Monday, July 28, 2008

Bob Wachter introduces Google’s Knol

A Knol is a “unit of knowledge” according to his description. Google rolled out its Knol project, which has been branded as “Google’s answer to Wikipedia”, Thursday. Wachter, who is an advisor to the project and helped assemble some medical articles for the launch, compares and contrasts Knol with Wikipedia (there are some differences) and addresses the larger question of how Knol, Wikipedia, blogs and other Web 2.0 media will affect the world of medical publishing, particularly traditional journals.

How does Knol differ from Wikipedia? Wachter explains:

Unlike Wikipedia’s anonymous, collaborative writing/editing process, Knols have authors, with names, faces, and reputations. (Authors can choose to have their identity verified, through a cross-check on their credit card or phone records.) Google provides Knolers a tool; authors enter their content and click “publish.” And poof, there it is, on the Web. Users can rate and comment on Knols, send them to friends, and suggest changes. But the author remains the sole owner of the content, able to update and modify it (or remove it) at any time.

Some skeptics, according to Wachter, are already criticizing Knol as being “less pure” than Wikipedia due to Knol authors’ opportunities to partake of Google’s ad revenue. If financial incentives were the only perverse incentives in the world of publishing that would be true. But, as has been pointed out time and time again (and as I pointed out here and here) many other questionable agendas have played out on Wikipedia’s pages.

It strikes me that Knol’s principle weakness may be a failure to define its audience. Wachter notes:

The Knols are layperson oriented: I asked authors to write the Knol that they’d want their mother or best friend to read if they had just been diagnosed with the illness.

So, are the medical Knols primarily aimed at the lay audience? Not necessarily. Some authors, Wachter suggests, may be apt to choose Knol as an alternative to traditional journals, suggesting that the scientific community is in the scope of Knol’s readership. Will the health articles be segregated into professional and consumer oriented material? Apparently not. Therein may lie the weakness. An important rule of writing is to define your audience. An article I’d choose to read on diabetes would probably not be understandable to most patients. Writing effectively for an audience encompassing both lay and professional readers is difficult to pull off and, for some highly technical subjects in medicine, next to impossible.

Wachter wonders whether Knols and other Web 2.0 formats will upend traditional medical publishing. I doubt it. I see more of a gradual adaptation in the medical publishing world, one which has been underway for several years as journals adopt more open access, increasingly rapid submission procedures and rapid reader response capability. Meanwhile the different Web 2.0 media will increasingly complement one another. I think it’s all for the good.

Via Kevin M.D.

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