It’s Time to Change the Way We Discover Research

On May 1, I submitted an application for a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowhip. Started by Mark Shuttleworth in 2001, the Shuttleworth Foundation has enabled many amazing open knowledge initatives, including  ContentMine (Peter Murray-Rust) and (Dan Whaley). The foundation has expressed the following vision:

“We would like to live in an open knowledge society
with limitless possibilities for all.” (Shuttleworth Foundation)

This vision aligns strongly with my own goal to enable everyone in society to benefit from scientific knowledge. My belief is that if we turn discovery from a closed, solitary activity into an open and collaborative one, we can bring the fruits of the open content revolution to everyone. To make this change possible, I want to create Open Knowledge Maps: a large-scale, collaborative system of open, interactive and interlinked knowledge maps for every research topic, every field and every discipline. For all  details, please see my application below – or watch the application video. As you would expect, the application was openly developed on Github.


1) Tell us about the world as you see it

A description of the status quo and context in which you will be working

Currently, the fruits of the open content revolution are unequally distributed. In the recent past, humanity has started to open up large amounts of scientific knowledge. Today, we can read over 90 million scientific articles on the web. But the tools for exploring and discovering this massive amount of content are seriously lacking. Most people rely on search engines, where they have to examine articles and their relationships by hand in order to get to the knowledge that they need. If you want to gain an overview of a research field, it will take weeks if not months to process all the necessary information, scattered over thousands of scholarly articles. There are more powerful tools that guide you through the literature – but they are proprietary and hugely expensive.

This is a problem for researchers, who spend a lot of time and effort on gaining and keeping an overview of scientific fields. But researchers have a community of peers that supports them in this task. People outside academia are usually on their own, and therefore often lost. Take the example of patients who would like to learn about the newest research on their illness. In the worst case, they don’t discover a lifesaving treatment, because the paper describing it was buried far down the results list.

There is a huge demand for better exploration and discovery tools, inside and outside of academia, but there are no large-scale attempts to provide these tools in an open manner. I am set to change that.

2) What change do you want to make in the world?

A description of what you want to change about the status quo, in the world, your personal vision for this area

To create a visual interface to the world’s scientific knowledge that can be used by anyone in order to revolutionize the way we discover research.

The base for this visual interface are so-called knowledge maps, a powerful tool for the exploration of a research field. Knowledge maps show the main areas of the field at a glance, and papers related to each area. By overlaying further connections between papers, e.g. references, we can also highlight relationships between areas. This makes it possible to infer connections between research results, which may have been unknown. Knowledge maps thus enable the exploration of existing knowledge, and the discovery of new knowledge.

My goal is to provide Open Knowledge Maps: a large-scale, web-based system of open, interactive and interlinked knowledge maps for every research topic, every field and every discipline. Around these maps, I want to create a space for collective knowledge mapping that brings together individuals and communities involved in exploration and discovery: researchers, students, journalists, librarians, practitioners and citizens. I want to enable people to guide each other in getting to the knowledge that they need, by collaboratively annotating and modifying the automatically created maps. I also want to enable users to create and contribute their own maps – achieving layered overviews of the world’s scientific knowledge including the perspectives of different epistemic cultures, geographic regions etc.

3) What has prevented this change from happening?

Describe the innovations or questions you would like to explore during the fellowship year

I want to explore how to automatically create knowledge maps on a massive scale and how to design an inclusive and sustainable space for collective knowledge mapping that brings together the individuals and communities involved in exploration and discovery.

In the recent past, open access has dramatically grown with up to 50% of new articles being published open access. Even the situation regarding legacy content is changing, with the ContentMine liberating millions of facts from closed sources. In my PhD, I created an open source, web-based knowledge mapping software called Head Start that builds on top of this open content (we further developed it during my subsequent Panton Fellowship). Head Start is capable of automatically producing knowledge maps from a variety of data, including text, metadata and references. The approach has received a lot of positive feedback from users and experts alike, and multiple awards.

Many people are currently tackling exploration and discovery of scientific knowledge on their own. The results of their efforts are usually not shared; they become visible only later as references in a publication or as reading lists. I want to explore how to bring different individuals and communities together, for example how to best connect patients, researchers and medical librarians to collaboratively map the newest research on a certain disease and how to enable them to openly share their efforts for the benefit of others affected by this disease.

4) What are you going to do to get there?

A description of what you actually plan to do during the year

Further develop the existing mapping software: In January, I published a Call for Collaborators that brought together the Open Knowledge Maps team. Jointly, we created an open roadmap on how to develop Head Start into a system of living, crowd-sourced guides to research fields. We will connect Head Start to over 90 million scholarly articles to create overviews of all fields of research. The maps will be enriched with facts extracted from full text and made available on There, they can be interactively explored, collaboratively annotated and modified in a Wikipedia-style editing process.

Create and implement a community strategy: My approach has always been to involve users at every step of the process, taking usability and cognition into careful consideration. I have therefore initiated an advisor programme to guide the development of Open Knowledge Maps in a human-centered design process. We will also review social factors that prevent people from using open knowledge systems, and explore ways to address these concerns. Another concrete action is to establish mapping parties (similar to those in the Open Street Maps project), where people get together to jointly map an underrepresented research field, for example a neglected disease.

Formulate a long term plan: My goal is to develop Open Knowledge Maps into a building block of the open knowledge society. Therefore, I will address points such as a legal entity and a sustainable funding stream.

5) What challenges or uncertainties do you expect to face?

If we build it, will they come? This is a challenge for any socio-technical system, which I will address by following best practices as detailed above: human-centered design and the development of a community strategy. The cold start problem will not be an issue as a massive amount of maps will be pre-computed and ready for exploration.

Establishing a strong and diverse community: I will face this key challenge by leveraging and expanding the existing advisor community, relying on experience that I have gained as one of the founders of Barcamp Graz, and as a coordinator of the open science WG of Open Knowledge AT. In both cases, we have have established strong communities based on openness and inclusiveness.

Technical challenges related to building a large-scale system: In this respect, I will draw on my long experience in software engineering (15 years, thereof 7 years as a project manager), and the experience of my team. It will be crucial to address scalability from the start and build it into the core architecture. We will use a distributed agile process and adopt strategies of successful open source projects.

Launching a self-sustainable non-profit organization: My involvement with non-profit organizations in the past 7 years – running a smaller organization, Knowledge Management Forum Graz, for 2 years – has made me conscious of the challenges that are connected to that. As with the other challenges, I plan to gather advice from the Shuttleworth community.

6) What part does openness play in your idea?

Openness is at the very core of my idea. Open Knowledge Maps strives to be a building block of the open knowledge society by openly sharing data, source code, and content that is being created. The code will be made available on Github under the license of the existing project (LGPL v3). The visualizations will be released under CC BY – with the exception of the contained content, which of course retains its original license. The underlying knowledge structures will be mapped to Wikidata concepts and can be exported in various open formats under CC0, so that they can be easily re-used.

We partner with existing open initiatives, including ContentMine,, rOpenSci, and the Internet Archive Labs. We will actively involve our partners, advisors and users to seek feedback, input, and pointers for further collaboration throughout the project. My goal is to reuse as much of the existing ecosystem as possible. To achieve this, the project progress is openly shared with the world, starting with this proposal which is hosted on Github. The development will also take place on Github. The concrete targets for developing the system will be published as issues in our repositories.

Openness will also play an important role in all social activities, which will be organized in the spirit of other open knowledge events. Mapping parties, for example, will be free of charge and they will be open to everyone interested in collaborative knowledge discovery.


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