If not wikipedia then what

31 July 2008 - the online encyclopedia spectrum

The importance of publicly and freely accessible chemical information is bigger than ever. Twenty years ago the chemical enthusiast could wander into a university library and physically pick up a book or a journal but with electronic publishing and all, login accounts bar access to a library computer or e-library. Subscription fees for scientific journals including those chemical go through the roof and even simple college textbooks become hugely expensive. The New York Times last week reported on a new (free and therefore illegal) file sharing initiative called pirate bay with on offer John E. McMurry’s Organic Chemistry that in a shop costs over 200 dollars.

So what is out there on the Internet for those without library access and/or monetary resources.

Of course Wikipedia should be the answer to everything but the chemistry desk seems to be in a bit of a crisis. There is hardly any growth in chemistry content (except for the talk pages) and in fact content gets deleted one sentence at the time (wikipedia is shrinking). What appears as new content often turns out to be a copy from another part of wikipedia and many additions are in fact invitations to read content somewhere else (those same journals you do not have access to!). Wikipedia really needs to reconsider some policies such as original research and merging and should provide some guidance with respect to those pesky single-issue editors.

So if not wikipedia then what?

There is of course citizendium created by wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger in 2007. This encyclopedia is invitation only and specialist editors should offer better quality than volunteer-run wikipedia. The interesting observation however is that the specialists on citizendium and the volunteers on wikipedia are preoccupied with identical tasks: categorize articles, add links, formatting and spending a lot of time on the talk pages. So no new content there.

Move over to scholarpedia. This initiative invites active researchers to write an article about their specialization with impressive results. Unfortunately for us chemists it is heavily focused on topics in dynamic systems, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. In fact there there is just one chemistry article: Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction

Next up: h2g2 stands for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and is a volunteer driven content generator run the the BBC. Be prepared for articles on The Mole, The Chemistry Of Vampire Slaying and Acidity and Basicity. Lets say quality varies over a very wide range.

And there is of course the new encyclopedia on the block, presented by -resistance is futile- Google and christened Knol as a Unit of knowledge. In the Knol model editing is available to anyone (identity checked through creditcard info), it is not possible to co-author and several articles may exist for the same topic. Only one chemistry article thus far, organic chemistry.