It is hard to imagine life without Wikipedia. That's especially the case if you have school-age children, who now turn to it by default for information when working on homework. Less well-known is the importance of Wikipedia for scientists, who often use its pages for reliable explanations of basic concepts:
Physicists -- researchers, professors, and students -- use Wikipedia daily. When I need the transition temperature for a Bose-Einstein condensate (prefactor and all), or when I want to learn about the details of an unfamiliar quantum algorithm, Wikipedia is my first stop. When a graduate student sends me research notes that rely on unfamiliar algebraic structures, they reference Wikipedia.
That's from a blog post on the open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS) Web site. It's an announcement of an interesting new initiative to bolster the number of physicists contributing to Wikipedia by writing not just new articles for the online encyclopedia, but peer-reviewed ones. The additional element aims to ensure that the information provided is of the highest quality -- not always the case for Wikipedia articles, whatever their other merits. As the PLOS post explains, the new pages have two aspects:
A peer-reviewed 'article' in [the flagship online publication] PLOS ONE, which is fixed, peer-reviewed openly via the PLOS Wiki and citable, giving information about that particular topic.
That finalized article is then submitted to Wikipedia, which becomes a living version of the document that the community can refine, build on, and keep up to date.
The two-pronged approach of these "Topic Pages" has a number of benefits. It means that Wikipedia gains high-quality, peer-reviewed articles, written by experts; scientists just starting out gain an important new resource with accessible explanations of often highly-technical topics; and the scientists writing Topic Pages can add them to their list of citable publications -- an important consideration for their careers, and an added incentive to produce them.
Other PLOS titles such as PLOS Computational Biology and PLOS Genetics have produced a few Topic Pages previously, but the latest move represents a major extension of the idea. As the blog post notes, PLOS ONE is initially welcoming articles on topics in quantum physics, but over time it plans to expand to all of physics. Let's hope it's an idea that catches on and spreads across all academic disciplines, since everyone gains from the approach -- not least students researching their homework.
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