Friday, December 19, 2008

Publish in Wikipedia – or Perish?

Via ReadWriteWeb comes this story from Nature that any scientist that submits an article to the journal RNA Biology for their new section on RNA molecules, must also create a Wikipedia page summarizing their work.

"The novelty is that for the first time it creates a link between Wikipedia and traditional journal publishing, with its peer-review element," says Alex Bateman, who co-heads the Rfam database. The aim, Bateman says, is to boost the quality of the scientific content on Wikipedia while using the entries to update the Sanger database.

RNA Biology will require Wikipedia pages from all authors who submit work to a new section of the journal, to be launched later this week, that describes families of RNA molecules. The first paper scheduled is "A Survey of Nematode SmY RNAs"1; its corresponding Wikipedia summary can be found here.
And it appears as though they’ve given this some thought and have experimented with other entries to Wikipedia, as there’s also a database they’ve been building that gets synchronized with Wikipedia every night.

The Sanger Institute created the Rfam database in 2005, and it now contains data on about 1,200 RNA families from some 200 complete genome sequences. Sanger last year started to experiment with the idea of using Wikipedia to improve the database. It set up an RNA subsection on the encyclopaedia, called RNA WikiProject 2, which has the same entries as those on the Rfam database. The database is synchronized each night with Wikipedia, so that any changes made to the Wikipedia pages are transferred to the corresponding entries in the Rfam database.

Bateman says he has been "pleasantly surprised" by scientists' willingness to edit the RNA Wikipedia pages. Most of the edits are made by a core group of around 15 researchers, but there's a long tail of other scientists who pop in sporadically, he says, often to fix or add information about molecules specific to their research.

Hopefully, this will be the start of a trend of other scientific journals doing the same thing.

The RNA wiki is a subset of a broader project, the WikiProject Molecular and Cellular Biology, which has marshalled hundreds of scientists to improve the content of biology articles in Wikipedia. It, in turn, is collaborating with the Novartis Research Foundation on GeneWiki 3, an effort to create Wikipedia articles describing every human gene. Beyond Wikipedia itself, scientists are also increasingly using wiki technology to get scientists to help curate other biological databases (see Nature 455, 22–25; 2008).
You should read through the comments on the Nature post as well, including this one by Bill Wedemeyer from Michigan State:

Over the past two years, I and some of my students at Michigan State University have carried out an analysis of the coverage, quality and stability of the scientific articles on the English Wikipedia. We've analyzed hundreds of randomly sampled articles from the basic sciences, and have had roughly 100 articles reviewed by tenured professors expert in the field. Our data, being written up for publication, do not support Mr. Kohs' hypothesis that the RNA articles will degenerate into vandalism-riddled nonsense. On the contrary, we found that the developed articles (the so-called Featured, A-level and Good Articles) are stable and of reliably good quality. I presented our preliminary findings at a conference in July. I applaud Dr. Bateman and his colleagues for their initiative, which seems a promising method for outreach, connecting the scientific world with the public that usually pays for the research. We all hope for "broader impact", and this initiative seems likely to be effective.

Perhaps I’m just being optimistic this morning (I tend to alternate days, or sometimes hours), but I think this holds real promise for realizing the potential of Wikipedia and other socially co-constructed content.


  1. That would be because Mr Kohs is a crank and a troll who was kicked off Wikipedia for attempting to turn it into a business scheme and has since spent his time obsessively running it down on blogs. One day he'll think up a second business plan.

  2. @David Gerard - Not sure if you meant to leave the comment on my blog or on the Nature article. For everyone else, David's comment refers back to a comment left on the Nature article.