A Wiki for GMOs

At the Biofortified Blog, we get a lot of questions about the basics of genetically engineered crops. From time to time there are new and unique questions, but there is a certain set of questions that come up again and again. Questions about how GMOs affect pesticide use, yield, and health always seem to come up, along with questions about patents, companies, and more. Along with each question comes a number of pernicious myths, like claims about “Terminator” genes and tumors, autism and wheat gluten intolerance of all things. It can get frustrating to have a discussion when half of the conversation is spent skewering the same myths.

When I was just entering graduate school, I had thought to approach this topic with a wiki. Their simple and openly-editable nature works well for collaborating among many people. I started one in hopes that a general guide to genetics would be able to inform discussions about GMOs. But it didn’t get much beyond placeholder pages. Later, the inspiration for this blog came and all spare time went in that direction. (And it has been worth it!)

From time to time, on this blog and elsewhere, we have seen calls for a Snopes-like approach to debunking myths about GMOs. We’ve had some thoughts about how to do it with informative pages and periodic posts, but that has only addressed a few of these things. In the last week, however, such calls came from multiple directions, including from users on Reddit and on Twitter. In a few short days several people came forward to volunteer to start putting a resource like this together, and we started brainstorming names. Today there may be the kind of critical mass necessary to move such a project forward and make it really useful for everyone. And we can pay the costs of securing a domain name and creating some graphics to make it look unique. Who want’s in?

The goal

There are many reasons to build a wiki for information about GMOs, but it will be good to define what the main purposes of the site will be. The two goals that I think rise to the top are to provide easily understood and well-referenced background information for people who are seeking information about GMOs. The second is to provide careful and thorough rebuttals and/or confirmations of the claims that people make about them. A simple rating of True, False, “It’s complicated,” and “Unverified” can help those with little time on their hands, and longer explanations can help those who want to dig deeper. The claims can be organized by their status, who makes them, what topic they fall under, whatever you want – it’s a wiki!

What’s in a name?

The name for a wiki that does the above must be carefully considered. It should be memorable and descriptive, and set the tone for the site. While we can debate labels like GMO vs GE and GM, if visibility is the goal it should probably be based on the terms that most people use, such as GMO. Here are some suggestions that were made:

  • GMO Facts
  • GMO Tropes
  • GMO Fact Check

Personally, I like “GMO Fact Check” – it is unique, memorable, and will come up in searches.

Any other ideas? Let us know in the comments.

How to go about it

One of the aspects of debunking myths that you must always keep in mind is that there is the potential to accidentally reinforce the myths that you are trying to debunk. Experiments have shown that sometimes people remember the false claim as being true, despite all efforts at demonstrating that it is false. Therefore, you should avoid repeating the false claim too much, and focus on what is true and explaining that part carefully. Snopes.com has a pretty good format, and so I think the wiki pages should be structured something like this:

  1. Claim: Quote of exact claim being made
  2. Status of claim (with handy graphics): True, False, Complicated, Unverified, What else?
  3. Fact: What is demonstrably true.
  4. Explanation of Fact
  5. Variations & Specific Responses: For slightly different versions, lists will help with google searches.
  6. See Also: Other areas of the wiki that are useful
  7. References: Important! Peer-reviewed studies, news articles, sources of good and bad claims.
  8. Anything else?

See an example (with slightly different formats at the bottom).

How easy it is to get started

We know many of the claims by heart. A simple scan of websites by the usual suspects can dig up some more. There is an entire site, Academics Review, which addresses claims made by Jeffrey Smith in his book Genetic Roulette which can be used as a starting point for ideas.

There is also room with a wiki format to create pages that explain basic concepts more clearly, like transcription, translation, open-reading-frames, mutagenesis, etc. These can be linked to in individual wiki claim pages so you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

I created a placeholder wiki while I was considering “GMO Tropes” as a name for the wiki, so you can see how it can be structured and play around. It is being hosted at WikiSpot, which is a nonprofit wiki-creating site that I helped with back when I was in Davis, and is really useful and reliable. Security and moderation is easy to manage, and some really great wikis have been built there. We can keep editing for registered users only, yet make it possible for anyone to submit a question. If things get too dicey with vandalism or editing conflicts then things can be tightened down, but I would like to start out as open as possible.

I propose that if enough people agree on a name, and a basic format idea, we can get started. People can become involved in any way they want, whether formatting pages, digging up links, or parsing arguments. There can be some more fabulous prizes offered for top contributors to this wiki, and in due time there can be a great resource made by a our expanding community to help society at large evaluate the many conflicting claims that are out there about GMOs.

Discuss!

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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33 comments to A Wiki for GMOs

  • I wish I had clever skills for stuff like names. I have to say the anti-GMO folks appear to work with that Luntz guy based on their abilities on that front.

    What I think will work for me on this format is that I can just enter a new topic when it comes ’round on twitter in the usual zombie cycles. But you know what might be fun? To have an edit-a-thon someday. When we all agree to commit 3 hours or something. Maybe set up a chat room or something, and just do a batch. More fun that way. And everyone can do 1 page based on their favorite zombie topic.

    • Sometimes they seem to be rather clever, but at other times it seems as if there is absolutely no creative thinking involved. Is there anything other than the “frankenfood” meme going to show up in the anti-GE artwork?

      I’m down for a G+ wiki party. In Davis, we used to hold OMGLOLWIKIBBQ’s – which were real-life wiki parties for social purposes. But there were some hard work parties, like one for launching wikispot.

  • I love the idea of a shared edit time. Could open a google hangout or something and joke around while getting some work done. Hmm that could work for genera too.

    My spouse suggests: Community Modified Organisms and communitymodified.org is available.

    I’m terrible at cool names as well. I wonder if agchat folks would have any ideas.

    • Community Modified Organisms sounds like a great start for a tagline.

      I should do some sort of reverse google analysis. What terms bring them hither the most? Hmmm. If we go by site stats, then ‘glofish’ would have to be part of the name. Kidding of course. Maybe I should ask one of those many SEO companies spamming our Guest Post Request inbox what would be the best name for this.

  • I think I like the GMO Fact Check name the best.

    I also think an edit-a-thon would be a great idea. I would probably be more likely to contribute something substantial that way (the guilt of others agreeing to work at the same time usually gets me).

    • An edit-o-thon would be fun. A doodle poll of interested parties could help find a regular time. But if there are a few timeslots, even different times of the week where anyone can join, it could be a social as much as a scientific event.

      Let’s let the name thought-process ebb and flow, and maybe this time next week if nothing better comes up, the domain could be registered. :)

  • MattvDiLeo

    I’d just call it GMO Wiki… Not clever but easily googled for and transparent.

  • BuckarooSamurai

    I’m pretty free during my work hours 9p to 5am pst sun-thurs. Im no scientist and barely have a hs diploma but i can do some of the more egregious monsanto myths since those are easy.

  • A wiki on GMO looks as a very good idea. BUT the ONLY problem is to encourage people to contribute. I started many years ago a wiki to promote discussion on GMO politics in Switzerland. I took the decision to close this WIKI in 2013 (this year); the reason ? I finally end up with the conclusion that I was almost the only contributor , no use then for a WIKI. If you are interested (and understand a bit french) you can have a look here http://www.ogm.ch (very trivial name) or to the main site http://ogm.wikidot.com , but hurry up, the first site will be dead by the end of February and the second one by the end of June 2013.
    My disappointing experience should not discourage you, but think about !!!
    By the way I had very good experiences with the WIKIDOT hosting.
    Regards
    Jean-Pierre Zrÿd

  • the bug guy

    I’m partial to GMO Tropes.

  • Joey

    Hi, I’d like to propose a non-wiki solution (though am fine with whatever we end up) just so it looks good and professional, plays better with search engine stuff, and gives us more control over the overall site. I’m good at setting up Joomla sites, having done it for a few clients (on the side, I was a web programmer before bioinformatician).

    Joomla is a lot like a wiki, it’s a content management system(more like wordpress than a wiki) and you get full control over the editing(instead of wiki syntax). Everything can be categorized to follow a structure, and use tags and the like if we choose to, and we can have many admins editing the site (with usernames/passwords of course), as well as published / unpublished articles. An article(page) is locked if someone else is editing it at that time, like most wiki’s do. Articles are not owned by a single individual, so others can come in and make corrections easily.

    There are lots of good looking configurations: http://community.joomla.org/showcase/sites/

    Here is a template I am using on my website (not at all completed yet, or has ever been):
    http://demo.smartaddons.com/templates/joomla3/sj-joomla3/

    I’d be happy to set up a demo site and give out some username/passwords to the people here to test it out and see if they like it. It only takes a few minutes to set up, and could host it until the bandwidth gets to be too much, then we could move it to hostgator or the like($10/mo, I already have an account so could host it there with no additional cost, or someone else could). As well as google analytics, etc..

    Or answer additional questions about it, let me know.

    • Are there any fees for using Joomla?

    • I am open to a non-wiki solution as well. I’m very familiar with wordpress, are there any advantages to using Joomla over wordpress, besides familiarity on your part? Hosting would not be a problem because we can put it on our server.

      If you are willing to put together a simple demo we could test out as a group then that would be very helpful for evaluating this as an option!

      The wiki is nice because it fosters collaboration, and the recent changes page makes it easy to dive in and help with pages that people are working on. One big disadvantage as you pointed out is being constrained by wiki markup and being unable to precisely control formatting. For instance, you can’t put a picture next to a title, unless you do the title as a page that is included in a table that has the picture in another cell. Messy.
      I know there are plugins that can set up a ‘recent changes’ kind of function as well as an editor-approval mechanism (which we use on this site for contributed posts), is there an easy way to achieve this with Joomla?

      Having functions like google analytics, and better access to site stats would help determine the effectiveness in reaching people.

      • Joey

        I can’t think of any big advantages over WordPress, other than Joomla is meant to be more open-ended (you can set up a blog with it, or a store, or a magazine, etc).

        I do think the advantage of either wordpress or joomla over a wiki will be formatting and style, which will present a clear view of professionalism. A wiki could be useful in the back-end even for communications between the editors. I think collaboration would still be possible, as you can jump into any article to make an edit, but may not be as collaborative as a wiki. (I also love the idea of the g+ hangout / write up pages days).

        I’ll have to check into the other things for Joomla, it does have a full user system and admins can give out specific permissions, but it does depend if it is going to be anyone can edit or only certain people type of thing.

        I will get one set up to test today. Can people who want to try it out PM me in the forum? Is that an option? I do not want to put out a username/password in a comment. It won’t have all the options set up, it will just be a quick setup. But it can have SEF URL’s and metadata and the like, author pages, etc.

        I am josephg in the forums on here.

      • Here is the demo site: http://gmofc.josephguhlin.com/

        E-mail or PM me on twitter for login info (anyone here)

        @JoeyInMpls

  • I LOVE this idea! And like the GMO FactCheck idea since factchecker has gotten so much play in the political arena. I think some folks are still not hip to wikis even if they think wikipedia is the best thing ever.

  • Daws

    Generally it should be memorable, pertinent, and short. That last one is the only reason I have doubts about “gmo fact check” I would strongly avoid “tropes” just because even I don’t know what the heck it means, it’s not well known and runs the risk of getting lost in communication. “Trophes you say?” You don’t want to have people having to ask how it’s spelled. GMO wiki probably is the safest. However I think “GMO Fact Check” has the best opportunity to attract potential anti-gmo fledglings, and may garner less skepticism about accuracy that is (unduly IMO) associated with “wiki.”

  • I’ve updated the wiki with a new entry. The information is basically there and I have no issue with people adding more to it or messing around with the formatting as I have said I’m less than a novice at doing this and that page represents 3 hours of work (I know, I know).

    http://gmotropes.wikispot.org/Monsanto_is_a_patent_bully_and_sues_farmers_regularly#preview

  • Karl,

    Are you going to keep the focus on GMOs, or will you branch into other areas where there are myths about agriculture?

    One thing I see being spread about via facebook memes is this idea that it’s illegal to grow your own food. I have no idea where this is coming from, as there are no references to any legislation attached.

    I suspect it’s linked to Monsanto’s patent suits somehow, and if this is the case then it’s perhaps not an urban legend related to biotech per se…but there is some overlap there.

  • Daws

    Would like to add, though it’s not a mythbusting specifically, it’d also be cool to see a list of all the kinds of GMOs that have been developed, or/and made it to market, and are being worked on to develop in the future. Maybe it’d be in debunking the myth…though maybe not a very prevalent one, that all GMOs are the same or of the same kind?

  • Joey

    Is there any real movement or has the conversation moved somewhere else?

    There is a new (at least to me) site:
    http://foodmyths.org/myths/the-environmen/

    If we go the wiki route, how do we make it look decent? References aren’t the only way to create credibility, and outside the scientific world, really do not create much credibility.

  • John Eleblu

    GMOs and living systems or GMO Truths or GMO World Facts or GMO WORLD or GMO corner. All about GMOs.

    I think we need both a wiki and a joomla. Why not?

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