In the decade since Wikipedia showed how it could be done, there has been an extraordinary democratization of knowledge.

According to the free encyclopedia’s own wiki page (of course), its hundreds of thousands of volunteers have created 21 million articles in 283 languages. The sniffy caveats about the absence of professional expertise have long been eclipsed by the obsessive exuberance — and utility — of fact-sharing by numbers. The global accessibility of instantaneous general knowledge is one of the wonders of our age.

We are now seeing this principle of mass engagement extended into just about every corner of human inquiry, echoed by a hunger for learning and discussion that sees thousands turning out to listen to fresh ideas being debated.

We’ve reported on the crowdsourcing of scientific research, the ways in which tasks that might once have taken years can now be achieved in hours and days by enlisting armies of willing research assistants equipped only with a laptop and a desire to be involved in increasing the sum of understanding.

Galaxy Zoo, with its global community of avid stargazers, leads the way in this endeavor, but its model has been applied to other disciplines — from the curious souls who spend their evenings categorizing whale music to those who translate papyri, analyze oil paintings or map the spread of invasive species.

The Internet provides the opportunity for that spirit of observation and engagement to be shared and focused. It also makes the argument for the power of collaboration over competition, for openness over secrecy, which might begin to break down some of the guarded and protective behaviors that have long characterized professional science. Open science, the free sharing of research, has a long way to go, but citizen science begins to show what working together might achieve.

— The Guardian, London, March 17

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