Implementing a Research Knowledge Base
Research has always been an integral part of education, especially higher education. Research generates new knowledge and offers training in creative and independent thinking. The role of research in higher education is shown by the fact that almost all the famous universities in the world are also known as research universities.
Modern research is highly specialized and highly collaborative. Finding papers with more than 100 references is common these days. Moreover, the rise of the Internet has made it possible to publish results quickly, and the barrier to accessing scientific information has been lowered drastically. For instance, in the astrophysics field alone, its internet preprint service publishes more than 15 new research papers every day, all of which are freely accessible to the public. While this provides enormous power for researchers to conduct advanced research, it also creates a huge burden to keep up-to-date with the newest results.
These conditions give rise to two important questions in modern research: how do we organize knowledge to keep in step with recent developments and be able to retrieve the information when we need it? Second, how do we organize and keep record of research projects involving several researchers? In the research world, new knowledge is presented in the form of publications. I use the term “references” to refer to pieces of knowledge, including unpublished or privately communicated tips and results. In this article, I discuss research knowledge-base systems in the form of reference management systems.
There have been commercial attempts to address the questions above. Applications like EndNote, Pro-Cite and PAPYRUS offer reference management capabilities and even some web capabilities. However, I found them hard to use and customize in my own research.
Research covers every field of human knowledge, and more importantly, research is intended to explore the unexpected. Every group might have different requirements for organizing and displaying their references. Most of the proprietary reference management systems have targeted specific research fields (usually medical research). Being closed-source software, it is impossible for the user to change and improve the software to adapt to specific needs.
The best solution to this problem is to design an open-source, web-based, multi-user knowledge-base system. It would run on an internet-connected server and be accessible from any standard web browser, from all platforms. Users could post/organize references and hold discussions in the comment section. All the knowledge and discussion interactions could be archived centrally from one secured server. This web-based approach would use web browsers as the user interface (UI) and would enable anyone to change the UI by simply changing the HTML-like source code. My answer to the need for such software is the OpenReference reference management system.
One goal for writing this software was to categorize knowledge for easy future retrieval by multiple users. A simple keyword search is not enough, since searching cannot guarantee finding all the related references. It is much easier to browse through the category tree if you have a specific subject in mind. So, advanced categories and user management are two core features I decided to implement.
Big categories, each containing hundreds of references, are no better than no category at all. For the categorization to be useful, the leaf categories on the tree should contain less than one page or 20 references each. That demands a very fine-tuned category structure. Finer categories are needed in areas of more active research. It is impossible, however, to judge in advance how many levels of subcategories are needed in any field so as to make efficient categorization. The only way is to design a dynamic category structure that can be adjusted at runtime. If a lot of references show up in a particular category, the administrator can divide it into several subcategories, according to the nature of those references.
As I have stated, the leaf categories need to focus on narrow subjects to keep the number of references small. Today's research works have become more and more interdisciplinary, making it hard to categorize a reference into a narrow category. The solution to this problem is to allow a reference to associate with more than one category.
This system is designed not only as a personal reference organizer, but also as a group discussion server to exchange ideas in the comments section. A web-based collaboration system can keep track of information and make archives of idea exchanges possible.
Being a multi-user system, this software must establish some user access control. The administrator can set the policy to accept new users. Every user needs to log in with a legitimate username/password combination to post references and comments. Each user can edit/delete/recategorize his or her own postings. Only the administrator can touch the category structure.
Finally, in order to enable private conversation in the forum, I also allow a user to specify a list of other users who can see her or his postings. Those private conversations traditionally take place in e-mail communications, but this software encourages users to use the web system for better archiving of the research effort.
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