Embrace Wikipedia!(?)

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

Now that’s probably something you thought you would never hear an academic say. Well, let’s qualify that outrageous statement. Acknowledging that entries on Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/) can be amended by anybody who has access to the internet – whether they have, or have not, an axe to grind – we rightly caution our students that Wikipedia is best used as a starting point for more serious academic literature enquiry elsewhere (preferably to rigorously peer-reviewed items in reputable journals, such as the Annals of Botany). However, in an Opinion piece at SciDev.Net (the Science and Development Network, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing reliable and authoritative information about science and technology for the developing world), Samuel Assefa and Alex Bateman argue for greater use of Wikipedia to fill a resource gap for today’s ‘high-tech’ generation of students, policymakers and the public in poor countries. Which argues for closer control over the veracity of what is entered onto Wikipedia, especially if it is used to give policymakers a better understanding of science, which is sorely needed according to a report for the Parliament of Uganda and discussed in a SciDev.Net Editorial by David Dickson. But rather than rely on the self-policing of posted material by responsible Wiki contributors, maybe this argues more compellingly for a widening of the availability of peer-reviewed Open Access (OA) scientific literature, as argued by Leslie Chan. Whilst the ‘developed world’ may be awash with journal access, the developing world is generally not so well served by traditional research publishing, so it is hoped that OA can here make the difference that is required to bring much-needed knowledge to the masses, for the greater good. Fortunately, there are initiatives that aim to do just that, as outlined by BioMed Central’s Head of Public Relations, Matthew McKay. But such ambitious projects need global co-operation to succeed, so it is good to see endorsement by UNESCO (the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. Accordingly, UNESCO both promotes and supports Open Access via its Global Open Access Portal. Good news also that – according to ‘a source at BMC Central’ – the UK government is keen to widen OA access in its new innovation and research strategy (see especially pp. 76–77) for growth (for the UK…). However, is there not a danger of applying double standards here? On the one hand we say that Wikipedia is ‘not good’ for students in the developed world, but on the other hand we sanction its use in the developing world. If we are equal-handed and argue just for Wikipedia to be used in both as a starting point, then the developing word still has the problem of limited access to scientific literature, which is back to the OA issue again. So, until proper OA is more widely available for all, perhaps Wikipedia – for better or worse – is the new Global Open Access.

About Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic in a UK university. As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an amusing, educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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