Journal authors must also post to Wikipedia

Findings of papers accepted for RNA Biology have to be added to website, Melanie Newman reports

January 12, 2009

An academic journal has introduced a requirement that academics post their research findings on Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that anyone may edit.

In a drive to broaden access to research and to improve the quality of information available on Wikipedia, the journal RNA Biology has asked authors whose papers are accepted for publication to add their results to Wikipedia.

The website has proved to be controversial because its content is created and edited by the general public.

The Wikipedia page containing the research results – on the family of molecules known as RNA (ribonucleic acid) – is open to editing by scientists with any additional information as well as by other members of the public.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute holds Rfam, a database of RNA families that is updated via Wikipedia. Alex Bateman, leader of the Rfam project, said: “Traditional science publishing serves researchers well, but we believe this initiative will broaden access to research and improve the scientific content of Wikipedia.”

The Sanger Institute said in a statement that although Wikipedia was a key resource for students and researchers, relatively few academics added and edited its content. “The new approach will encourage researchers to help to ensure that Wikipedia’s content is current and scientifically accurate,” it said.

The Rfam project is part of the wider Molecular and Cellular Biology WikiProject, which aims to improve the organisation and content of articles on Wikipedia in this discipline.

RNA Biology’s initiative has produced mixed responses from the academic community.

Terry Wassall, principal teaching fellow in sociology at the University of Leeds, said: “On the face of it, I think this is an excellent idea.”

Academics and teachers have had a “rather uneasy relationship” with Wikipedia, he said. Some lecturers have tried to ban students from using it altogether, while others have used it as a way of introducing and teaching information literacy skills, getting students to research the provenance of articles and the reputation of the authors and relate the information to a wider context of reading and study.

“I think RNA Biology’s initiative will be good for the authors, good for Wikipedia and good for the research and teaching community,” Dr Wassall said. “It will be interesting to see how summaries of research published in Wikipedia will relate to the original article and what modification activity subsequently takes place.”

Discussion pages behind each summary may give insight into the disputes and debates that are central to science, he added.

Cash-strapped students will also welcome the move. One, who posted a message on Reddit Science, said: “I wish other science journals would do this. As it is now, I have to either pay to subscribe to journals or pay for articles individually. This is not cheap [for] a college student who must regularly look up articles from multiple journals.”

Other posts expressed fears about vandalism and whether “spamming” of Wikipedia with highly detailed scientific information was appropriate.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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