Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Open Access Evidence Racks

In issue #166 of the SPARC Open Access Newsletter Peter Suber describes the idea of an “open-access evidence rack”.

An open access (OA) evidence rack is a kind of “container of research”, the function of which is to organize “the evidence in support of the basic propositions in a field, and for making that evidence OA.” Part of the idea is that technology is making new ways of organizing and presenting research possible, besides the still dominant vehicles of articles and books.

Suber says:

“An evidence rack is a list of propositions in which each proposition anchors a list of supporting studies or pieces of evidence. It's a list of lists. I call it a rack because I picture the series of propositions as series of hooks, and I picture the chain of evidence under a given proposition as a chain hanging from the hook.”

Here is the basic idea, as Suber sketches it (quoted verbatim):

First, identify the basic propositions in the field or sub‐field you want to cover. To start small, identify the basic propositions you want to defend in a given article. 
Second, create a separate OA web page for each proposition. For now, don't worry about the file format or other technicalities. What's important is that the pages should (1) be easy to update, (2) carry a time‐stamp showing when they were last updated, and (3) give each proposition a unique URL. Let's call them "proposition pages". 
Third, start filling in each page with the evidence in support of its proposition. If some evidence has been published in an article or book, then cite the publication. When the work is online (OA or TA), add a link as well. Whenever you can link directly to evidence, rather than merely to publications describing evidence, do that. For example, some propositions can be supported by linkable data in an open dataset. But because citations and data don't always speak for themselves, consider adding some annotations to explain how cited pieces of evidence support the given proposition.
There’s a lot more detail to Suber’s idea, and a lot to that could be said it, including ways of refining it, possible problems, peculiarities about how it might work in different fields where kinds of evidence vary in interesting ways.

I think the general proposal is very exciting, though, and I hope to see experiments with it taking place. I draw attention to Suber’s proposal here because I want to try to adopt its spirit in some future parts of this site.

The way I’ve been working (on and off) on this ‘common currency’ project for a few years now has involved old-fashioned evidence rack work, in the sense that as I’ve identified variants of common currency theses, I’ve put relevant papers and notes into separate folders (some paper, some virtual). Some of the work has also involved developing lists of various kinds, for example examples of neuroeconomic studies purporting to show consistency in the neural processing of rewards from different modalities (food, money, current vs. delayed, etc.).

Translating some of this work into individual ‘evidence hooks’ would be pretty straightforward. I’ll make a start on one or two of the simpler examples fairly soon. I just need to haul out some of my lists, and think a bit more about Suber’s proposal before posting the first versions.

On the other hand, with this particular project, in some ways the hardest stage is Suber’s first one: identifying the basic propositions. I’m moderately confident what some of those are, but in some cases I’m still battling with deciding what distinctions it is most useful to draw, and how to describe the differences. That’s going to take a bit longer. Still, I think that the ideal of an evidence rack is a useful kind of discipline, and might help organize my attempts to nail down the basic propositions.

I’m not saying that what I’ll do here will be a full example of what Suber describes as an evidence rack. I think his proposal is interesting and worth taking seriously, and I’m going to try and take some small steps toward what he describes.

Watch this space.

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