Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

More on the Digital Universe

Web site aims to be research 'storehouse', eSchool News, March 7, 2006. An unsigned news story. Excerpt:
A new internet research tool called Digital Universe aspires to be a more authoritative version of Wikipedia. If successful, it could provide scholars and students with one more option for finding accurate, reliable information online. Skeptics, however, predict that Digital Universe is too ambitious for long-term success.....It's a lofty ambition --the internet equivalent of the Public Broadcasting Service, its founders say, a user-supported resource that pays top academics to create authoritative maps, articles, and links to third-party content related to virtually any scholarly topic. But the vast scope of the project hasn't stopped former high-flying Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Firmage from building Digital Universe, a commercial-free internet research clearinghouse four years in the making....A pilot version that debuted in January includes 50 or so portals, or entry points, on topics such as technology, the Earth, and the solar system. Firmage says it will mushroom to at least 500 portals by next year and 10,000 by 2011. Clicking on the Earth portal, for example, presents the visitor with links, reportedly vetted by experts for accuracy, to related articles, images, lists of frequently asked questions, and other resources from sites such as, NASA, and the University of Hawaii's department of geology and geophysics. The Earth portal is also a jumping-off point to sub-portals on topics such as the atmosphere and hydrosphere, which in turn provide links to vetted content and further sub-portals. The approach is designed to give visitors a graphical means to find topics and understand how they are related to subjects in another category....Firmage and his backers say Digital Universe's biggest asset is the trust readers will feel knowing that every link, graphic, and article has been vetted by an army of academics....The site has been under construction since 2002 by Scotts Valley, Calif.-based ManyOne Networks, a 56-employee company that has received about $10 million in financing from Firmage and angel investors. ManyOne Networks has been recruiting professors to become "stewards" of each portal and building offerings such as eMail services to generate revenue. Digital Universe seeks to improve on the ground broken by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows anyone to contribute and edit articles. Wikipedia's volunteer model offers an impressive body of content, boasting 1 million articles in English on everything from art deco to nuclear physics. But Wikipedia's open system also has led to the publication of fraudulent articles, and authors sometimes have undisclosed conflicts of interest, critics have charged. Instead of relying on anonymous volunteers, Digital Universe will pay experts, mostly academics, to write encyclopedia articles and to round up outside video, audio, online chats, and other resources. Firmage has pledged that access to basic content on Digital Universe will remain free forever and that it will never include ads. To fund the venture, the site will sell monthly subscriptions that let visitors get additional content and features, many of them offered by for-profit third parties, such as film producers, game makers, map providers, and book publishers. "Imagine how many people would be interested in subscribing for $7.95 per month to get all those additional activities," Firmage said. He predicts the site will have at least 10 million paying subscribers within seven years. (At the end of February, it was reported, Digital Universe had more than 10,000 subscribers.)...Academics and others contributing content will get 25 percent of the proceeds, but the money isn't the only motivation for participating, said Peter Saundry, a physicist with the nonpartisan National Council for Science and the Environment. He heads the group responsible for Digital Universe's environmental portal. "At every scientific meeting you ever go to on any subject, one thing you hear is the general public doesn't understand what we're doing," Saundry said. "This now is a tool for the scientific community to [help inform the public]."