Boston Blog

Communicating science the wiki way

BU’s Cutler Cleveland talks about his new online environmental encyclopedia and his quest to change the culture of scientific communication.

Corie Lok

Type in any scientific term in Google and Wikipedia will likely be near the top of the list of search results. The online encyclopedia is easily accessible but many don’t trust it as an accurate source of information.

Cutler Cleveland of Boston University is trying to provide a more trustworthy resource. He’s a professor in Boston University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies and the Department of Geography and Environment. He’s also the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Earth (EoE). Online since September 2006, the EoE is a collection of articles on a wide range of environmental and energy topics, from the biology of the Brazil nut to the causes of global warming. It uses the same wiki software as Wikipedia, allowing people to write articles together and edit each other’s work. But it differs by allowing only a select group of scientists, educators and other experts to contribute.

BU’s Cutler Cleveland is the chief editor of the Encyclopedia of Earth and wants to make credible online scientific information more easily accessible to the public.

The EoE relaunched today as part of the new Earth Portal, which also includes environmental news and blogs written by experts. Cleveland spoke with Nature Network Boston about how he’s trying to combine new online publishing technologies with science’s more traditional methods of communication and peer review.

What’s the thinking behind the Encyclopedia of Earth?

It’s an attempt to mobilize the global scientific community to engage the public in a dialogue on the environmental issues confronting humanity. Scientists are horrible communicators, largely, and so we’re trying to provide a means for the information generators to get the information out in a way that can be digested by teachers, students, policy-makers, the media and society at large.

The idea is to provide content that has been vetted by experts, that is freely available, free of advertising, and highly trustworthy.

How do you hope to compete with the likes of Wikipedia?

I think that educators and journalists and other potential users are dying for a source that’s reputable. Once the word gets out, it’ll be a matter of time, at least in the environmental sphere, before we become known as the place to go to for trusted information.

We’re already starting to pop up on reference lists of university librarians. We’ve been cited in few journal articles. We’re in some scientific search engines. Some professors have linked to us in their lecture notes too.

How do you control the quality of the articles?

The way the encyclopedia works is that people apply to be authors. We have a stewardship committee: a group of scientists that provides the editorial oversight. They are in turn overseen by an international advisory board.

The work and credentials of the applicant are reviewed by the stewardship committee, usually by someone in that person’s area of expertise. Once approved, the author then has access to the author’s wiki, the authoring platform, which is a restricted-access site. On the wiki, people can write, collaborate, and edit each other’s work.

When an article is ready to be published, the topic editor assigned to that article reviews it, suggests changes and approves it. When the editor clicks “approve,” the article is instantaneously published to the public site.

Once their articles are published, authors can continue to revise them. The public doesn’t see those changes right away. When an article has been substantially revised, it’s re-reviewed and re-approved. The new version then replaces the old one.

Who are these topic editors?

They are scientists and other experts who have been recruited to be editors. Most are academics.

Do the editors make a lot of changes to the articles?

There are debates between the editors and the authors or between the editors themselves about the content or tone of some articles. I’ve had to intercede a few times as the editor-in-chief, but that’s the way it should work.

The content should reflect the state of scientific consensus, or the lack of it, on any particular topic. There’s no advocacy here.

Wikis allow people to write and edit articles together in real time, even articles of which they’re not ’officially‘ authors or editors. Do your authors do that much?

It’s difficult to a) get people to do that and b) for people to be OK with having that done to their work. It’s a cultural shift for many academics. This kind of collaborative writing on the wiki is not the collaboration academics are used to. So it’s not widespread for our authors to do this, but certainly once a person has been exposed to it, they become more comfortable with it. We’re trying to teach old dogs new tricks.

When someone does want to change something in an article, most of the time, they’ll send an email to the author. It’s not like Wikipedia where people just go in and change things without prior communication or follow-up after the change has been made.

What are you doing to try to change that culture?

We’re informing scientists that this is an important part of public outreach and service. When you’re reviewed for tenure, you’re evaluated on your research, teaching, and contributions to the profession and the community. If the encyclopedia becomes widely used by the public, students, and teachers, then that could be viewed as part of your public service.

And many scientists want to have their work make a difference. Hopefully we can demonstrate that publishing in the encyclopedia will, in some small way, make a difference.


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