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The open access publisher PLoS recently announced an innovative type of peer reviewed journal article combining the power of expert review with the accessibility of Wikipedia. “Topic Pages” from the scientific journal PLoS Computational Biology will be peer reviewed articles published in the journal and subsequently added to Wikipedia and subject to the ongoing review of Wikipedians. The first in the series, “Circular permutation in proteins” was published in Wikipedia and PLoS Computational Biology at the end of March.

Concanavalin A vs Lectin, from the Wikipedia article "Circular permutation in proteins" based on a PLoS Computational Biology article. CC image courtesy of Andorsch at en.wikipedia

For Wikipedia, this has the advantage of increasing the amount of content in computational biology topics.

But this innovation may be a big step forward in convincing scientists to take an active role in adding content to Wikipedia.

It’s all tied to how scientists are rewarded for their work.

Most scientists are employed at colleges and universities where they are expected to do original research, write and publish their findings and teach students about their disciplines. Tenure, promotion and the ability to keep doing original research (grants) are all tied to a scientist’s ability to publish their results as peer reviewed scientific journal article.

Any time spent editing Wikipedia would be time taken from lab work, field work, or scholarly writing.

But PLoS Computational Biology Topic Pages turn the system around by making peer reviewed articles into Wikipedia entries. And by linking from Wikipedia to the original Topic Pages, Wikipedia users (and science term paper writers) can claim the authority of peer review for the original content.

Researchers can put another line on their resumes indicating the original published article, while also contributing to the public knowledge available on Wikipedia, reaching a wider audience than the original journal article. And the topic pages are not that different than a typical review article, a concept that tenure and promotion committees are already familiar with. The audience is just slightly different.

PLoS has always been at the forefront of making scientific research available to the general public. It will be interesting to see if other publishers can work with Wikipedia in similar ways, combining the reward systems of academic science with the public outreach of Wikipedia.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gmperkins 10:55 am 05/15/2012

    I am always surprised that this and other tings (like educational material) aren’t happening more often. So it is great to see that PloS doing this.

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  2. 2. thekohser 4:42 pm 05/15/2012

    I liked the part, “subject to the ongoing review of Wikipedians”. That “review” will include the insertion of radical points of view, unsubstantiated by any literature, along with fart jokes. I’m sure the “knowledge” that will result will be up to Wikipedia’s very high standards for accuracy and balance.

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  3. 3. metasonix 5:38 pm 05/16/2012

    I must take issue with a number of your assertions and assumptions.

    Firstly, the last thing I would do is to disagree with your opinion that
    the present “system” of academic publishing is badly broken. Yes, it
    clearly is, has been for decades, and is slowly getting worse, as the
    companies that profit from it, such as Elsevier and JSTOR, are becoming
    increasingly greedy and abusive.

    However, I feel that giving original research to Wikipedia, or indeed to any
    Wikimedia Foundation project, would be an even more destructive act.
    There are far better, more reliable places on the Web to post research
    papers than Wikipedia (or the related Wikimedia projects that welcome
    original research, such as Wikibooks and Wiktionary).

    Wikipedia is NOT run by competent or rational people. In its earlier years,
    it had many thousands of good, capable editors writing content. However,
    as it has aged, its internal culture has become increasingly erratic and
    irrational. The content writers have been quitting in large numbers (and yes,
    I can prove it). All of the indicia of a thriving creative community have been
    declining since 2007. Wikipedia now seems to be better at generating angry
    ex-editors than at writing an “encyclopedia”.

    There is still much good content on English-language Wikipedia, but
    its present gang of administrators is quite incompetent, and we have
    seen disturbing evidence that they are slowly destroying the good
    content, simply by grinding it with automated “edit bots”.

    Plus, the question of vandalism is not well-resolved. Most obvious
    vandalism is reverted quickly, but there is also a lot of subtle
    vandalism that is never fixed, plus thousands of biographies that
    are used to openly defame people. Plus thousands of other biographies
    written by their subjects, specifically to glorify themselves.

    And all that talk about “flagged revisions” in 2008, a system that would
    greatly reduce vandalism and biographical abuse, was just that–talk.
    It was developed for all Wikipedias, but only a few of them actually
    turned it on and used it. The English Wikipedia is still wide-open, still
    abused and trashed every day. Because the much-vaunted volunteer
    community of Wikipedia DID NOT WANT flagged revisions. They appear
    to use Wikipedia as a wargame, a form of personal amusement, and
    flagged revisions would greatly reduce their ability to shoot at vandals
    as if they were video-game villains. They WANT to keep Wikipedia in a
    constant state of semi-chaos, for their own twisted reasons.

    And all that talk about Wikipedia being NOT CENSORED? A blatant lie.
    Wikipedia is heavily censored….to protect Wikipedia insiders. Especially
    the “Sole Founder”, Jimmy Wales. Who has repeatedly tried to write the
    ACTUAL inventor of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, out of all histories of
    Wikipedia.

    I could say much, much more, because it’s a big and ugly story.
    Let’s just say, anyone posting scientific research on Wikipedia is
    throwing it away.

    Link to this
  4. 4. bnquick74 12:51 pm 06/27/2012

    With all due respect to the last two comments, all the transgressions you attack Wikipedia for–with exception of fart jokes, though I’ve yet to come across any on Wikipedia edits–have been rampant in the academic publishing and grant seeking world long before the term “wiki” was common knowledge.

    The author correctly notes: “Tenure, promotion and the ability to keep doing original research (grants) are all tied to a scientist’s ability to publish their results as peer reviewed scientific journal article.” With private industry increasingly controlling the purse strings of research and open questioning of the integrity of faculty affiliations–often paid–to ideological think tanks almost nonexistent, we are in a dangerous place. It seems to me the only choice is to embrace transparency in a way the academic gatekeepers are entirely uncomfortable with. I want to know everything there is to know about a reviewer. I also want to know the reviewer has absolutely no conflicts of interest. The academy and the corporation should stay as far from each other as possible.

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