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PLoS Currents Uses Google Knol Collections Feature for Swine Flu Reports
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Posted On August 31, 2009


The Public Library of Science (PLoS; www.plos.org) has launched a new experimental service called PLoS Currents, which is designed to support quick turnaround among scientists on hot research topics. The first theme of the service will focus on swine influenza (H1N1). As of the first week, the service has 15 entries already. Archiving the articles submitted will be the task of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI; www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) in a new Rapid Research Notes (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/rrn). The most interesting aspect of the new service for InfoToday.com readers will probably lie in the technology platform chosen for the service-Google Knol (http://knol.google.com). Submitting content for inclusion will require contributors to join Google Knol. Then, a board of experts will approve or disapprove submissions using Google's new Knol Collection feature to moderate PLoS Currents: Influenza (http://knol.google.com/k/plos/plos-currents-influenza/28qm4w0q65e4w/1%23#).

PLoS is a leader in the open access movement. It operates a series of peer-reviewed journals at its website. However, the peer-review process can slow down scientific communication, which becomes particularly obvious and unfortunate in the case of a worldwide pandemic. PLoS Currents: Influenza is designed to solve some of those problems. Although not filtering the content through the slow peer-review process, PLoS does use a board of expert moderators under the leadership of Eddie Holmes (professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University and chief moderator of PLoS Currents: Influenza) and Peter Palese (department of microbiology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine). The review board will vet submissions before allowing content to go into PLoS Currents.

Though it is early days yet, Holmes says that the turnaround to evaluate incoming material by the 25 "world class" members of the board at this point is a matter of hours. Contributors create individual Knol submissions that are screened for quality control at PLoS. "We look to see if the formatting is correct," says Holmes. "Some people have to correct their Google profiles. PLoS also requires checking for any conflict of interest in funding. We get a PubMed link on references. Currently some 75%-80% need some changes just in formatting. That can take 10 minutes or 2 days. Then the moderators get the content over email. That usually takes minutes; then the material is accepted or declined very quickly. It's about 1 day from submission on average, which is much faster than any journal and may get faster still in time." The standards used to evaluate material, according to Holmes, are scientific credibility.

The content extends over a wide range of study fields and document types. According to Harold Varmus, chairman and co-founder of PLoS, "PLoS Currents: Influenza welcomes contributions covering any and all aspects of research into influenza: influenza virology, genetics, immunity, structural biology, genomics, epidemiology, modeling, evolution, policy, and control. Contributions might take the form of new datasets, preliminary analyses, or entire manuscripts." All the content is available under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses.

Both Holmes and Varmus make a point of emphasizing the experimental, beta test status of the effort at this stage. (For more details on the effort, go to http://knol.google.com/k/plos/plos-currents-faqs/28qm4w0q65e4w/3#.) Material published on PLoS Currents is still available for publication in formal PLoS online journals or by other publishers. Holmes expressed concern as to whether other publishers would consider PLoS Currents a prior publication and refuse to carry content that started in the service. He worried whether this would discourage experts from using the service, but that was just one more thing the beta effort will have to wait to find out. "If other journals take content that appeared first on PLoS Currents, if they do, that would be fantastic," says Holmes. "If they don't, we may fail. It's one of the key factors. This is only an experiment, but it's a bloody good experiment."

All the entries into PLoS Currents receive an identifying number that links to the permanent, freely accessible entries into the Rapid Research Notes (RRN) of the NCBI, a division of the National Library of Medicine. At present, the database contains only references from PLoS Currents, but the notice accompanying the site indicates that NCBI is open to dealing with other publishers interested in rapid, open communication with moderated governance by experts. Only complete articles are included, not comments or discussions. Although currently all the material in RRN works under Creative Commons licenses, NCBI is willing to discuss more traditional copyright restrictions with other publishers than PLoS.

Google Knol's Role

When it was first announced in 2008, press coverage identified Knol as an effort to compete with-or even crush-Wikipedia (see the NewsBreak, http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/Google-Knol-The-Grassy-Knoll-for-Publishers-or-Just-Wikipedia-40548.asp). Lately, Knol has been getting some bad press as less than a glowing success, e.g., a TechCrunch article titled "Poor Google Knol Has Gone From a Wikipedia Killer to a Craigslist Wannabe," by Erick Schonfeld, from Aug. 11, 2009. A better piece on Google Knol's weaknesses appeared in Slate magazine's Briefing News in September 2008, "Chuck Knol: Why Google's Online Encyclopedia Will Never Be as Good as Wikipedia," written by Farhad Manjoo. In fact, Google Knol is not a full wiki competitor; it is more of a publishing platform. Manjoo observes that Knol does not have sufficient protections for readers, allowing contributors to submit plagiarized content of widely varying quality. In this connection, the new Knol Collection service introduced recently and used by PLoS allows for critiquing of individual Knols before entry into a collection.

Authors still create their own Knols, which they may open up to comments and discussions. The Knol Collection owners can choose to accept or reject the individual Knols with or without the commentary. Authors can edit their articles and resubmit them to the Knol Collection owners. (For more information on moderated Knol Collections, go to http://knol.google.com/k/knol-help/moderated-collections/si57lahl1w25/259#.)

So what is the difference between a wiki and a Knol? Cedric Dupont, product manager for Google Knol, explained: "A wiki is usually open collaboration. It's an open document that anyone can edit. The last voice heard wins. The Knol Collection has more flexible control. Most people use a moderated contribution model. You can open up content to everyone to edit, but any edits go first to a moderation queue to be checked out before people accept or reject changes."

Holmes also pointed to some of the differences in using Knol for PLoS Currents. "We were inspired by wikis, but on wikis, things are posted unreviewed, the bad, the good, the crazy, the sane. We wanted the best people on the planet to moderate our content, to check that it was credible, though they don't necessarily agree with it. PLoS Currents is interactive rather than collaborative."

Dupont was excited about the new PLoS connection. "It's a huge brand with a huge pool of users and ways to stay in touch with scientists. We're not a publishing business. We're enablers for others." He trusts that PLoS may prove Knol's ability to serve scientific communication.


Barbara Quint is contributing editor for NewsBreaks, senior editor of Online Searcher, and a columnist for Information Today.

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