Embrace 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​.wiki​pe​dia​.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.

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). 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 educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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