Wikipedia: an important frontier for scientific knowledge

Scientists recognize the importance of communicating about science to the general public. When scientific information reaches outside of the academy, more people are equipped to make better informed political and behavioral choices. But how effective are the current channels scientists are using to reach people outside their specific scientific communities?

The public gets science information online

According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, “most Americans say they get science news no more than a couple of times per month, and when they do, most say it is by happenstance rather than intentionally.” People primarily learn about science from general news outlets. But what information are they receiving exactly? And where can they go if they want to learn more? The answer is, they go online.

“Individuals are increasingly turning to online environments to find information about science and to follow scientific developments,” says Dominique Brossard in a recent PNAS article. It’s therefore crucial for scientists and scientific institutions to engage online platforms to reach the public sphere with the latest research.

When citizens are informed, they can make policy decisions and behavioral choices that have a positive effect on our planet’s future. The urgency of science communication has never been stronger.

“Public debates over science-related policy issues – such as global climate change, vaccine requirements for children, genetically engineered foods, or developments in human gene editing – place continuous demands on the citizenry to stay abreast of scientific developments,” states the Pew Research Center study.

Science journalism is in decline. Without journalists to do the work of science promotion, it’s more important than ever for scientists to do it themselves.

When the public wants to learn more about a scientific topic, they turn to search engines, which inevitably point them to Wikipedia. But, depending on how well that topic is covered on the online encyclopedia, they may not find what they’re looking for. That’s why it’s important for scientific experts to contribute to Wikipedia and fill in content gaps.

But there’s another reason why scientists should engage in Wikipedia. And that’s because not only is the public looking to Wikipedia to understand science, so are scientists!

Wikipedia influences science itself

In a study published in November 2017, Doug Hanley, a macroeconomist at the University of Pittsburgh, and Neil Thompson, an innovation scholar at MIT, found that Wikipedia articles about science have an effect on the progress of future scientific research. In the study, Hanley and Thompson analyzed the language that appears in Wikipedia science articles and measured that against how language in scientific research papers changes over time. Read more about their methodology in Bethany Brookshire’s write up on here.

What Hanley and Thompson found was that Wikipedia articles have a real effect on the vocabulary of scientific journal articles all around the world, but especially in countries with weaker economies. Scientists in these countries don’t necessarily have access to the latest paywalled research and are more likely to rely on public resources like Wikipedia. Whether or not scientists are admitting they’re among the millions of people who turn to the online encyclopedia daily, the influence is real.

Essentially, Brookshire explains, the research shows that “Wikipedia is not just a passive resource, it also has an effect on the frontiers of knowledge.”

“[Wikipedia] is a big resource for science and I think we need to recognize that,” researcher Thompson says. “There’s value in making sure the science on Wikipedia is as good and complete as possible.”

Wikipedia articles are meant to incorporate all facets of a topic from a neutral point of view and from all angles. That consensus building is vital to the Wikipedia editing community, as well as the scientific community. So, not only is improving Wikipedia an act of public scholarship, but it’s also one that allows scientists to indirectly communicate with (and better inform) their peers.

Improving Wikipedia performs a public good and it advances scientific knowledge. It turns out that the experience is also personally rewarding for the scientists doing it.

Scientists want to engage in public scholarship

“Many academics enter science to change the world for the better. … [But] most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses, which makes it entirely disconnected from practice.”

That’s what Julian Kirchherr of the Guardian stresses in his article A PhD should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos. Some even cite science communication as a moral imperative. Environmental scientist Jonathan Foley speaks to the personally fulfilling aspects of sharing one’s knowledge:

“Communicating your science with the broader world is one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do,” he writes. “I guarantee you will find it fun, rewarding, and ultimately very educational.”

Engaging with the public through platforms that people use and trust is becoming increasingly important to new generations of academics. In Do Scientists Understand the Public?, Chris Mooney writes,

“In a recent survey of one thousand graduate-level science students at a top research institution (the University of California, San Francisco), less than half designated academic research as their top career choice. Instead, these young scientists are often interested in public engagement and communication, but face limited career opportunities to pursue these goals. In other words, if there is a crying need to forge better connections between scientists and the public, there is also an army of talent within universities looking for such outreach work. That base is young, optimistic, and stands ready to be mobilized.”

Wikipedia democratizes science communication, allowing for all to participate

Wikipedia provides these academics the opportunity to reach millions with their scholarship, using language that a non-expert can understand.

“Public sources of scientific information such as Wikipedia,” says Thompson, “are incredibly important for spreading knowledge to people who are not usually part of the conversation.”

Often, when members of the public don’t participate in channels of science communication, it isn’t for lack of interest. Instead, it may be the result of structural inequalities that limit their access to those channels. Everyone with internet access can get to Wikipedia. It’s the most effective way to put reliable, up-to-date scientific information into the hands of everyone, everywhere.

Wikipedia brings science to the public, but also connects the public to scientists and scientists to each other. It is a platform where reliable, neutral fact-reporting is valued and passionate rhetoric is not tolerated. It is a space to work together toward a clearer understanding of scientific research for the benefit of all.


ImageFile:Astronomy and curiosity take us to unknown places.jpgRalina Shaikhetdinova, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


One thought on “Wikipedia: an important frontier for scientific knowledge

  1. Why are these publications not in Wikidata? How should we visualise the scholarly information that is better than Scholia?

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