Visual gateways into science: Why it’s time to change the way we discover research

Have you ever noticed that it is really hard to get an overview of a research field that you know nothing about? Let’s assume for a minute that a family member or a loved one of yours has fallen ill and unfortunately, the standard treatment isn’t working. Like many other people, you now want to get into the research on the illness to better understand what’s going on.

You proceed to type the name of the disease into PubMed or Google Scholar – and you are confronted with thousands of results, more than you could ever read.

It’s hard to determine where to start, because you don’t understand the terminology in the field, you don’t know what the main areas are, and it’s hard to identify important papers, journals, and authors just by looking at the results list. With time and patience you could probably get there. However, this is time that you do not have, because decisions need to be made. Decisions that may have grave implications for the patient.

If you have ever had a similar experience, you are not alone. We are all swamped with the literature, and even experts struggle with this problem. In the Zika epidemic in 2015 for example, many people scrambled to get an overview of what was until then an obscure research topic. This included researchers, but also practitioners and public health officials. And it’s not just medicine; almost all areas of research have become so specialized that they’re almost impenetrable from the outside.

But the thing is, there are many people on the outside that could benefit from scientific knowledge. Think about journalists, fact checkers, policy makers or students.

They all have the same problem – they don’t have a way in.

Reuse of scientific knowledge within academia is already limited, but when we’re looking at transfer to practice, the gap is even wider. Even in application-oriented disciplines, only a small percentage of research findings ever influence practice – and even if they do so, often with a considerable delay.

At Open Knowledge Maps, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the visibility of scientific knowledge for science and society, it is our mission to change that. We want to provide visual gateways into research – because we think that it is important that we do not only provide access to research findings, but also to enable discoverability of scientific knowledge.

At the moment, there is a missing link between accessibility and discoverability – and we want to provide that link.

Imagine a world, where you can get an overview of any research field at a glance, meaning you can easily determine the main areas and relevant concepts in the field. In addition, you can instantly identify a set of papers that are relevant for your information need. We call such overviews knowledge maps. You can find an example for the field of heart diseases below. The bubbles represent the main areas and relevant papers are already attached to each of the areas.

Now imagine that each of these maps is adapted to the needs of different types of users, researchers, students, journalists or patients. And not only that: they are all structured and connected and they contain annotated pathways through the literature as to what to read first, and how to proceed afterwards.

This is the vision that we’ve have been working on for the past 1.5 years as a growing community of designers, developers, communicators, advisors, partners, and users. On our website, we are offering an openly accessible service, which allows you to create a knowledge map for any discipline. Users can choose between two databases: Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE) with more than 110 million scientific documents from all disciplines, and PubMed, the large biomedical database with 26 million references. We use the 100 most relevant results for a search term as reported by the respective database as a starting point for our knowledge maps. We use text similarity to create the knowledge maps. The algorithm groups those papers together that have many words in common. See below for an example map of digital education.

We have received a lot of positive feedback on this service from the community. We are honored and humbled by hundreds of enthusiastic posts in blogs, and on Facebook and Twitter. The service has also been featured on the front pages of reddit and HackerNews, and recently, we won the Open Minds Award, the Austrian Open Source Award. Since the first launch of the service in May 2016, we have had more than 200,000 visits on Open Knowledge Maps. Currently, more than 20,000 users leverage Open Knowledge Maps for their research, work, and studies per month.

The “Open” in Open Knowledge Maps does not only stand for open access articles – we want to go the whole way of open science and create a public good.

This means that all of our software is developed open source. You can also find our development roadmap on Github and leave comments by opening an issue. The knowledge maps themselves are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license and can be freely shared and modified. We will also openly share the underlying data, for example as Linked Open Data. This way, we want to contribute to the open science ecosystem that our partners, including Open Knowledge Austria, rOpenSci, ContentMine, the Internet Archive Labs and Wikimedia are creating.

Open Knowledge International has played a crucial role in incubating the idea of an open discovery platform, by way of a Panton Fellowship where the first prototype of the search service was created. Since then, the Open Knowledge Network has enthusiastically supported the project, in particular the Austrian chapter as well as Open Knowledge International, Open Knowledge Germany and other regional organisations. Members of the international Open Knowledge community have become indispensable for Open Knowledge Maps, be it as team members, advisors or active supporters. A big shout-out and thank you to you!

As a next step, we want to work on structuring and connecting these maps – and we want to turn discovery into a collaborative process. Because someone has already gone that way before and they have all the overview and the insights. We want to enable people to communicate this knowledge so that we can start laying pathways through science for each other. We have created a short video to illustrate this idea:

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