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Wikipedia Year of Science: An Open Opportunity for Participation

Publishers of peer-reviewed Open Access journals such as PLOS are driven by the realization that, because taxpayers fund the overwhelming majority of biomedical research, there is a moral imperative for the results of this publicly-funded work to be freely and immediately available to those who fund it. In fact, legislators, policymakers and institutions have reached the same conclusion. But what happens to that Open Access scientific content outside the academic or entrepreneurial domain?

In today’s world, there is no reason to limit access to knowledge, and every reason to free it. But the information shared must be reliable, reputable and trusted. This does not mean there is only one perspective or definitive scientific result; research is full of subtleties that inform distinct perspectives and influence final outcomes. What does matter is that science in the public domain, such as content in Wikipedia, is accurate and referenced soundly. Where Wikipedia says “citation required,” PLOS helps create them. PLOS publishes over 30,000 quality peer-reviewed research articles across a broad scope of disciplines each year, and as an Open Access publisher, this trusted research is immediately available for use, reuse and distribution, by anyone with an internet connection.

The Wiki Education Foundation (Wiki Ed) has announced the 2016 Wikipedia Year of Science, an initiative to improve Wikipedia’s potential for communicating science to the public. Through its Classroom Program (where students write Wikipedia articles on class-related topics in place of a traditional research paper) and with collaborations from Wikipedia editors, Wiki Ed will engage scientists to improve the breadth and depth of scientific content on Wikipedia.

Get involved: Find a Wikipedia page on your topic of expertise and match it to a relevant PLOS article. Check out the Year of Science Wiki page and scroll down for the list of monthly themes, then copy/paste the URLs for the Wikipedia and PLOS articles into a form accessible from this survey link. We’ll be sending the information to Edit-A-Thons scheduled throughout the year.

In a Q&A with Tom Porter, Senior Manager of Development at Wiki Ed, PLOS had the opportunity to take a closer look at 2016 Wikipedia Year of Science.

Why this year and why science?

Science is a critical field of education. Wikipedia is enormous, but what you find on Wikipedia is the result of dedicated volunteers. Not every volunteer is interested in writing the kind of content that people search for, or want to learn about, on Wikipedia. That leaves some gaps in public access to knowledge that we think it’s time to tackle.

Since Wikipedia was created 15 years ago, there has been a general warming up of relationships with academics. Often, instructors saw it as a problematic reference material. Now, more often, they see it as an opportunity for student writing. Wiki Ed has worked with 478 instructors at 282 universities, all of whom assigned their students to write for Wikipedia as part of their coursework. “Don’t cite it. Write it!” is the refrain.

In your experience, how do people get over their fear of openly collaborating on public documents such as Wikipedia articles or commenting on existing content through Talk pages? Is it fear, naivety regarding how to do it, or something else?

Many of our students struggle with changing something that’s already on a Wikipedia article – they don’t want to feel bad that they’re rewriting someone else’s content. We spent time in our online training letting students know it’s okay to do so, and we encourage them to post to Talk pages. For many students, this is the first time they’ve worked in public, and they learn a lot about the review and collaboration cycle as they write Wikipedia articles.

Participation and Credit

This is a perfect opportunity for PLOS, with its Open Access content, to reach out to our global contributor community and advance the Open Science movement through improving a vast public resource, increasing article reach, enhancing public awareness of the benefits that Open Access research brings, and accelerating the distribution of research out to the broadest community possible. By increasing access, usability and discovery of trusted information, scientific knowledge made open can propel discovery and innovation. The benefit of participating in the Wikipedia Year of Science is not just greater scientific engagement in public knowledge; it will help “ensure that the next generation of scientists has the skills to explain important scientific principles in a straightforward and effective manner to the general public.”

As organizations, PLOS and Wiki Ed share a common belief in the power of collective knowledge. Both have grown out of communities that recognize the exponential possibilities that Internet connectivity provides, and see the imperative to push that potential for the advantage of humankind. But the desire to do good only works to our advantage as far as it goes; broad community engagement is key. While PLOS and Wiki Ed share a common goal – an open web where communities come together to create, craft, use, reuse and advance critical knowledge – to get there we must understand how to attract communities to participate. New models of doing and publishing science must acknowledge the deep experience of contributors, attribute credit appropriately and retain benefits and rewards for those contributing the original research.

PLOS is not the only organization experimenting with new formats of presenting published work. Wiki Ed recently created Wiki Playlists for personal collections, and PLOS wasted no time in checking it out by creating a Wiki Playlist for PLOS Computational Biology Topic Pages. Examples of open review, post-publication discussion and ongoing dialogue around scientific work, this format allows PLOS authors and editors a collaborative and transparent approach to authoring, reviewing and editing. These articles leverage the capabilities of Wikipedia to expand the reach of research articles and redefine what is published. Authors come to PLOS Computational Biology’s Topic Page editors with content suggestions, and work together to produce a trustworthy, peer-reviewed article for the journal through an open review process that is also posted to Wikipedia for community updating. Once revised and accepted, the articles’ transparent peer review process is preserved by publishing the work – as both a journal article and a Wikipedia page – together with the peer reviews and author responses. PLOS believes that access to the work on Wikipedia increases visibility and invites discussion. Eight Topic Pages have been created to date with Wikipedia versions of articles updated as discoveries are made, allowing the research record to evolve.  There is mutual benefit from new content: Wikipedia is made more robust through the incorporation of peer-reviewed articles, and PLOS authors benefit from the increased reach of their work. This program is ongoing at PLOS and additional Topic Pages are scheduled for release before the end of the year. A revised Wiki Playlist will be created.

Get involved: Tweet about the Wiki Playlist; Wiki Ed asks to include #wikiplaylist in your tweet, for example,

.@PLOSCompBiol #wikiplaylist Open review &post-pub discussion available at @PLOS where #OpenAccess is the norm or

.@PLOSCompBiol #wikiplaylist Open review, post-pub discussion & ongoing dialogue available in @PLOS articles where Open Access is the norm

Of course, innovative tools are only part of the story. Their success depends on community and collaboration. Wikipedia is successful in part because of the massive scale of its contributions and contributors. PLOS, through communities and new forums for communicating science, strives to develop its own large-scale, engaged communities. Watch this space for more ways to get involved.


Image Credit: Titz B, Rajagopala SV, Goll J, Häuser R, McKevitt MT et al. PLOS ONE. 2008. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002292

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