What's Online Annotation? And Why Did Helmsley Just Make a Big Grant to Support it?

Annotation on the web has been drawing headlines lately as the next big thing in how we communicate online. It's the practice of linking comments or additional information directly on top of online content without changing it. And while online annotation has all sorts of uses, it can be especially valuable in research fieldswhich is why the Helmsley Charitable Trust just gave a big grant to nudge it forward.  

The first things many people had ever heard about online annotation were probably related to the hijinks of Rap Genius, now just Genius. Whether it’s the irritating antics of the site's eccentric founders, or Andreessen Horowitz’s huge investment, or how they lured away the New Yorker’s music critic, the lyrics annotation site has been all over the place. 

But annotation has been kicking around since the early years of the Internet. Rap Genius is just one player. In fact, the nonprofit Hypothes.is has been working at promoting an open source tool for annotating the web for years. It’s been described as an open source effort to bring “peer review to the Internet.” 

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The theory is that, by layering on comments and crowdsourcing their prominence à la Quora, some much-needed reality checking can be woven into the fabric of the Internet. Hypothes.is founder Dan Whaley called annotation “a critical leap forward for humanity.”

The organization just got a boost from Helmsley in the form of a $2.1 million grant, specifically for a collaborative effort to strengthen the practice in biomedical research. The grant actually supports three partners that are combining their work on best practices and methods for annotating scholarly research. 

So why does Helmsley care about what basically sounds like Internet comments? This is more like the kind of thing the techies over at the Knight Foundation would be into. But Helmsley, in 2014, joined a large club of funders trying to make the research community more robust, and more open and collaborative. We’ve written quite a lot about some of these efforts. 

Related: Six Funders Working to Set Science Free

Helmsley is a huge backer of biomedical research, and started its Biomedical Research Infrastructure program last year to reduce inefficiencies and make scholarly research more collaborative and cooperative. 

Other recent grantees in this area include Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit that promotes a community approach to research, and Mozilla, for its open research community hub. 

The value of annotation to research could be a big deal. It would allow a level of ongoing, cited and interactive review to scholarly research found on the Internet. That’s good for quality of research, but also for strengthening and promoting interaction among researchers. For example, the ability to share bits of information back and forth means one scholar could chime in with a piece of data or a possible idea for future direction that could supplement a published work. 

Considering what annotation has done for rap lyrics, imagine what it could do for actual geniuses.

Related: Why Big Foundations Ganging up for Open Access is Important