Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Giving chance a chance, or the usefulness of serendipity

A post on the scholarly kitchen, entitled ‘Citation Controversy’, particularly a reference to the principle of least effort, sparked the train of thought leading to this post.

Scientific articles have references, which represent the connection of the article to other articles, and thus other knowledge. Articles in Wikipedia often have references, too. Although it is not rare that one sees the message “This article or section is missing citations”. The ‘Principle of least effort’ article in Wikipedia carries this message (on the date of posting this). Ironically demonstrating the principle, I think. Authors are often quite parsimonious when it comes to adding references to articles. And when references have been added to an article, there isn’t often a thorough check on whether they include all or enough of the appropriate ones. The omission of obvious references may be picked up by reviewers, but the omission of less obvious ones is easily missed. One of the sad things about omitting references is that it may reduce serendipity.

I have a suggestion for ‘Wikipedians’ who wish to add appropriate references and links to Wikipedia articles. In particular to Wikipedia articles in the areas of health and life science, and so encourage serendipitous discovery. I advise them to go to what I informally call 'wikimore', an enhancement layer where they will find that the text of Wikipedia articles is enriched with highlighted concepts. By clicking on a number of those highlighted concepts and adding them to a search query, you can search the appropriate articles to refer to in, say in Google Scholar, or in Wikipedia itself, and when found, add those references to the Wikipedia article, as a good Wikipedian would.

For instance, by clicking on the concepts ‘information seeking behavior’, ‘design’ and ‘library’, and subsequently searching in Google Scholar, I find this article:

Comparing faculty information seeking in teaching and research: Implications for the design of digital libraries, by Christine L. Borgman et al., in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 56, No. 6. (2005), pp. 636-657. DOI: 10.1002/asi.20154.

An interesting sentence from that article: “…faculty are more likely to encounter useful teaching resources while seeking research resources than vice versa.” In my view this demonstrates the drawback of a least effort approach (I like to call it the ‘laziness principle’), which by its very nature militates against serendipity. And yet serendipity is one of the most important routes to real breakthroughs in knowledge and understanding. A quote from an article by M.K. Stoskopf: "it should be recognized that serendipitous discoveries are of significant value in the advancement of science and often present the foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding".

I’m not sure if the article I found (one among many others) would be a good reference to add to the Wikipedia article on the ‘principle of least effort’, but I do hope you can see that with wikimore you can, starting from a Wikipedia article, embark even better on a journey of serendipitous discovery than you already can without the enhancement layer that wikimore provides, since with wikimore, i.e. the concept web enhancement as applied to Wikipedia, every concept that is recognized in the text is a link to further information in itself, a ‘reference’, if you wish.

And while you’re at it, you might want to take a look at the ‘knowlet’ of ‘information seeking behavior’, and explore the concepts with which information seeking behavior is connected in the life and medical science area.

Happy exploring!

Jan Velterop

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