Wikipedians Reach Out to Academics

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Chris Batson / Alamy
Chris Batson / Alamy

Wikipedia is one of the most widely accessed online data resources, popular for its open access and openly editable content. And yet for this same reason, its adoption by scholars and scientists has been limited. In a community where peer-review forms an invaluable part of the scientific publication process, Wikipedia’s collaborative editing policy has less reach. However, harnessing the expertise of scientists would undeniably benefit the website’s scientific content, as evidenced by bio-wiki databases such as the Sanger Institute’s Pfam and Rfam, or the now offline PDBWiki, all of which are biological data repositories that can be user-annotated through Wikipedia.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between Wikipedia and the scientific community, volunteer editors of the website hosted the Wikipedia Science Conference at London last month, to reach out to academics and ‘open-up’ the scientific process.

“A lot of academics have the impression that because anyone can edit, that means it’s a Wild West,” said Martin Poulter, an organizer of the meeting. “But Wikipedia is a community of ultra-pedants who care about facts being right.”

One of the primary concerns of scientists appears to be about the quality and reliability of the encyclopedia’s articles. In an effort to address this, Wikipedia is trying to improve its biographies of living persons resource (BLPs), with regard to scientists. Though this may admittedly appear to be a small-step, conference participant Duncan Hull, a computer scientist from the University of Manchester UK, feels that it could reassure scientists about the website’s editing process.

“Having that information in Wikipedia might change the scientists’ attitude to Wikipedia,” said Hull. “If they find out they’ve got an accurate biography of them and their work, that might change their view about Wikipedia as a way of communicating information to the wider public.”

Poulter also thinks that academia can benefit from Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is an opportunity to recapture some of the academic ethos that has been weakened by the commercial sector,” he says, pointing to the transparent process by which Wikipedia articles are created and edited.

“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,” he says.

However, despite the benefits of collaborative editing in expanding academic databases, majority of scientists may not get involved in editing Wiki articles unless such contributions advance their career. In the midst of writing grants or scholarly publications, editing Wikipedia articles for the benefit of a few pedants might well take a back-seat. Convincing tenure committees to take such contributions seriously would considerably advance Wikipedia’s cause.

“There is a cultural barrier,” Poulter says, adding that academics often feel too busy to get into some of the admittedly “petty discussions” that sometimes take place around Wikipedia edits. “There have to be changes from both sides. That’s what we’re discussing.”

Original Article: Nature News