Creating a Web of Knowledge in Support of Scientific Research: a Presentation by John Wilbanks

(Click here to view the video archive of Wilbank’s talk.)

John Wilbanks, Vice President of the Creative Commons and Executive Director of the Science Commons, visited the University of Michigan campus for a series of meetings and presentations during the week of 12 January 2009. The highlight of Wilbanks’ visit was a talk entitled “Building The Research Web: Access or Control?” presented as part of the UM Medical School’s Health Informatics Grand Round lecture series.

In his talk Wilbanks posed the question, “Why do we have these wonderful advances for buying shoes and reserving hotel rooms, but not for sharing science and knowledge? We think about knowledge as something we write down on paper, send through peer review, and put in a journal.” Wilbanks went on to explain that stable systems, such as our traditional approach to publishing scientific research, are resistant to change and require a disruptive technology to open them to sharing. This would enable scientific research to evolve into “a web of knowledge, not just a web of documents.”


Named a “Revolutionary Mind” by Seed magazine, Wilbanks is an advocate for improving access to shared scientific knowledge. Expanding on the “information wants to be free” mantra of the open content movement, Wilbanks stressed that “When information is free and technologically enabled, info tends to get connected and become more valuable. But info needs to be connected and technically-enabled or none of this happens.” As Wilbanks explained, “Imagine legos and, instead of using them as legos, putting each in a separate container. That would make it hard to build anything. That’s what we do with scientific knowledge when we put it in journals.”


Wilbanks stressed, “We also need incentive systems that encourage scientists to deposit and share knowledge. Legal hurdles, lack of incentives, and work load combine to create system that is ‘robust against disruption.’” Sharing needs to be easier for those who want to share.

“You should be proud to be part of an institution that is as advanced in thinking about the issues of sharing as the U is. I spend a lot of my time on the road going to see different institutions, and Michigan is light years ahead of the organizations and universities that we see.” Wilbanks called out two initiatives that UM collaborators are involved in:

Wilbanks said, “Mostly when I give these talks, I don’t have anyone to call out to in the audience. Here at Michigan I have two.” Wilbanks concluded by imploring the audience to, “Start hacking now, and work with people who want to share, even if it’s just within your university. We need to provide open access to solutions, because that’s how the knowledge web will grow.”

Click here to view the video archive of Wilbank’s talk.

John Wilbanks photo courtesy of Science Commons, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Images included above are from an unknown source.

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