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Expanding the Homepages of Knowledge: the Topic Pages Collection in PLOS Computational Biology

Back in 2012 PLOS Computational Biology began an experiment that aimed to combine the prestige and rigorous peer review associated with publishing in a scientific journal and the dynamic nature and easily accessible language of Wikipedia. Over two years and six articles later, today sees the launch of PLOS Computational Biology’s Topic Pages Collection with the publication of the seventh Topic Page, “Multi-state Modeling of Biomolecules”.

Image Credit: PLOS
Image Credit: PLOS

Topic Pages aim to fill the gaps in current computational biology topics on Wikipedia. New submissions are drafted and undergo open peer review on a publically-viewable PLOS Wiki. Once a Topic Page is accepted, a static, citable version is published in PLOS Computational Biology and indexed in PubMed, while, under the guidance of one of the journal’s Topic Pages Editors, Daniel Mietchen, a living version of the document is uploaded to the corresponding Wikipedia article.

 “I was fascinated by the idea of spreading knowledge through Wikipedia and its cross linking capabilities, and thought that it was absolutely essential that experts in the field of computational biology and bioinformatics (as well as other fields) be more actively and widely involved in the process,”

says Topic Pages Editor Shoshana Wodak, who has overseen the review process for all seven articles.

“Having the Topics pages rigorously reviewed is a guarantee of quality, which Wikipedia contributions usually don’t have, and their concomitant publication in a respected journal offers authors the incentive to do the work. It also offered us the possibility of increasing the transparency and efficiency of the reviewing process, by allowing [and] encouraging reviewers to engage in a direct dialog with the authors.”

Melanie Stefan, an author on ‘ Multi-state modeling of biomolecules’, as well as the fifth Topic Page, ‘Cooperative Binding’, agrees:

“As scientists, it is our duty to pursue knowledge, but it is also our duty to share this knowledge with the world…I also like the fact that a Topic Page is less static than a traditional review article. Once it is published, it acquires a life of its own: People can add to it, amend it and alter it to reflect the latest developments in the field. This is a tremendously exciting process.”

For those considering a pre-submission inquiry to the collection, Spencer Bliven, Topic Page author and host of the PLOS Wiki has these words of advice:

“Learn to love the wiki environment. While the syntax can be a bit difficult at first, collaborating on a wiki page is much easier than trying to shuffle Word documents back and forth. I would also caution authors to avoid viewing the paper possessively, but to consider it a community project from the start. After publication, your Topic Page will most likely receive significant edits. This is a good thing, but it requires being a bit humble about your own writing skills.”

Finally, Topic Pages Editor Daniel Mietchen offered his thoughts on possible future paths the initiative could take:

“In principle, [the] direction [I would like to see] would be “higher, further, faster”: higher community engagement (e.g. through more Topic Pages, or more functionality, e.g. a prominent “Edit on Wikipedia” button, or links to Wikipedia from all PLOS abstracts), further journals (both within and beyond PLOS), and faster processes – even ignoring for a moment the problem of finding reviewers (which affects all journals, not just at PLOS), the publication process at PLOS (which is reasonably fast by industry standards) is very slow from a wiki (which means “quick”) perspective.

Another important direction to aim at would be to try to come closer to the workflows of researchers by publishing media files or data-related notes as Topic Pages tailored to Wikimedia Commons or Wikidata. The issue images at PLOS journals already go in this direction…”

With two more Topic Pages currently in peer review, the project is still looking for additional proposals; take a look at the author guidelines and get in touch at ploscompbiol[at] if you would like to be involved.


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