Research News

Librarians work to broaden Vanderbilt’s research reputation with Wikidata tools

environmental photo of Valerie Hotchkiss
University Librarian Valerie Hotchkiss (Vanderbilt University)

Many people are familiar with Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia created and edited by volunteers, but what about Wikidata, its sister project?  Like Wikipedia, Wikidata is a free and collaboratively edited reference source, but it functions like a database rather than an encyclopedia. Users can ask highly complex questions and receive direct answers.

“Vanderbilt’s librarians are harnessing the power of Wikidata to enhance the online reputations of Vanderbilt’s faculty and our overall status as a tier-one research university,” University Librarian Valerie Hotchkiss said. “These efforts also advance the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries’ broader mission of contributing to the public good by promoting faculty scholarship and making it discoverable and accessible to researchers.”

A team of librarians is collaborating this summer to contribute data about the academic backgrounds of Vanderbilt faculty and their scholarly publications. Since starting the project, the team has created an entry for every faculty member on campus. They have made almost 14,000 edits, adding roughly 600 bibliographic items.

studio headshot of Cliff Anderson
Associate University Librarian Clifford Anderson (Vanderbilt University)

“Our goal is to provide complete information about the scholarly outputs of Vanderbilt faculty,” said Clifford Anderson, associate university librarian for research and digital strategy. “While we are just at the beginning, we are excited about the potential impact of this project.”

To speed up the creation of metadata about faculty and their publications, Steven Baskauf, data science and data curation specialist for libraries, developed “VanderBot,” a set of scripts that can read and write to Wikidata, greatly improving the efficiency by which Vanderbilt’s faculty are discoverable through Wikidata.

“VanderBot helps us automate certain tasks,” Baskauf said. “The script can determine whether data already exists in a record or can create, for example, a new item, add or change labels and descriptions, or add references and qualifiers to existing statements.” Baskauf has made his code freely available for other coders to adjust to meet their own needs.

Vanderbilt librarians also are involved in related initiatives to describe scientific and cultural heritage online. For example, librarians are adding information about clinical trials to Wikidata and Wikipedia. Philip Walker, director of the Annette and Irwin Eskind Family Biomedical Library and Learning Center, has been meeting weekly with counterparts from Duke University, the University of Virginia and other institutions to develop the data model for these trials.

“Original data from and about clinical trials are an extremely important source of grey literature, meaning information that is not formally published in books or journal articles,” Walker said. Currently, there are approximately 2,000 clinical trials on Wikidata that list Vanderbilt University or Vanderbilt University Medical Center among research sites.

Meanwhile, staff members at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery and the Visual Resources Center are adding information about Vanderbilt’s art objects to Wikidata. The WikiProject Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery will integrate Vanderbilt’s collection into the linked data universe. “Having the collection easily accessible through Wikidata will generate a greater interest in the gallery’s collection, creating more opportunities for research, object loan requests and exhibition participation,” said Kali Mason, registrar and collections manager of the gallery.

In the process of adding faculty members to Wikidata, librarians at Vanderbilt discovered that there was no straightforward way to describe an academic appointment, so a group of librarians, including Anderson and Baskauf, proposed and received approval for a new category of data, Academic Appointment. Bruce Morrill, Edward A. Malloy Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at the Divinity School, became the first faculty member to have his academic appointment described with this new category in Wikidata.

“While carrying out these incredibly useful projects, Vanderbilt librarians have become leaders in developing the potential of Wikidata for scholarly communications and academic research,” Hotchkiss said. “If faculty members would like to learn how to incorporate linked data into their research or coursework, our librarians stand ready to assist.”