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Biomedicine in museums

Calling on a million minds — the metaphorical dimension

“Calling on a million minds for community annotation in WikiProteins” is the catchy title of an article in Genome Biology two months ago (vol. 9, issue 5, 2008; see online version here). The paper has received some attention in the blogosphere—not least because Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is one of the 23 co-authors of the paper.

Celebrity aside, both the project as such and the “million minds” metaphor is fascinating. WikiProteins is the first project (so far in beta) by the new semantic (concept) web initiative WikiProfessional-life sciences. It’s a database which automatically searches for information about proteins from a variety of other databases, e.g., UniProt/Swiss-Prot, and for associated concepts in articles from PubMed, and then makes the digested information available to the public (in practice = scientists) for further curating, editing and annotation.

In other words, instead of waiting for potential contributors to start from scratch, the WikiProtein-people are initiating the wiki fun by filling the database with a lot of information, so that the protein experts (“the million minds”) out there have something to work with and improve. As they say in the abstract: “We call on a ‘million minds’ to annotate a ‘million concepts’ and to collect facts from the literature with the reward of collaborative knowledge discovery”.

Most pundits are impressed, but there has also been some criticism. On Nature’s Nascent-blog, bioinformatician Euan Adie has expressed his irritation with the hype: “There’s a very high crap to content ratio”.

This alleged hype aspect is what makes the metaphorical dimension of “Calling on a million minds” so interesting. One thing is that the title quite explicitly draws on the positive vibes of the wiki and web 2.0-movements. But aren’t there also parallells to the new forms of political process that we have been witnessing in recent years, for example in the last and the current US presidential elections? Like when Barack Obama calls on a million activists for taking part in the campaign and for fund-raising. (And hasn’t Obama too been accused of high crap to content ratio?)

So what’s the next catchy title in a systemic biology article? What about “Yes We Can: A Million Scientists Demand The Right to Curate Data for the Human Metabolome Project” (for HMP, see here).

(More comments on Scienceroll, bbgm, ars technicaThe Tree of Life, Spreading ScienceDavid Rothman, and Cellnews)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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