our secret agent man infiltrates wikipedia.

Nature has a news article by Declan Butler about a new paper from our secret agent man Tom Jones, in collaboration with Peter Stadler’s lab in Leipzig, which is about to appear in RNA Biology.

It’s just a short article about SmY RNAs, a family of small nuclear RNAs in nematodes that seem to be involved in trans-splicing somehow. So why’s Nature interested in SmY RNAs?

Well, they’re not (I suspect). Actually the thing that’s cool about this little paper is that it’s the inaugural paper in a new section of RNA Biology that’s a joint effort with the Rfam database and Wikipedia. The idea is that someone can spend time carefully defining and annotating an RNA sequence family, get traditional scientific credit for it (a short paper in RNA Biology), and deposit it into a database where it’ll be lovingly maintained (Rfam), and put the bulk of the annotation into Wikipedia, where anyone can help keep it up to date.

Submission to this section of RNA Biology actually requires “deposition” of a page into Wikipedia. We think this is the first time that a scientific journal has so tightly aligned itself with Wikipedia.

We’ve been collaborating with the folks at Wikipedia for a while, actually, and all of Rfam’s family description pages are editable.

I’d love to extend it to the Pfam protein database, but Rfam is our stalking horse for now. We’ll see how the experiment works out.

The issues of using (and trusting) Wikipedia came up briefly a while ago on a committee I’m on, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel called Science and the Media, chaired by Don Kennedy (former Science editor) and Geneva Overholser. I mentioned that we’d been running this experiment with Rfam. Don looked pretty interested — at least right up until the point that I said that we were greatly endebted to a Wikipedia editor pseudonamed Willow, whom we’ve never met.


  1. This is an intriguing development. One of Wikipedia’s five pillars is neutral point of view. Because of this, third-party sources are encouraged and original research is not allowed on Wikipedia. It will be interesting to see how the Wikipedia community reacts. I support this endeavor, but I feel publishers must be careful to abide by Wikipedia’s policies and cite as often as possible to prevent claims of conflict of interest. I have the feeling that many of these pages will be speedily deleted by the Wikipedia community. Good luck in your research.



  2. It’s important to note that we abide by Wiki’s culture, including NPOV and no original research. The nature of the articles themselves in this section of RNA Biology is Wikipedia-like, for starters: they’re essentially minireviews, pulling together the literature. The RNA Biology paper is peer reviewed research, and it becomes the primary citation for the accompanying Wikipedia page; the Wiki page is not the original research.

    The goal here is simple and straightforward. For each RNA family, you’d like to have a Wiki page to harvest community thoughts on the structure, function, and evolution of that family. The RNA Biology mechanism provides a way of seeding those Wiki pages with seriously peer-reviewed science, but then they become true Wiki pages — with all attendant benefits and risks.



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