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The online encyclopaedia can fill a resource gap for students, policymakers and the public, say Samuel A. Assefa and Alex Bateman.

Wikipedia is the world's largest online encyclopaedia and has become an important part of daily life on the Internet. A Google search on many topics is likely to return a Wikipedia entry among the first few hits.

It is not only free to use, but is also editable by anyone regardless of geographical location. All you need to edit an article is an Internet connection.

At present it hosts about 20.5 million articles written in 382 languages — and recent years have seen an increase in the number of languages from the developing world, including Yoruba in West Africa (about 30,000 articles) and Swahili in East Africa (23,000 articles).

There is a now a good opportunity for scientists and students in the developing world to engage with Wikipedia. The rapid growth of mobile access to the Internet and the potential to add new languages make the online encyclopaedia an attractive way to tackle a lack of educational resources for the 'high-tech' generation in poor countries.

And it also has great potential to engage policymakers and the public.

Keeping up with progress

In the developed world, access to printed and electronic copies of books, articles and reference material is only a few clicks away. Not so in most developing countries — it can take weeks or months to get a book shipped, with some countries charging additional import taxes.

And there is more demand as the number of universities and institutions increases. In Ethiopia, for example, there are now more than 30 universities, about 20 more than seven years ago. Although this means that more students have access to higher education, they are likely to compete for scarce resources such as textbooks.

This hampers progress in science and technology. But Wikipedia provides easily accessible information that can help fill the gap.

There are concerns about whether an openly editable encyclopaedia can be sufficiently accurate. But a study in Nature found that Wikipedia articles were of a similar quality to those in Encyclopaedia Britannica [1]. Scientists can play an important role here: as experts in technical subjects, they must participate to make sure that the content is accurate and up to date.

Scientists are beginning to organise efforts to improve Wikipedia. For example, psychologists are updating entries to reflect the scientific basis of the field and to improve content related to public policy. [2]

And the related Wikiversity can encourage teachers to get more involved in science education by writing and curating relevant pages and, importantly, by creating freely available resources.

A tool for development

Access to funding is one of the biggest challenges for scientists in developing countries. With Wikipedia, they can also raise awareness about their research subject in local and international languages, which can help to mobilise the resources and scientific expertise required to solve major challenges.

In addition, Wikipedia is often used by policymakers to gain a rapid understanding of issues related to science and technology. Countries are increasingly involved in science diplomacy, and this alone should be a motivation for scientists to ensure that their subject is well covered and accurate.

For their part, policymakers should plan effective ways of using and increasing access to free tools such as Wikipedia. This can not only help build capacity to use scientific evidence in decision making, a key gap in parts of the developing world, but also encourage a more inquisitive culture among the younger generation.

Wikipedia also opens up access to scientific information for the public. Although established media such as newspapers, TV and radio are used widely, there is a need for more innovative approaches to communicating information to the public on issues such as disease prevention and treatment. [3]

ICTs: underused for knowledge

Developing countries have made significant improvements in information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and its use, especially with mobile devices. Africans, for example, are readily embracing the mobile Internet.

A recent report by the GSM Association (GSMA), an industry body, has shown that Africa is the world's fastest-growing mobile market, and the second largest market after Asia — subscriptions increased by 20 per cent per year for the last five years and are expected to surpass 700 million by the end of 2012. [4]  

Fixed-line broadband coverage is also increasing — although not as fast as mobile — as underground and underwater fibre-optic cable programmes develop across Africa.

Mobile phone technologies are widely used for banking and healthcare. But they are underused in accessing and sharing information — which poorer nations need to do at a faster rate to drive innovation and promote development.

Wikipedia offers an exceptional opportunity to democratise knowledge and help fill the information gap in the developing world.

Samuel A. Assefa is a PhD student and Alex Bateman a senior investigator at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, United Kingdom.


[1] Giles, J. Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature 438, 900–901 (2005)
[2] Breckler, S. Don't like Wikipedia? Change it. American Psychological Association (2010)
Heilman, J.M. et al. Wikipedia: a key tool for global public health promotion. Journal of Medical Internet Research 13, e14 (2011)
[4] GSM World Africa now the world's second largest mobile market, reports GSMA (2011)
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