Kim H. Veltman

Access, Claims and Quality on the Internet

Keynote at: Open Culture, Accessing and Sharing Knowledge. Scholarly Production in the Digital Age, Università di Milano, Milan , 27-29 June2005.
Published version.


In 1934, Otlet outlined a vision of comprehensive electronic access to knowledge. Progress towards this vision entailed initial visions of hypertext, markup languages, the semantic web, Wikipedia and more recently a series of developments with respect to Open Source. If everything is accessible then how do we separate the chaff from the grain and how do we identify quality? This essay suggests that five dimensions need to be included in a future web: 1) variants and multiple claims; 2) levels of certainty in making a claim; 3) levels of authority in defending a claim; 4) levels of significance in assessing a claim; 5) levels of thoroughness in dealing with a claim. These dimensions offer future criteria for scholarship.

The efforts towards hypertext, markup language, semantic web, and Open Source allow us to consider five new kinds of challenges, which are needed to ensure quality: 1) methods for integrating variants; 2) levels of certainty in making a claim; 3) levels of authority in defending a claim; 4) levels of significance in assessing a claim and 5) levels of thoroughness in supporting claims re: extant knowledge in a field. All five of these are important ingredients that can serve as future criteria for scholarship.

1) Methods for integrating Variants

In an ideal world, scholarship is limited to eternal truths. In everyday life, many items are straightforward questions of true or false. In many cases, however, the situation is not so straightforward. We need to incorporate variant names, associations, attributions and claims.


The most obvious of these entails different spellings of a given name. For much of the 20th century there was a conviction that if one could establish a standard version this could serve as an authority file and be adopted by or simply imposed on others. Library systems have complex systems for Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC), which duly reflect standard and variant names. Ironically the potentials of this information are often not exploited fully even by the libraries themselves. In terms of everyday users such systems are not available.

These alternative names are effectively access points to earlier documents which were unaware of the current accepted spelling. So there is a new challenge to create online authority files with all possible variants built in. These lists can be online and freely available to users. If users have additional variants to add they could do so on a simple proviso: that they provide at least one historical document that uses the variant in question. This variant and its source would then become a regular part of the system. In using this method, non-expert users would be spared the deliberations of which variant to use. The system provides it for them. The variants remain accessible at the database level. Hence, even if the user forgets the official spelling next time round, the variants bring him/her back to the currently accepted version. Persons working in specific fields can work with subsets of the master lists to ensure that their tools match the complexity required, while saving them from unnecessary complexity.

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