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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.

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

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