Google, possibly as part of its efforts to conquer the world, has a new Web encyclopedia they call Knol.

One of the complaints teachers have with Wikipedia is that you don't know who wrote the article (probably many people) or what their "authority" is in the subject. Some are written by experts, but many are written or revised by simply interested folks and then possibly reviewed and edited by someone with some expertise.

According to the Google Blog, Knol will tell you who wrote the article and their qualifications right on top.

"... we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing. For now, using it is by invitation only. But we wanted to share with everyone the basic premises and goals behind this project.

The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content. At the heart, a knol is just a web page; we use the word "knol" as the name of the project and as an instance of an article interchangeably. It is well-organized, nicely presented, and has a distinct look and feel, but it is still just a web page. Google will provide easy-to-use tools for writing, editing, and so on, and it will provide free hosting of the content. Writers only need to write; we'll do the rest."

All you can see now of the new service is a sample screenshot of a knol page.

Teachers often tell students to avoid Wikipedia because they are afraid that it will be the only source a student will use. Even the Wikipedia creators don't recommend that use of the service. However, it is a good starting place. Not so different from when I (in the Age of Paper) had my secondary students start with World Book or Brittanica as a way to get an overview of a topic so that they knew some keywords and names to pursue in their research.

Google suggests the same thing.

"A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing."

Knol also has, as we would expect, community tools that allow you to submit comments, questions, edits, rate or review articles and add additional content. I would guess that only the original/official author gets a cut of the ad revenue, but if this all flies, who is really the author of a piece that after a year has had 500 edits by other people? Is the original author expected to be checking back on what has happened to her article?

It's all beta now, but later it will be completely open. Google will use their "Search Quality" to rank the knols "appropriately" when they appear in Google search results.

Obviously, Knol, is similar to other efforts, like Squiddo, to create authoritative articles.

One difference is that Knol authors can make some money for their writing. At their discretion, a knol may include ads. If the authors allows them, Google will provide the author with a revenue share from the proceeds of those ads. How much? I've seen others say online that it could easily would be more than professors make for writing journal articles, since that often is a freebie done for promotion and tenure review or professional prestige. Will it affect journal submissions? Will p & t committees accept knols as legitimate publications?

Dan Colman at OpenCulture isn't sure that Google will attract the scholars to write, and he questions the need for the service.

"Somehow, writers have figured out how to post 2,125,453 articles to Wikipedia.The argument that technology is holding back would-be encyclopedia writers just doesn’t fly. Nor does the notion that we’d get better quality encyclopedia entries if only authors could attach their names to what they write. On the one hand, anonymity hasn’t slowed down Wikipedia at all. On the other, many legitimate experts will see writing “knols” as being a slight step above “vanity” publishing, but not much more. In short, not a good use of their time."

Out of curiosity (and since I can't access Knol yet) I looked up "knol" on Wikipedia where folks have been writing about it since mid-December.

There's some debate going on there as to whether Google search results can remain neutral because of the possible conflict of interest. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy comments: "At the end of the day, there's a fundamental conflict between the business Google is in and its social goals. What you're seeing here, slowly, is Google embracing an advertising-driven model, in which money will have a greater impact on what people have ready access to."

Others point to the fact that Google currently hosts lots of content in their YouTube, Blogger and Google Groups areas and that this is similar. I can see that point, but we're probably not using those three sites as research sources.

Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales, has commented that the profit incentive could turn Google's Knol into a place for commercial pages rather than academic ones.

I'm also not sure that there's a "need" for another online encyclopedia, but I don't see the harm. I can't imagine it will roll over Wikipedia. The idea that it might sounds more Microsoftian than it does Googlian. I thought I read once that Google's slogan/mission was that phrase from Hippocrates - Do no harm. Let's hope so.

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