aggregate of nodes, hubs, and superhubs forms a knowledge network. Researchers investigating the scholarly body of work on a topic will enter at some point in the network—likely an article or book chapter—and will find other topical resources through reference sections, bibliographies, and database searches. Although there are some generally accepted norms and practices, authors usually are free to cite other sources as they wish. Journal choice often is important. Certain journals get cited more than others, either because of their reputation or their circulation. The hubs and the superhubs play important roles because they are able to reach many and they are able to bring important ideas generated out on the fringes of the network into the mainstream center.

The problem is that right now the system is fairly clunky. There aren't easy ways to tell who the hubs and superhubs are, nor are there ways to easily find hidden nuggets of wisdom in the isolates. Tracking down a new resource from an existing article or book also is difficult, since readers have to first find the publication through trial-and-error searching of various databases and then either download it or track down a print version. Much high-quality writing never sees the light of day or isn't cited by anyone because it's not in the "right place."

We can do better. One mechanism would be to move all scholarly writing online and to unlock it from proprietary databases. The simple act of uncovering scholarly works and making them freely available on the Web would greatly facilitate openness and sharing of research. Each publication would essentially become a Web page or online document, indexable by leading search engines. Other Web sites and publications could easily hyperlink to these documents, facilitating their greater use. Being able to pull up an information source in the reference section of an article by simply clicking on it would be phenomenally useful.

A second possibility would be to use tagging schemes like those employed by Flickr, Digg, and to categorize scholarly publications and/or authors. Authors could use traditional academic database keywords or could simply choose their own. These kinds of "folksonomies" rely on user input to self-organize vast quantities of information rather than relying on external categorization and indexing schemes.

If scholarly work were openly accessible and organized by tags or keywords, we might see the development of a scholarly search engine that combined the functionality of both Google Scholar and Technorati. Users could search by popularity, tag, or both, easily accessing not just citation information but the actual publications themselves. This would be a tremendous boon to researchers.

We are starting to see developments along these lines. Projects such as, the Social Science Research Network, Scintilla, and the Institute for the Future of the Book are making interesting and important progress. If we can figure out how to get beyond academic publishers' revenue protection concerns, the world's body of scholarly research can be available to anyone with an Internet connection. That's a goal worth working toward.

Dr. Scott McLeod is director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE) at Iowa State University. He can be reached at or