An idea — Active literature

Daniel Burnham
Jul 11, 2017 · 3 min read

I read a lot of review articles and it strikes me this is an odd solution to learning about a field of research.

The concept is outdated, inefficient, and unhelpful.

Review articles in academic fields of study are wonderful sources of information when entering a new field of investigation, or indeed, to remain up to date with what is occurring in various research areas.

Generally, I will find an area I want to investigate further and Google the topic plus the word review and find the latest peer reviewed review article. This works to a certain extent but some obvious problems crop up;

  1. Nothing is in one place. I end up with either hundreds of pdfs of referenced papers or reams of paper. It’s so inefficient.
  2. Many fields advance with such momentum that a review can be out of date before publication. Especially now the biology community has caught on to the idea of pre-print servers (www.biorxiv.org) which physicists et al. have enjoyed for years (arxiv.org). By the time I’ve finished reading a review a new one has come out on a similar, if not the same, topic and I start all over again.
  3. To understand the context and ‘thoughts’ within a field you can’t just read one review you have to read many of them.
  4. Reviews can be biased by the author, consciously or not, along with interpretation. If you’re not careful you can get stuck in a a certain view.
  5. I often find a juicy tidbit of information with an associated reference. I delve into the reference and the process continues ad infinitum. The tidbit of information is often a logical step the author has made which you then have to repeat to understand. This problem is particularly egregious when the reference is a book with no page number!
  6. After a while studying the field and these reviews one obtains an understanding of the evolution of the ideas and evidence – a precious insight, but it takes time.
  7. Paywalled – need I say anymore.
  8. Upon publishing a peer-reviewed academic research article a review of the subject appears shortly afterwards; placing the finding in context. In this manner we end up with another review of the same field that now incorporates the new findings. This is fine, it places it in context, but it’s frustrating that it takes another entire several page review to convey this.

This shouldn’t be a surprise; we have a solution for the all the worlds knowledge; wikipedia.

Why don’t we have this for academia?

Would it be valuable to create some kind of active literature for academic research topics? Imagine a digital review article that can be updated, added too, grown, by peers. Any references therein could easily link back to journal articles and have attached an associated comment with further detail.

Rather than a new review being published the wiki can just be updated with new results from the literature. The history of the understanding (the edits made) can be accessed so one can understand the evolution of ideas.

I imagine this idea will not take off anytime soon. Review articles indicate prestige within the field. And prestige gets funding and jobs. With traditional metrics of ‘success’ and recognition their would be little benefit to the creators and any community that grew. So, would anyone be willing to help create this idea? Do academics have the time?

Do I have the time?

Perhaps the best I can do is write a review on my niche area of research and ‘publish’ it in a wikipedia style manner. I’d love to do this. I just have to find the time…

Daniel Burnham

Written by

Scientist at @TheCrick. A blog that is evolving to describe my day job, my hobbies, and cycle commuting.