AcaWiki launches: free summaries of academic papers

As I reported at Open Access News, AcaWiki launched yesterday. The idea is free (gratis, libre), editable (wiki) summaries of academic papers. These summaries might be useful to scan during a literature review or when studying for a class, or they might help make an article comprehensible to a non-specialist (a researcher in another discipline, an interested member of the public).

So what’s the point of AcaWiki when almost all articles have abstracts, which are summaries and usually available gratis? Well, AcaWiki summaries are also libre (CC Attribution license), so they invite reuse: mashup, translation, and so on. They’re also editable, so they can evolve and be improved.

Abstracts vary widely, usually shaped by the journal’s format: sometimes they’re several paragraphs, something just a few sentences. They might outline the methodology or they might not. They are usually written at the level of specialists in that field, so they may or may not be much use to other readers.

There’s room for improvement and innovation in the world of summary, in other words. For instance, Emerald launched a program asking authors to provide a summary highlighting potential applications. RNA Biology requires its authors to write up their findings on Wikipedia. BMJ publishes only one-page abridgments in its print edition, with the full article available online.

For a more direct comparison, see WikiSummary, which predates AcaWiki but covers only political science.

Two other points of comparison: journalism / press releases and Wikipedia.

Press releases are gratis; science journalism may or may not be gratis; both are rarely libre. They only cover new studies: good luck finding coverage of an article from 1989. They rarely provide a full citation to the original article. They often discuss only the findings, with little consideration of methodology. They frequently focus on studies with controversies or practical applications, rather than new theories or research methodologies. In reporting the most interesting (a.k.a. most titillating) of the findings, journalism sometimes distorts the impression of the overall study. Meanwhile, press releases try to paint the most positive picture. Since they’re written for a general audience, and often not written by someone with a background in the field, they may be too general.

If we consider research blogging in this category, conversely, the writing may be too technical. It may be more commentary or critique than summary.

Wikipedia is gratis and libre. It’s written for non-specialists (in theory), but can also go into more detail. The main difference from AcaWiki is that most academic papers will not be “notable” enough to merit their own Wikipedia page; even if someone wrote them, they would probably get deleted. As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia provides a higher-level overview. There could be some other conflicts with Wikipedia policies, such as those against publishing original research or authors writing about themselves or their work.

All of the aforementioned resources have their uses, but as we can see, AcaWiki has its niche. I hope it thrives there.

In disclosure, I did some paid work for AcaWiki some months ago, but am not actively involved in the project.

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