Posted by: Chris | March 5, 2010

A Wiki You Can Bring Home to the Parents

Via Razib Khan (whose blog is also quite good and you should go to), I found this awesome Wiki called Scitable hosted by Nature, edited by various accredited professors in their respective fields.  The idea is to produce something that a) fills the internet-based secondary literature gap between a Wikipedia search and a PubMed search and b) to produce something that people can cite legitimately as a reputable overview of a topic.  Right now it focuses on genetics and evolution, and, seeing that it is Nature, I can’t imagine it expanding much further, but it does help the many bio students out there banging their heads against the primary literature and lit reviews on the journal-hosting sites trying to find some external verification for basic facts in their introductions.

However, I wasn’t quite content to settle with the narrative proposed by Khan and Nature, so I decided to compare its content with Wikipedia.  Seeing that I was recently thinking about my iffy presentation to DCPS on the evolution of sex, I looked at the articles from both sites.  Here is Wikipedia’s and here is Scitable’s.  First thing you will probably notice is that Wikipedia’s article is no slouch in the area everyone seems to be attacking it: in terms of factual accuracy and/or technical proficiency.  Perhaps this is an anomolous circumstance (feel free to investigate other articles), but contrary to what Khan and most of the professariat seem inclined to believe, Wikipedia seems comparatively strong at presenting correct information and delving deep into the primary literature as a work produced by a “legitimate” source.  My assumption (and our stint as Wiki editors basically confirms for me) is that most articles that recieve at least the bare minimum traffic over several years accumulate a host of interested folk who guard against inaccuracies and perpetually embellish the article with more and more tidbits.

The other thing you might notice about the Wikipedia article, which I imagine is also resultant from years of editing and additions: it’s a fucking mess.  The inclusionist, citation-happy approach of Wikipedia has left the article chock full of half-baked hypotheses, scientific non sequitors (notice the four lengthy paragraphs toward the end about the origin of the eukaryotic cell?), and a litany of quotes and citations of people doing this, that, and the other research.  Outside of the fairly consise and informative opening, Wikipedia’s offering is fairly useless to someone going there to learn about the subject in the title.  One has to pick through all the random shit and piece together their own narrative.

At Scitable, it is a different story.  It does not lack any of Wikipedia’s accuracy or jargon-fondness, but, as it was obviously crafted all at once by one or two people working towards one end, it is structured quite logically and comprehensibly.  The article follows a clear arc of explaining the problem in depth (but not too much and without the clutter) and then the theoretical solutions and their various relative weights.  At least in my eyes, it is clearly the preferrable resource for someone interested in an overview of the theory and literature on the evolution of sexual reproduction.

And, if I may extrapolate absurdly from this example, I think this serves as comment on the whole Wiki phenomenon.  It seems Jimmy Wales might have been right (and the various kneejerk critics wrong) about how the vaguely democratic editing process of Wikipedia can slowly produce a lot of factually correct information to rival single-authored sources.  However, the rules, process, and community necessary to achieve those ends seem to also create a mishmashed final product fairly unhelpful to anyone but the most casual reader anyway, making it in a way, all for not.  I suspect I will be using Scitable more and more for my casual bio info needs and I would not be surprised if other large journals try to copy Nature in their respective competences.



  1. I think you wanted your Scitable link in the second paragraph to be to here:

    • Thank you JJ. Good catch. I updated the link.

  2. Another thing to consider… when Dr. Larry Sanger actually proposed the idea of an open wiki to generate feeder content for the existing Nupedia encyclopedia project, Jimmy Wales thought the idea was a bit crazy, and he only reluctantly installed the wiki software in a sort of “okay, I guess” manner. So, to even give Wales credit for whatever success Wikipedia’s had in generating content (as you note, in the way an infant generates spit-up) is a bit off the mark. Sanger, in my opinion, had about 80% to do with how Wikipedia evolved; Wales about 20%.

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