RNA Families Set Up House in Wikipedia

A figure from the first Wikipedia entry tied to an RNA Biology article, entered into Wikipedia in November 2008. The entry and article, published in the January/February/March 2009 issue of RNA Biology describe the SmY family of non-coding RNA molecules found in some nematode species.For scientists submitting to the journal RNA Biology, the publishing guidelines now include a new task: Submit a Wikipedia entry. In collaboration with the RNA database Rfam, the journal recently launched a new section, RNA Families, that requires a corresponding peer-reviewed Wikipedia article along with each article published in the section.


“It is so globally important to have knowledge accessible to everybody,” says Renée Schroeder, PhD, editor-in chief of the journal.


The new section, dedicated to descriptions of non-coding RNA families, debuted in the January/February/ March issue of the journal, with one article and its corresponding Wikipedia entry. The entries are not meant to exactly mirror the scientific literature, Schroeder says. “In a research article you have the way you acquired the knowledge, and in Wikipedia you have the results,” she says.


This is the first instance of such a link between Wikipedia and a scientific journal, says Alex Bateman, PhD, co-director of Rfam, an open-access database of non-coding RNA families coordinated by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK. In 2007, Bateman and his colleagues linked the database to Wikipedia. Editing of the Wikipedia articles automatically updates the database. In Fall 2008, he brought his idea for a new publishing paradigm to RNA Biology.


Bateman thinks this is an exciting step for a scientific journal. “It wouldn’t be reasonable to claim that these articles were going to change the world,” he says. “But the important thing is that the model is really interesting. Hopefully this can be an experiment that other journals can follow in other areas of science.”


Schroeder points out that this model won’t work for every scientific journal. The article subjects must easily translate to the encyclopedic format, and the site is meant to be a source of accurate information, so “there shouldn’t be too much that hasn’t been tested and retested,” she says.


The Rfam and RNA Biology entries fall under the rubric of the Molecular and Cellular Biology wikiproject, which is working to improve all molecular biology, biochemistry and cellular biology entries. Tim Vickers, PhD, director of the wikiproject and postdoctoral fellow at Washington University, thinks the decision by RNA Biology is a step in the right direction toward getting more scientists involved with updating and maintaining Wikipedia. “Obviously we scientists all like to publish papers, but if you just do that and don’t reach out and tell people why your work is important, that’s a big chunk missing,” he says. “Editing Wikipedia and giving the general public a good summary of the science in your field, that’s almost as important as publishing scientific papers.”

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