Neuromathematics Research Center works with Wikipedia to boost science diffusion


Wikipedia, the open-content, online encyclopedia produced by the collaborative efforts of a worldwide community, is one of the most frequently visited websites, yet some say that many of its entries lack a sound scientific basis.

To improve the platform’s content in its particular knowledge area, the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center for Neuromathematics (RDIC-NeuroMat), one of the RIDCs funded by FAPESP, has set up a task force of journalists and scientists to edit Wikipedia entries and to add new information.

NeuroMat began contributing to Wikipedia a little more than a year ago. So far, its researchers have created or enhanced about 80 entries.

On April 11, a delegation from the Wikipedia Foundation, which oversees the site, visited NeuroMat’s headquarters at the University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil to discuss ways of expanding the initiative.

“The information available from Wikipedia is as reliable as the sources cited by its editors. The reliability of the available content depends on the reliability of the references listed in the entries,” said Asaf Bartov, Senior Program Officer, Emerging Wikimedia Communities, Wikimedia Foundation.

“Hence the importance of the work done by NeuroMat’s researchers to update the content relating to their knowledge area. Wikipedia will never be ready. Its content will always need to be improved and its sources checked and extended. NeuroMat has contributed significantly to the enhancement of Wikipedia’s content in mathematical modeling and neuroscience.”

According to Antonio Carlos Roque da Silva Filho, a professor at USP’s Ribeirão Preto School of Philosophy, Science & Letters (FFCLRP-USP) and co-principal investigator at NeuroMat, the aim of the partnership is to boost the RIDC program’s science diffusion and education activities.

“In addition to developing scientific knowledge in their specialties, the RIDCs are responsible for science diffusion and communication by building bridges for the public to have access to information that also applies to people’s everyday lives and can affect their well-being,” Silva Filho said.

“So our work isn’t confined to developing mathematics to analyze the processes that take place inside the human brain and among neurons, which is a huge challenge in itself. We also have to communicate with society to help everyone understand science and encourage people to get more involved in, or be more supportive of, science.”

Silva Filho is leading the initiative, together with João Alexandre Peschanski, a professor at the Cásper Líbero in São Paulo.

NeuroMat’s contributions to Wikipedia range from scientific information on its research projects to new or upgraded entries on brain diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer’s: these entries are read by some 20,000 users per day.

Thanks to NeuroMat’s contributions, more than 30 scientific articles have been included in the references on symptoms, causes, physiopathology, treatment, prevention, prognosis, epidemiology and other aspects of Alzheimer’s, as well as the mathematical challenges associated with diagnosing the disease – challenges that NeuroMat’s research addresses.

Another clinical area of interest is brachial plexus injury. The brachial plexus is part of the peripheral nervous system, more specifically a pathway from the brain to the shoulders, arms and hands. Newborn infants may suffer this injury during a difficult delivery. In adults, motorcycle accidents and collisions in contact sports are the leading causes. NeuroMat’s research served as a source for the Wikipedia entry on the subject and for the creation of an international neuroscience database for professionals involved with it.

The institution has also improved entries on topics relating to its recent research findings, such as Hick’s Law, a theory on the time a person takes to make a decision as a function of the number of possible options.

Until the intervention by editors linked to NeuroMat, the entry on Hick’s Law cited references from the 1980s, when there was little debate on the subject. It now includes a new section on exceptions to Hick’s Law, citing research that tested the theory and relativized it to some extent.

The latest contribution is an entry on spike sorting, defined as “a class of techniques used in the analysis of electrophysiological data. Spike sorting algorithms use the shapes of waveforms collected with one or more electrodes in the brain to distinguish the activity of one or more neurons from background electrical noise”.

Photos and videos for sharing

The creation of audiovisual content is another type of contribution. NeuroMat offers photographs and videos produced by its science diffusion staff and authorizes their use free of charge by Wikipedia as well as other platforms.

For example, it has produced a nine-minute film entitled “Spike Sorting: Ontology Droplet” for Wikimedia Commons, an online repository of images and multimedia files available to users of Wikipedia in all languages. The movie explains some of the techniques used to classify neural spikes, which can be very important in brain research. Published under a Creative Commons license, the film can be freely shared as long as the authors are properly credited.

The film was posted on June 3, 2015, and selected as Media of the Day on June 10. Media of the Day are audio or video files displayed on the main page of Wikimedia Commons and more than 200 related sites. A soundtrack was specially composed for the film, with a series of neural spikes converted into music (view the film).

The movie is also available on Wikipedia in Portuguese as an illustration to the entry “Classificação de disparos neuronais”.

Forthcoming activities in NeuroMat’s Wikipedia initiative include a national conference to discuss how the platform handles scientific information, with the support of Wikimedia Foundation and involving other RIDCs.

“The idea is to expand collaboration among researchers as much as possible so that high-quality scientific information is accessible to the public on the platforms that are already used for this purpose,” Silva Filho said.