Wikipedia is quite engaging

Wikipedia and its role in science keeps cropping up on my radar recently. Matt Jukes pointed out last week, in a talk to a group of Science Communications people, that a decent article in Wikipedia about a science topic would reach a far bigger readership than printed booklets, newspaper articles, or webpages on our local websites. Hence if we want scientists to engage with the widest possible public and disseminate scientific knowledge most effectively, we should be encouraging them to start writing for Wikipedia.

A guest post by Dario Taraborelli on the Wellcome Trust blog alerted me to a questionnaire put out by the Wikimedia Research Committee to help it understand why scientists, academics and other experts do (or do not) contribute to Wikipedia. Dario makes some suggestions as to why scientists do not contribute

  • the lack of incentives from the perspective of a professional career
  • the poor recognition of one’s expertise within Wikipedia
  • the widespread perception of Wikipedia as a non-authoritative source

WikiMedia UK is a body that supports the aims of Wikipedia and helps to “collect, develop and distribute freely licensed knowledge”. One of the ways it does this is by organising Wiki Academies. Matt Jukes describes his experience at one of these last weekend in Bristol. I was interested to see that Cancer Research UK (CRUK) are hosting a Wiki Academy for their staff soon. WikiMedia UK also have a program called GLAM-WIKI that aims to get galleries, libraries and museums involved in Wikipedia. And finally, the BBC reports that Imperial College is also getting in on the act with a Wiki Academy next month, recognising that Wikipedia is a resource that students use.

Wikipedia is an interesting phenomenon. In some ways it is hard to believe that the model can work – if you let anybody edit a page you would expect chaos to ensue. Wikipedia avoids chaos by enforcing a strict method with structures and controls. Many people still refuse to believe that Wikipedia does work and that it is a benefit to the information landscape.

I think Wikipedia is the cream of the interwebz. In a world of chaos it is organized. In a world of trash it is full of jewels. In a world of partisanship it attempts to remain unbiased. That is not to say that it is always the best of the best, rather that it has the potential to be good and if you use it with some caution (e.g. look to see whether the article you are interested in is well-referenced) then it is a useful information resource.

Broader participation of scientsits as Wikipedia contributors will make it more useful still.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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9 Responses to Wikipedia is quite engaging

  1. Guy Chapman says:

    Wikipedia is, at its best, awesome. There are articles on subjects where the internet is awash with partisan disinformation, but where Wikipedia nonetheless manages to remain neutral. The great weakness is that those with an axe to grind are usually very determined and will keep asking until they get the answer they want. We have had massive problems with the article on cold fusion, for example, where a succession of people with no other interest have tried zealously to promote the pro-CF view, largely at the instigaiton of the CF community (sorry, they prefer the term “low energy nuclear research” now, I remember, as it frees them fomr the stigma of the Fleischmann-Pons debacle).

    Wikipedia needs mroe scientists. Even if all you do is check the citations using your access to publication databases – sometimes the body of a source will flatly contradict what someone will assert based on the abstract. Wikipedia is the ultimate exponent of FUTON bias, and you can help fix that.

  2. ricardipus says:

    Have you looked at, say, the entry under “Genetics”? While quite high-quality, the amount of dickering and bickering on the talk page is amazing. One thing that would discourage me from contributing would be the amount of time required to fix all the errors, respond to all the ridiculous discussions (never mind the sensible ones) and generally police the content.

  3. Frank says:

    Guy – thanks for your comment. I guess it is a bit of a labour of love when the article is on a controversial topic.

    Richard – I looked the Genetics article. I note that it is a pretty long article, and on a broad subject, so quite wide-ranging. I also saw that it says “Genetics is a featured article; it (or a previous version of it) has been identified as one of the best articles produced by the Wikipedia community”. So it seems to be a success story.

    The stuff on the Talk page looks mostly good-natured and to the point, with just a few exceptions. Not much worse than the sort of dickering that goes on in the refereeing process for high-end journals at least sometimes.

  4. Marie-Noelle says:

    Wikipedia is great on non-iffy topics, such as where is Jordan (the country) or which year was the criminal mayor of Bordeaux (now Sarkozy’s hallowed right-hand man) done for fraud? If things are a bit more interpretative, I use Wikipedia with my critical faculties on full alert. If they are even more interpretative (like who started it, in the Middle East?) then I just don’t go to Wikipedia. The reason I don’t edit in Wikipedia is simply software fatigue (too many systems to have to learn afresh on an almost daily basis!)

  5. Frank says:

    Marie-Noelle – yes, I agree totally with your sliding scale of utility vs iffiness. (Interestingly, my iPad just corrected ‘iffyness’ to ‘iffiness’!).

    The Mediawiki software that they use is a real beast and I hate it! I can never remember the formatting codes; it’s even worse than Textile. But hey, scientists are supposed to be good at this kind of thing (snigger).

  6. ricardipus says:

    Frank – first, agreed – Mediawiki markup language is awful. Reminds me of using early versions of ChiWriter, or even WordStar – with formatting codes not consistent between applications (many discussion forum software packages suffer from this as well).

    Regarding Genetics, that was perhaps not the best example, and Marie-Noelle has hit the nail on the head (and said more eloquently more or less what I was trying to). The endless discussion about topics that are even slightly controversial, and the endless editing required, is an even bigger time-suck than, say, authoring a scholarly article in a “real”, curated, edited, and most importantly locked down after publication resource.

    In this example, even though Wikipedia flagged this article as one of its best, it contained at least one egregious error of omission (Nobel Prize to Watson and Crick… um, where’s Wilkins?). Yes, I know I could have fixed it, or anyone else could (and someone did when I pointed it out), but honestly – if one of the best articles available contains at least one major error, does the “editing by committee” approach *really* work?

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I once tried to add a few paragraphs to the article on endogenous retroviruses, when I was still actively working in that field. It’s another example of a controversial topic (thanks to the creationists out there), and after putting in a lot of time and effort, my contribution lasted only a couple of days before being first cut in half and then completely deleted. The discussion page offered no clues as to why, just a depressing amount of general bickering and scientific inaccuracy, and I never tried again.

    But maybe I was Doing It Wrong. Maybe you’re supposed to cut your teeth on the discussion pages before daring to dive right in and start adding text. I don’t know.

  8. Frank says:

    I am struggling a bit to respond as I don’t have direct experience myself, just a (possibly naive) belief in the potential, plus the fact that WIkipedia does reach a vast audience.

    I do accept that there are problems/barriers. That is the point of the survey that Wellcome were promoting – to identify the barriers and try to do something about them. I believe that some articles are indeed locked down to prevent undue changes, and others are closely monitored. The ease of change/updating is a double-edged sword of course. As well as the problems you describe it also means that Wikipedia can be more up-to-date than most traditional reference sources.

    Cath – I get the impression that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to do things on Wikipedia, and that is what the Wiki Academy sessions aim to help with.

  9. cromercrox says:

    We at your favourite weekly professional science magazine did a rather rough-and-ready survey to determine whether Wikipedia was any more or less accurate than Britannica. We found that there was no difference. Which got us into trouble.

    I have a wikipedia page
    which I am editing, very slowly and in tiny increments, until it becomes a work of unbridled fantasy.

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