Wikipedia’s volunteer editors hosted the first Wikipedia Science Conference in London last week to urge scientists to participate in editing the massive online encyclopedia. Scientists often view Wikipedia as a “Wild West” because anyone can edit the pages, reports a piece in Nature, but in reality Wikipedia is a community of “ultra-pedants” obsessed by getting the facts right.
Martin Poulter, PhD, the main convener of the conference, is quoted as saying that many posts are already high quality, but professional academics, scientists, and publishers could improve the information in their field of expertise. He refers to a “cultural barrier” that includes a disinclination to participate in the “admittedly petty discussions” that sometimes crop up around Wikipedia edits. Alex Bateman, PhD, another organizer quoted in the article, adds that Wikipedia articles are written organically, sentence by sentence, which is very different than the research paper process. “There have to be changes from both sides. That’s what we’re discussing,” says Poulter.
One proposed project is to improve the Wikipedia biographies of famous scientists, starting with the fellows at The Royal Society, Britain’s pre-eminent scientific institution. The Society has agreed to take on a “Wikipedian in residence” to spearhead these efforts, which are aimed at reassuring scientists about the quality of Wikipedia articles. Another successful partnership is with the European Bioinformatics Institute, which maintains databases on protein and RNA families that have benefitted greatly from Wikipedia contributions. Wikipedia also maintains a page listing articles that need expert scientific attention.
But the benefits go both ways, says Poulter, who thinks academia can benefit from engaging with Wikipedia’s transparent process of knowledge curation. “Wikipedia is an opportunity to recapture some of the academic ethos that has been weakened by the commercial sector,” he is quoted as saying. “If you’re working in the open, you release all your data, your drafts and everything, and you invite comments from the start, rather than only after a process which is hidden away from the public.”
Previously: Science for popular audiences is not just “adding to the noise”, Anthropologist discusses Wikipedia’s implications for health information, Is medical information on Wikipedia a public health problem?, How a “culture of permission” prevents doctors from being active in social media and ScienceRoll: What happens when pharma companies edit Wikipedia?
Photo by Johann Dréo