How Wikipedia is unlocking scientific knowledge

By on November 3, 2016

How Wikipedia is unlocking scientific knowledge

By on November 3, 2016

How Wikipedia is unlocking scientific knowledge

The scientific community has a vested interest in a well-informed society, and the public at large is yearning for accurate scientific information. Despite these intersecting goals, a large gulf still persists between scientific expertise and public knowledge. In an age of instant access to information, reliable scientific knowledge still remains out of reach for many people.

On October 7, 2016, Wiki Ed hosted a webinar co-presented by Dr. Becky Carmichael, Science Coordinator with Communication Across the Curriculum at Louisiana State University. We discussed how students in universities around the U.S. and Canada are bridging the gap between expertise and access by improving Wikipedia content in STEM and social science fields as part of the Wikipedia Year of Science. You can view the full program here or watch below.

According to a 2009 Pew survey, more than half of scientists report that sharing the findings of their research with the greater public is not important for advancing their careers. In addition, science communications continues to remain absent from most science curricula. As a result, many scientists simply don’t have the motivation or necessary communication skills to relay their expertise to a general audience.

In addition to these hurdles, most reliable scientific information remains behind paywalls in highly specialized journals, accessible to a small number of individuals already “in the know.” When the public does seek out scientific knowledge, it receives it largely through mass media, and according to the same Pew survey, an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that the scientific information obtained from these sources is highly unreliable and inaccurate.

In the past several years, a variety of strategies have arisen to create a more scientifically engaged citizenry, but Wikipedia stands out as an ideal medium for conveying scientific knowledge to the public at large, and our students are making this happen on a daily basis. Wikipedia works for science communication because:

  • it’s a familiar name that more often than not shows up in the first page of many Google searches.
  • anyone can contribute.
  • it’s free.

Through Wiki Ed’s Classroom Program, thousands of students from hundreds of courses at universities in the U.S. and Canada are contributing to Wikipedia as part of their coursework. With the guidance of their professors, they’re filling in critical content gaps while learning how to digest as well as communicate knowledge in a clear, concise, and comprehensible manner.

So far, during the Year of Science, almost 6000 students from 279 courses have contributed over 2.5 million words to Wikipedia. They’ve edited more than 3500 articles, created 295 new entries, and all of this work has been viewed almost 100 million times during the term alone!

What do all of these numbers actually mean for Wikipedia and public knowledge? When students contribute to Wikipedia, they can transform bare-bone entries into robust and comprehensive articles. When a student from Caltech realized that Geobiology, the very field she was studying, was hardly covered on Wikipedia, she took what was a 240-word entry and expanded it into a 4000-word, well-sourced account of the field’s history and current status.

When students contribute to Wikipedia, they not only empower themselves to take part in the exchange of knowledge, but they empower others with the knowledge they provide. Wikipedia’s medical articles are viewed more than 200 million times every month, and the accuracy of this information can literally save lives. Since 2013, 4th year medical students at the University of California, San Francisco, under the guidance of Dr. Amin Azzam, have been contributing to Wikipedia as part of their medical training. Since then, Dr. Azzam’s students have contributed to articles ranging from Ovarian Torsion to Hepatitis. Their work has been viewed over 20 million times, and not only are these medical students reaching millions without ever stepping foot in an examination room, they’re learning critical communication skills that they can later use in their one-on-one patient interactions.

When individuals have access to accurate information, they are presented with a world of possibility and choice. This is why the Wikipedia Year of Science is particularly important to women who are seeking careers in the sciences. Imagine that you’re a young woman interested in marine biology. You search Wikipedia for articles on famous marine biologists, and all that you find are entries on men in the field. Your role models are sparse, and your choices are diminished. Thanks to our students, that same young woman can now find an entry on Eugenia Clark, a pioneer in the study of sharks and an early adopter of scuba diving for research. When both men and women can readily see that women have continually contributed to science, the idea that women can become accomplished scientists becomes a reality, and women are presented with choices instead of barriers.

With every contribution our students make, the gap between scientific expertise and public knowledge shrinks, but those students also walk away with a lifetime ability to communicate highly specialized knowledge to a general audience. Whether they choose to pursue careers in the sciences or not, they understand the importance of sharing knowledge, the ability to do so, and with Wikipedia, the forum to make it all happen.

If you’d like to learn more or get involved in the Wikipedia Year of Science, please email contact@wikiedu.org.

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