Researchers: are you Wikipedia-compatible?

An openly licensed image of the Arthrobacter arilaitensis Re117 genome atlas
An openly licensed image of the Arthrobacter arilaitensis Re117 genome atlas

This post was written by Wikimedia UK Associate, Dr Martin Poulter

The first of April this year is a significant date for researchers here in the UK. It’s when a new policy comes into place, beginning a journey towards open access (OA) for publicly funded research.

This is a top-down policy from the Government’s (via the Finch Report), the Research Councils, and other funding bodies, but it follows years of campaigning by a grass-roots movement of academics and librarians. Open Access made headlines last year in what the Guardian dubbed “the Academic Spring”, when many academics started a boycott of journals that lock research papers behind a “paywall”.

The official policy is a huge step forward for open access in the UK, and comes at a time when the European Commission has announced its own OA policy. Just in the last few weeks the White House announced a new policy to make the reports of taxpayer-funded research openly available.

These developments affect whether the public can access reports of taxpayer-funded research without meeting a paywall. The UK policy affects new research papers, not those already published. It also affects how research is licensed: whether you and I have rights to copy and adapt the text or images of a paper.

However, the open agenda doesn’t stop at access to research results. There is also increasing pressure for public access to the underlying data and for greater openness and transparency around the process of research, for example with standardised information about funding.

Attending an event at the Royal Society recently, there was agreement about the merits of open access, but wide disagreement about the consequences. Will commercial publishers be banished from the academy, or will pay-to-publish mean they charge twice for the same work? Will more scientific papers be published, or fewer? Will learned societies – some of whom support their work with non-open-access journals – go extinct or will they flourish even more?

However, there has been relatively little mention of how this affects Wikimedia (meaning Wikipedia, its sister projects such as Wikiversity, and the communities that support them). For a lot of research, Wikipedia and Wikimedia are a gateway to a huge global audience, including taxpayers who ultimately fund public research, and including academics in poorer countries who are less able to access the original papers.

WIkipedia itself is written, reviewed and illustrated by volunteers. Some of us have day-jobs in universities or research institutions, but for those who don’t, the paywalls lock away content that could really help us improve articles on difficult academic topics. The difficulty of getting the best sources, while so much junk research and opinion is freely accessible, has a dumbing-down effect on the web: Wikipedia seeks to counter that trend, and open access would make that easier for us.

Wikipedia contributions are challenged, checked and reviewed through various formal and informal processes, so it’s not just the person writing articles who needs access to the original research: other users need access to verify that the Wikipedia summary is fair and accurate.

The question of licensing is no less important. Wikipedia and its sister sites require illustrations, and if researchers’ figures and video clips, such as the one on this blog post, can be freely copied and adapted, with attribution of the original authors, that would be an enormous boost.

Under the new open-access policy, publicly-funded researchers will face a choice between “gold” and “green” publication. Gold open access makes papers immediately available under a Wikipedia-compatible Creative Commons Attribution licence. Green OA means that papers are published normally but also made freely available after a delay of between six months and two years.

Green OA can involve a Wikipedia-compatible licence, but licences with a non-commercial (NC) option are also considered green under the new policy. Non-commercial activity is hard to define and so NC licences prevent some legitimate educational uses. That’s why NC content is not compatible with the Wikimedia projects. We have to hope that researchers will avoid non-commercial clauses and that their institutions will educate them so that they understand the significance of the decision.

Fortunately, there are simple solutions to making research academically credible and Wikipedia-compatible. There are peer-reviewed journals whose contents all have a Wikipedia-compatible licence, including the PLOS journals, or the new PeerJ. These are just examples and many alternatives are available.

Wherever researchers publish their papers, they can share figures, video clips or other media through services such as Figshare, which has a Wikipedia-compatible licence, or through Wikimedia’s own media-sharing site,  Wikimedia Commons. This is a way to assert ownership of those media and the authors’ right to be credited, while at the same time giving the greatest opportunity for public benefit.

I hope that scientists and scholars, when deciding where to publish research, will give a thought to the Wikipedia authors who are trying to improve articles about their topic.