Friday, December 19, 2008

Peer review: Combining old and new

Nature recently published an interesting news item reporting that anyone submitting to a new section of the journal RNA Biology will be required to also submit a Wikipedia-ready page summarising the work. Once the work has been peer-reviewed the summary will be published in Wikipedia.

As Nature explained, the initiative is the result of a collaboration between the journal and the RNA family database (Rfam) consortium led by the UK Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton.

"The novelty is that for the first time it creates a link between Wikipedia and traditional journal publishing, with its peer-review element," Alex Bateman, who co-heads the Rfam database, told Nature. The aim, he added, is to boost the quality of the scientific content on Wikipedia while using the entries to update the Sanger database.

RNA (Ribonucleic acid) is a type of molecule that consists of a long chain of nucleotide units. It is very similar to DNA, but differs in a few important structural details.

The hope is that the scientific community will add to the Wikipedia page. These additions can then be fed back into the Sanger database.

Comments on the Nature article were mixed, with some expressing concern about vandalism, and others wondering whether the idea would fall foul of Wikipedia's "no original research" rule.

But Sean Eddy, a computational biologist at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, explained: "the workflow is that the peer-reviewed article in RNA Biology comes first, defining a new RNA family or redefining an old one. The Wikipedia page appears when the article appears (with reference to the article). The Wikipedia page is then the base for additional encyclopaedic information to be collected for the new (or revised) RNA sequence family."

And in response to the fears of vandalism, Bill Wedemeyer of Michigan State University, commented, "Over the past two years, I and some of my students at Michigan State University have carried out an analysis of the coverage, quality and stability of the scientific articles on the English Wikipedia. We've analysed hundreds of randomly sampled articles from the basic sciences, and have had roughly 100 articles reviewed by tenured professors expert in the field. Our data, being written up for publication, do not support [the hypothesis] that the RNA articles will degenerate into vandalism-riddled nonsense."

We can surely expect to see more and more initiatives like this.