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Spreading Science Globally With Wikipedia

Nanotech expert shares his chemistry knowledge with people from the U.S. to Sri Lanka

John Sadowski

To paraphrase Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia isn’t just an online encyclopedia; it’s a statement about the kind of world we want to live in.

John SadowskiI’ve been involved in DNA nanotechnology research for well over a decade now. When “nanotechnology” began showing up increasingly in the popular media, I knew that people would look it up on Wikipedia. So in 2006, I began editing entries on the site to help users find accurate, unbiased information.

But my efforts had a wider reach than I anticipated. Others took it upon themselves to translate the Wikipedia article I created on DNA nanotechnology into 15 languages other than English, from Italian to Turkish to Sinhalese. In addition to being personally satisfying, these translations brought scientific knowledge to parts of the world where formal education, and the benefits that come with it, are not readily available. There might be a young student somewhere in Sri Lanka learning about nanotechnology for the first time because of something I wrote.

As a postdoc looking toward applying for faculty positions, I am often told that only peer-reviewed publications matter. Yet, universities are nonprofit organizations whose charitable mission is to provide access to education. Digital media is making it easier for academics to reach beyond their own students, whether that means educating laymen or making knowledge freely available to those without the advantages of a formal education. Funding agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere are beginning to consider these societal impacts when awarding grants. I hope it’s not long before universities and colleges looking to hire faculty do the same.

John Sadowski recently completed a postdoc at the Naval Research Laboratory, in Washington, D.C. He’s made more than 11,000 edits to Wikipedia entries.

Alán Aspuru-Guzik
Peter Stang

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