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'Editathon' Looks to Improve Wikipedia for Computational Biology

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PRAGUE (GenomeWeb) – Wikipedia, the free online information resource that is the default jumping-off point for so many internet research expeditions, is notorious for being unreliable, error-prone, and occasionally gamed by pranksters, as comedian Stephen Colbert hilariously demonstrated back in 2006.

Although some studies — cited on Wikipedia itself — have found scientific articles on the site to be "of high standard," Wikipedia remains less than perfect for medical researchers such as informaticians and computational biologists.

As such, a hardcore group of attendees of the joint Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology-European Conference on Computational Biology scientific conference here this weekend set out to improve the accuracy and reliability of Wikipedia articles on biomedical informatics.

For 11 hours on Sunday, about 20 volunteers — who came and went at various times — convened in a windowless room at the Prague Congress Centre to scour the massive online information resource during the fourth "editathon" for computational biology entries on Wikipedia. Fifteen people took the time to sign the official event page.

The International Society of Computational Biology and WikiProject Computational Biology put the editathon together. A WikiProject is a collaboration among Wikipedia users to improve and organize articles as well as draw in more people to contribute to related Wikipedia pages.

This is the fourth such editathon since 2012, and it has been greatly expanded this year. The 2016 event at the International Society for Computational Biology's Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology academic conference in Orlando, Florida, lasted only two hours in the evening and drew a dozen participants, some of whom had not had a chance to eat dinner following a long day of live presentations and then poster sessions, according to event co-organizer Kieran O'Neill.

ICSB combines its ISMB meeting with ECCB's in odd-numbered years, when the event is held in Europe. The two hold separate conferences in North America and Europe, respectively, in even-numbered years.

"We decided to make it more accessible this year," O'Neill said of the editathon.

Wikipedia may never become as authoritative as a medical journal, but it is "really invaluable as a starting point," said O'Neill, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia-affiliated Michael Smith Genome Science Centre at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver.

In fact, O'Neill said, some of the computational biology topic pages have gotten through peer review for publication in journals including PLoS Computational Biology and PLoS Genetics.

In the next few days, the other co-organizer, Alastair Kilpatrick, a bioinformatician at the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, will be compiling metrics on number of edits made and the quality of changes in order to award prizes. The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit owner of Wikipedia, provided a $1,775 grant for O'Neill and Kilpatrick to secure a room at the convention center, rent 10 laptops, feed participants, and offer prizes in the form of Amazon gift vouchers.

But the goal of the editathon is bigger than just cleaning up and better organizing existing Wikipedia articles. Some participate to augment the Wikipedia knowledge base, as O'Neill did Sunday in developing the first English-language page on single-cell epigenomics.

Others formally nominated three entries for the "Did you know …" section on Wikipedia's main page, a spot that all but guarantees strong traffic to the chosen article pages. "Those spend some time in review, but are likely to appear on Wikipedia's front page at some point in the next month," O'Neill said.

Additional objectives are to get new people involved in creating and maintaining articles and to convince educators to incorporate Wikipedia into their curriculum, according to Kilpatrick, who co-chairs the ISCB Wikipedia Committee.

"We're hoping people will use it in their classrooms as an assessment [tool]," Kilpatrick said. He sees Wikipedia page creation and editing as a practical alternative to traditional research papers.

Most participants in the four editathons have been beginners in terms of Wikipedia editing experience, O'Neill said, but the recruitment process is ongoing.

On Friday, the Bethesda, Maryland-based ISCB and WikiProject Computational Biology kicked off their sixth annual competition to improve relevant Wikipedia pages. "We want to get students into the editing process," Kilpatrick said. "[The competition] encourages educators to get students involved."

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