More on Wikipedia

Just a quick follow-up to my recent post about Wikipedia. Wikipedia has been in the news recently, with the BBC highlighting Cancer Research UK’s Wikipedia activity and the Guardian editorialising on the survey that the Wikimedia Foundation is running.

The BBC website story points out that if you put ‘Breast Cancer’ into a search engine the results show information from CRUK in eighth place, whereas an article on Wikipedia comes up in second place. Henry Scowcroft, scientific communications manager at CRUK, said: “Wikipedia is nearly always at the top of an internet search for cancers. It’s not always that easy to understand and sometimes it can be inaccurate or not completely up to date. We want to increase the accuracy and clarity.”

The Guardian editorial talks laconically of the tendency of science to “throw barbed wire” around itself and the need “to lure big brains into the world’s biggest seminar”, by which I think they mean Wikipedia.

We have started looking at Wikipedia and it has been suggested that we (that is, I) should write some biographical articles about some of our leading scientists. The only trouble with this idea is that biography, and particularly autobiography, is rather prone to ‘point of view’ problems. Wikipedia have strong guidelines on this, advising against autobiographical articles because they are prone to bias, or lack of balance. Wikipedia is a secondary source, so it is not the place to publish new information rather it is a place to draw together previously published information. I am not quite sure whether pages on institutional websites about staff count as unbiased sources but I rather suspect not.

It will be interesting to see how I get on with this project.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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6 Responses to More on Wikipedia

  1. Christina McGuire says:

    Will you be voluntarily disclosing a COI? (It seems, from Wikipedia, that this could mitigate potential issues.)

    • Frank says:

      Yes, I think that is essential. Any attempt to conceal or pull the wool over people’s eyes is ill-advised.

      Interestingly I had an example of the problems just yesterday. We had prepared a mini-history of a particular topic (not for Wikipedia but for our annual report) and checked the contents with various people who were mentioned in the piece. One of these has sent me several versions of the account of his work, each longer than the last and each adding more superfluous detail about his own career. Yesterday he came to see me with a final version. Well, he thought it was the final version but I have trimmed it somewhat.

      That brought home to me that one’s Point-Of-View regarding one’s own history is necessarily self-interested.

  2. Geoff says:

    It’s interesting that some professionals refuse to edit Wikipedia, I have a friend who is one of the worlds leading authorities on a medical subject and resolutely refuses to edit the wikipedia article on that subject. 🙁

  3. Frank says:

    Just realised I forgot to say thanks to Cath for pointing me to the news item on the BBC website.

    And thanks to Oliver Obst and Peter Morgan for this snippet, detailing a useful strategy for libraries to follow:

    Libraries can galvanize use of their collections of important paintings, photographs, and historical documents by uploading digital copies of those artifacts to Wikipedia’s media library. Known as the Wikimedia Commons, the site’s media library is the main source of the images embedded in Wikipedia articles. If libraries put their digital artifacts in the Commons, they are more likely to be used by people writing entries.

    [Also by] by adding links to their online collections to the “external links” section of various pages.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Another main issue at the root of this is that Wikipedia is in many cases the de facto best source for collating information on topics related to popular culture, which will usually be lacking from conventional encyclopedias. This includes biographies of many living people (think film stars) and I confess I find Wikipedia incredibly useful for this sort of thing.

    By extension, biographies of living scientists are often difficult to find and frequently consist only of capsule-sized, often out-of-date summaries on insitutional websites. Wikipedia could be really useful for such biographies – except for the potential COI and self-interest (and the inevitable red-flag “this biography of a living person is…” messages).

    It seems to me that one major failing of Wikipedia is that what it’s best at (topics of very broad and popular interest) don’t seem to be what it sees as its core (historical topics of encyclopedic detail). But I’m more than happy to be proven wrong on this.

  5. Ethereal Historian says:

    Some of my colleagues in the history department resort to changing a key piece of information (a date, for example) on a Wikipedia page, in order to check whether students have used this in writing their essays or seminar papers; I hasten to add that they reinstate the original information once the essays have been handed in. Have you heard of this? Is Wikipedia any less reliable than many web sites whose authors are unattributed?

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