June 1, 2012

An Open Letter to the Royal Society: Please employ a wikipedian in residence

Dear Professor Nurse

Fellows of the Wiki Society?

To improve public engagement with Science and Scientists, the Royal Society should employ a wikipedian in residence. Here’s why:

The Royal Society is a National Academy of Science which represents some of the world’s leading scientists. The stated aim of the society is to:

“recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite the elitist nature of many scientific societies, a significant part of what the Royal Society does is engage with members of the general public of all ages through a wide range of events. The annual Summer Science exhibition, Royal Society Blogs, Policy Centre and Royal Society television channel are just a few examples from amongst many more.

Many Fellows are of interest to the general public and already have extensive biographies in wikipedia which are up to date, well-written, well-referenced and conform to the wikipedia guidelines for the biographies of living persons. Wikipedia biographies often appear top of the list of google search result for a scientists name, for example see:

However, many other scientists do not have pages about them on wikipedia. Unfortunately, alternative sources of information such as academic homepages are often out of date and not particularly engaging. Most scientists are too busy doing Science to spend time updating their home pages, as neatly illustrated by cartoonist Jorge Cham. At the time of writing, less than half of the notable and distinguished Fellows elected in 2012 have biographies on wikipedia, see below of details.

Putting scientific information into wikipedia isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Alex Bateman at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute [1], PLoS Computational Biology [2] and many others [3] have already made considerable progress in improving the scientific content of wikipedia. This information is immediately accessible to a huge global audience.

Wikipedia is arguably one of the greatest ever opportunities for public engagement in Science. By employing a wikipedian in residence, the Royal Society could improve and influence the scientific content of wikipedia, while engaging even more with the general public around the world, who are often just as interested in the scientists as the science itself. As the current president of the society I hope you will consider this proposal.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull
University of Manchester, UK

(this letter has also been sent by email)


  1. Daub, J., Gardner, P., Tate, J., Ramskold, D., Manske, M., Scott, W., Weinberg, Z., Griffiths-Jones, S., & Bateman, A. (2008). The RNA WikiProject: Community annotation of RNA families RNA, 14 (12), 2462-2464 DOI: 10.1261/rna.1200508
  2. Wodak, S., Mietchen, D., Collings, A., Russell, R., & Bourne, P. (2012). Topic Pages: PLoS Computational Biology Meets Wikipedia PLoS Computational Biology, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002446
  3. Xiao, L., & Askin, N. (2012). Wikipedia for Academic Publishing: Advantages and Challenges. Online Information Review, 36(3), 2. Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Appendix: Fellows of the Wiki Society

As of June 2012, only 21 out of the 52 of the Royal Society Fellows elected in 2012 have a biographical page on wikipedia. Where biographies currently exist, they are linked to below

Of course, 2012 is just the tip of the iceberg, there are also the Fellows elected in 20112010 and so on back 350 years to 1660.

January 20, 2009

Donald Braben on Scientific Freedom

The Elixir of Civilization?Donald Braben was in Manchester last week, to give a seminar on scientific freedom, here is the abstract of his talk:

Every major scientific discovery came unexpectedly out of the blue.  Until a few decades ago, creative researchers were free to explore. The unpredicted harvest was prodigious. Nowadays, academic research is subject to unprecedented levels of control.  Consensus rules.  In industry, companies focus on “core business“, and severely restrict the range of their research.  Consequently, caution is encouraged everywhere, and highly original research is curtailed.  As a result, there has been a dearth of major new scientific discoveries in recent years.  The significance of the problems and their possible solutions will be discussed.

So who is Donald Braben? Don has held a senior position at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, and a has a visiting Professorship at University College London (UCL) . He has written two books [3,5], going against the currently prevalent views on science funding. To overcome the problem of the lack of scientific freedom, Braben proposes the creation of a twenty first century “Planck Club”, (named after some bloke called Max Planck). The Planck Club consists of an elite group of the very best scientists who are completely free to explore their ideas without submitting their project proposals to peer review (what Don calls “peer preview”).

Most of the audience were sympathetic to what Don had to say, and his talk provoked an extended discussion about the best way to fund the best Science. All this reminds me of the Skunk Works projects and the infamous “20% time” given to engineers at Google – freedom in Science (and engineering) really matters, but it isn’t always so easy to decide who deserves it and why. Thanks to Don for an entertaining and thought-provoking seminar, and thanks to Paul Popelier for organising it.

If this kind of stuff interests you, take a look at the references below.


  1. Peter Augsdorfer (2008). Book review: Scientific freedom ChemBioChem 9 (17), 2889-2890. DOI:10.1002/cbic.200800670 “The real value of the book is that it shows that unconstrained funding can really work and it tells us how.”
  2. Tim Birkhead (2008). In praise of fishing trips: The tyranny of ‘the hypothesis’ has made science too timid Times Higher Education 2008-07-31
  3. Donald Braben (1994) To Be A Scientist: The spirit of adventure in science and technology, Oxford University Press, isbn:0198522908
  4. Donald Braben (2007). UK Science must not roll over and play dead Times Higher Education 2007-12-07
  5. Donald Braben (2008). Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation, Wiley, isbn:0470226544
  6. Donald Braben (2008). Why peer review thwarts innovation New Scientist 2644, 2008-02-23,
  7. Donald Braben (2008). Shoot for the blue skies: The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) constrains academics Times Higher Education 2008-12-22
  8. Zoe Corbyn (2008). Kill peer-review, save civilisation. Times Higher Education 2008-04-17
  9. Tom Feilden (2008). Searching for Einsteins: Is Science stagnating? BBC blogs (and Radio 4 Today programme) 2008-12-11
  10. Krebs and Braben (2009). Don Braben and John Krebs discuss is funding for scientists is under threat Today programme 2009-02-27
  11. Mark Gilbert (2009). Being judged is hard, not being judged is worse Times Higher Education 2009-01-15
  12. Douglas Kell (2009). Scientific Freedom at the UK Research Councils BBSRC blogs 2009-01-05
  13. KFC (2009). How Google’s PageRank predicts Nobel Prize winners arxivblog.com, the physics arXiv blog 2009-01-21
  14. Michael Nielsen (2008). Three myths about peer review michaelnielsen.org 2009-01-08

November 30, 2007

Burn semantic Web, Burn!

Taking down A.I. town?

Danger! Religious Wars!The Semantic Web is (quote) “a new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers”. It will “unleash a revolution of new possibilities” using a magical “new” artificially intelligent technology called ontology. So says a much-cited article in Scientific American published back in May 2001. Most people who have read this article, fall into two camps: “believers” and “non-believers”. Let me tell you a short story about a religious war between these two groups…

An Old War Story: Chapter 1

This is a work of fiction, though as they say in Hollywood it is “based on a true story”. Characters names are real.

A crusade of semantic web believers, is started by three people called Jim Hendler, Ora Lassila and Tim Berners-Lee. At the heart of their faith is a holy scripture and a suite of sacred technology called the semantic web stack. If people use this technology, the crusaders believe, the Web would be a better place. Search engines like Google, for example, would be even smarter than they already are, because they would intelligently “know what you mean“, when you type your keywords. All this new magic comes from using good old fashioned logic, metadata and reasoning. Better Search Engines is one of the mantras of the semantic web troops as they pour onto the battlefield towards the promised land. Viva la Webolution! Charge!

A counter-attack is launched by the non-believers of this vision of the future. They rally behind a man called Clay Shirky who roars “the semantic web is doomed” at the top of his voice. Many others echo Shirky’s sentiment, including Peter Norvig, Rob McCool, Cory Doctorow and Tim O’Reilly. General Shirky makes powerful allies in battle, and he has a two-pronged attack. “Ontology is over-rated” he jeers. Led by Shirky, the non-believers capture the sacred technology, add their own firewood and put the torch to it in a very public place. The flames leap into the sky, visible for miles around.

“Burn semantic web, burn!” the non-believers cry as they gleefully dance around the fire.

The battle rages, the believers will not take this heresy lying down. They regroup and surge forward again. Death to the blasphemers! With the help of some biologists, they seek revenge using the Gene Ontology as deadly ammunition. The non-believers are confused by this tactic, they don’t know what genes are and neither do the biologists. Unfortunately, the biologists unwittingly find themselves in the middle of an epic battle they didn’t start. There are ugly skirmishes involving logic and graph theory. Dormant and hideous A.I. monsters are resurrected from their caves, where they spent the A.I. winter. These gruesome monsters make the Balrog beast from Lord of the Rings look like a childrens cuddly toy.

From the relative safety of their command centres, the leaders orchestrating the war look on. Many foot soldiers and PhD students have been slayed on the field of battle, tragic young victims of the holy war. Understandably the crusaders are unhappy. Jim Hendler isn’t pleased as he surveys the carnage and devasation. Ora Lassila is also disappointed.

“We never said that, you completely minsunderstood. You are all burning the wrong thing, using fuel we never gave you. You lied, you cheated, you faked, you changed the stakes!”

There is a lull in battle. But confusion reigns, especially among the innocent civilians and bewildered biologists.

(End of chapter 1)


As of the winter of 2007, the semantic web fire is still burning. While I warm myself next to it, using all the juicy metadata as material for my PhD, it is still too early to predict just how useful the technology is going to be. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a “believer”, a “non-believer” or completely agnostic about the semantic web. The religious war beween the two sides tells you more about human behaviour, than it does about the utility of the technology. Optimists profit from making bold claims to get noticed on the battlefield. Critics are more cynical, furthering their own careers by countering the optimists claims. Other people interpret the interpretations of the cynics second-hand. Thanks to cumulative error, or the Chinese whispers effect, everyone gets really upset. The original optimists vision has been changed in ways they didn’t expect.

It’s a very natural and human story amidst all the “artificial” machine intelligence.

Ora, Jim and Tim have done quite well out of the fighting. Google Scholar reckons their original article has been cited nearly 5000 times. That is a lot of attention, in scientific circles, a veritable blockbuster hit. At the time of writing, not even Albert Einstein can match that, and his ideas are much more important than the semantic web probably ever will be. Many good scientists with important ideas can only dream of publishing a paper that is as heavily cited as that infamous Scientific American article. So which do you think would most scientists prefer:

  • Being internationally known and talked about, but misunderstood by large groups of people?
  • Being relatively unknown, ignored but well understood by a small and obscure group of people?

Neither is ideal but I think in most cases, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

We have reached the end of chapter 1 of this little story. Wouldn’t it be nice if Chapter 2 was less bloody? Perhaps the two sides could focus more on facts and evidence, rather than the beliefs, opinions, marketing, hype and “visions” that have dominated the battle so far. As the winter solstice approaches and the new year beckons, can we give peace, diplomacy and above all SCIENCE a chance?

The Moral of the Story (so far)

The moral of this old war story is simple. Religions of various kinds have been known to make people commit horrendous and completely unreasonable war crimes. Nobody is innocent. So if you don’t like a fight, steer well clear of religious wars.


  1. The “burn” idea comes from Leftfield with John Lydon (1995) Open Up “Burn Hollywood, Burn! Taking down Tinseltown
  2. Thanks to Carole for the idea of using fiction to illustrate science see Carole Goble and Chris Wroe (2005) The Montagues and the Capulets: In fair Genomics, where we lay our scene… Comparative and Functional Genomics 5(8):623-632 DOI:10.1002/cfg.442 seeAlso Shakespearean Genomics: a plague on both your houses)
  3. This post, originally published on nodalpoint

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