Author! Author!

When Jon Huss and his colleagues proposed a gene wiki on Wikipedia last month, they were following previous attempts to take advantage of collaborative technology and let researchers share information gleaned from their work.

In the current issue of Nature Genetics though, Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based researcher Robert Hoffman argues that scientists who write for wikis aren’t getting due credit for their work. While wikis like the one Huss and his colleagues have on Wikipedia are useful, he says, the individual contributions must be recognized.

In other words, contrary to the old adage, there does need to be an “I” in “Team”, especially when working in wikis.

Hoffman’s solution is to launch yet another gene wiki, this one creatively named WikiGenes. Unlike most wikis though, this one comes with the ability to attribute every line written to its author.

A scientist’s life isn’t just about satisfying curiosity and collaborating with others, says Hoffman in his commentary. Rather, it’s about “recognition by others, which translates to employment, grants, and ultimately, the privilege of being a scientist.” (See the recent post by 23andMe director Esther Dyson for another take on the significance of personal interest in science.)

To make sure each contributor gets his due, Hoffman’s WikiGenes has something called “authorship tracking technology.”  The software allows readers who like a particular line or phrase on one of the WikiGenes pages for, say, BRCA1, to identify the author and correctly attribute the quote to him or her. Theoretically this is also possible on Wikipedia, but there the authors are listed in the change log, which appears under a separate tab.

There are a few other differences between the Wikipedia-based gene wiki and WikiGenes.

Editing the WikiGenes site is fairly intuitive, which is good for first-time collaborators. Instead of having to go to the edit tab as on Wikipedia, WikiGenes has an “Edit this Page” option at the upper right corner of the page that allows registered users to make and save changes.

WikiGenes also has a demo account option where people can sign up and play with edit the content, though only changes made by registered users will appear on the site. This is probably a good thing; you wouldn’t want someone to edit the page on a gene as clinically important as BRCA1, for example, without having to sign their name to it. Still, it is a wiki and therefore an open-access and editable collaboration.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between Hoffman’s WikiGenes site and Huff et al’s gene wiki, however, is that the format isn’t as easy on the eyes  the WikiGenes entries don’t have colorful graphics to break up the text. Perhaps Lewis Carroll said it best at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland : “Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, `without pictures or conversation?’”

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