Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, December 14, 2007

OA knols from Google

Udi Manber, Encouraging people to contribute knowledge, Google blog, December 13, 2007.  Manber is Google's VP for Engineering.  Excerpt:

The web contains an enormous amount of information, and Google has helped to make that information more easily accessible by providing pretty good search facilities. But not everything is written nor is everything well organized to make it easily discoverable. There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it. We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that. The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing. For now, using it is by invitation only. But we wanted to share with everyone the basic premises and goals behind this project.

The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted....

Google will provide easy-to-use tools for writing, editing, and so on, and it will provide free hosting of the content. Writers only need to write; we'll do the rest.

A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing.

Knols will include strong community tools. People will be able to submit comments, questions, edits, additional content, and so on. Anyone will be able to rate a knol or write a review of it. Knols will also include references and links to additional information. At the discretion of the author, a knol may include ads. If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads.

Once testing is completed, participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality. Our job in Search Quality will be to rank the knols appropriately when they appear in Google search results....

We are very excited by the potential to substantially increase the dissemination of knowledge.

We do not want to build a walled garden of content; we want to disseminate it as widely as possible. Google will not ask for any exclusivity on any of this content and will make that content available to any other search engine....


  • The sample knol to which Manber links uses a CC-BY license.  Note to Google:  this is worth boasting about.  The content is not only free of charge, but free of needless copyright and licensing restrictions.  It's open access.  Will all knols use the CC-BY license?  Will it be up to the author?
  • This is fascinating project.  The Google name, and the visibility of knols in the Google search index, will attract readers, and that should attract authors.  The Google resources mean it could scale to arbitrary size.  At first I thought that knols would challenge Wikipedia and Citizendium more than scholarly journals, since promotion and tenure committees are not likely to reward the writing of unrefereed knols.  But then I realized that knols could supplement or supplant postprint archiving.  Nothing in Manber's description suggests that articles already published in peer-reviewed journals couldn't become knols.  To show their credentials, they could (and should) cite and link to the published original.  If there's a barrier, it would come from the journal's side (the copyright transfer agreement or self-archiving policy), not from the knols side.  The question is whether authors of journal articles will be inclined post their peer-reviewed manuscripts as Google knols.  Will they do it at all?  Will they do it in addition to depositing them in an OA repository?  Will they do it instead of depositing them in a repository?
  • Here's a first whack at thinking about how authors may weigh up the pros and cons.  (1) Advantages of knols for peer-reviewed postprints:  Full OA.  CC licenses.  Obvious visibility to search engines.  Searchable full-text, not just metadata.  Built-in community tools.  Not PDF.  Ad revenue option.  Available to authors who don't have a repository in their institution or discipline.  (2) Drawbacks:  May require porting the text and reformatting it with Google's editing tools, not just a deposit.  (How soon will someone write a flexible knols import-export tool?)  Not built on free and open source software.  Off-limits to journals permitting self-archiving only in the author's institutional repository.  Not affiliated with a research institution or research field.  Long-term preservation efforts unclear.  Stewardship by a for-profit corporation, not by academic librarians.  (3) A wash:  Not OAI-compliant, but does it need to be?
  • Two suggestions to make it more useful and appealing:  open the source code, or at least the API, and arrange to back up the content in a trustworthy academic or national library independent of Google.

Update.  What I called the sample knol, above, is actually just an image of a sample.  Working knols are not yet online.