Wikipedia’s role in science communication for genetics courses

Start talking about genetics in public and see what happens. Genetics is often a confounding science. The public often lacks context for research that yields genetic breakthroughs, even as knowledge within the field of molecular biology and genomics is expanding.

How can the public make informed decisions on policies that advance such research? And how can educators foster a culture of communication to the public within their classrooms?

We think Wikipedia assignments are one possible way. When students in higher education courses write about genetics for Wikipedia, they’re sharing knowledge with the world. That can go a long way to empowering the public. But it’s also crucial for students to think about how they describe this knowledge to the public. Writing for Wikipedia means writing for real people, not just an instructor who already knows what the student knows. Students still have to make sure they’re accurate; but with Wikipedia, they also have to make sure they’re understood.

Ideal Wikipedia articles provide an overview that a layperson can understand, with details relevant to experts.

Let’s take the topic of gene maps. A gene map reveals the arrangement of genes on a chromosome. Genes carry slices of the code that builds a protein, and chromosomes hold hundreds (or thousands) of them. The arrangement of these genes determines the appearance of genetic traits. Red hair, for example, is the result of a specific arrangements of genes. Gene maps help us understand where these genes appear in a chromosome. When we understand that, we can better understand how these traits appear.

If you looked for gene maps a while ago, you may not have come away with a good sense of what they do. The article was two sentences long. Here they are:

“A gene map is the descriptive representation of the structure of a single gene. It includes the DNA sequence of a gene with introns and exons, 3′ or 5′ transcribed-untranslated regions, termination (poly-adenylation) signal, regulatory elements such as promoters, enhancers and it may include known mutations defining alternative alleles of the same gene.”

Accurate? Sure. But certainly not friendly. A curious searcher would likely have their understanding thwarted. That’s why student work on the clarity of science coverage is so crucial to the Wikipedia project.

Here’s how a student in Tom Haffie’s “Advanced Genetics” course at Western University course tackled the start of the same (improved) article:

“Gene maps help describe the spatial arrangement of genes on a chromosome. Genes are designated to a specific location on a chromosome known as the locus and can be used as molecular markers to find the distance between other genes on a chromosome. Maps provide researchers with the opportunity to predict the inheritance patterns of specific traits, which can eventually lead to a better understanding of disease-linked traits.”

Clearer. The reader walks away knowing why it matters.

Of course, reading about a gene map on Wikipedia won’t create a legion of armchair geneticists overnight. But consider the thinking behind writing that article from a student’s perspective. The question shifts from “what do I know?” to “how can I express what I know?” That’s science communication, and an important question for researchers and academics alike. Good practice is hard to come by, but there it is.

When students tackle these articles on Wikipedia, they’re improving the most-accessed source of information on Earth. Articles on science topics typically appear in the top five Google search results. At the tail end of the first term of our Year of Science, students contributed 6% of that month’s new science content to Wikipedia. Over time, that has the potential to transform Wikipedia into a comprehensive and comprehensible source of information about genetics and biology.

We’re still looking to help courses in genetics, molecular biology and others sciences get started. We can even send your students our guide to Editing Wikipedia articles on genes and proteins. (Like all of our resources, print copies are provided, completely free, to participants). If you’re curious about bringing the benefits of this assignment to your students (and your field), we’d love to talk. Reach out to us:

Photo: DNA by Miki Yoshihito, CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.


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