Within academic circles, Wikipedia is often looked down upon, and is not considered a credible source of information. Yet, it is one of the most widely visited websites in the world and is often the first link to pop up when you conduct a typical Google search of a topic. With much of scientific information behind paywalls, filled with jargon, or difficult to search for without prior knowledge, it makes it hard for the non-expert to find credible scientific information. When offered the chance to take the Wiki Scientist course through the National Science Policy Network this Fall, I jumped on the opportunity to contribute to an open access forum of information and learn more about the inner workings of what I would come to learn is a complex community.
While currently a graduate student spending a large portion of my time within a basic science research laboratory, my goals for who I want to be as a scientist are impact-driven and align more with applied sciences. I aim to have a career where I can ask questions and gather data that can lead to actionable changes and policy initiatives that improve scientific systems at all levels, from graduate student training to the dissemination of scientific information to the public. Within my joint degree program, I attend veterinary school and am working toward a PhD studying human tuberculosis. This program uniquely positions me at the interface of animal and human health, which is where I chose to focus my time for article improvement in Wikipedia. I specifically chose to add to the articles for Mycobacterium bovis, a bacterial species that primarily causes tuberculosis in cattle, but is being recognized more and more as a cause for human tuberculosis. I also edited the article for One Health, which is a concept focused on the integration of human, animal, and environmental health sectors in order to work toward solutions to global health problems.
I came into the course open-minded, but also with certain pre-existing notions about what I thought Wikipedia was, its provided service to society, and its reputability. Through each week of the course, I became more acquainted with the technical aspects of how to physically make edits on a Wikipedia page, how to best break up information and structure contributions, and what sources were considered appropriate. However, it was the less tangible aspects, the nuts and bolts behind the scenes that keep the Wikipedia machine alive and well, that intrigued me most and left a lasting impression.
First and foremost, it is entirely true that ANYONE can edit Wikipedia. Your parents, your children, your neighbors and friends could all log onto their computer or phone and make changes. For me, this contributed most to my perceptions prior to taking the course that Wikipedia is not a reliable place to obtain information. If anyone can edit, how is it policed? Wikipedians (members of the community of Wikipedia editors) are an extremely dedicated and active group. Editors can add pages to a Watchlist, where they are updated any time a significant change is made to a Wikipedia page. Those “watchers” are then able to respond in real time, either reverting edits to their previous form in the case of site vandalism, or engaging in a meaningful discussion about the impetus for the change on what is called a Talk page. A Talk page is a companion page for every article and functions as a forum for discussion of content, article structure, and even the potential for merging articles with other ones. Wikipedians care a LOT about making Wikipedia a safe space for robust conversations surrounding article content and ensuring information is in its most accurate form. Those who edit with reckless abandon, or choose to ignore these avenues for civil discussion, can actually be banned from Wikipedia! The user community is so strong, that you will begin to recognize prominent editors, and those who do not have a username and just edit with their IP addresses are often not viewed as significantly as regular contributors.
Further, Wikipedia is actually very well sourced, and there are many rules in place about what is allowed to be cited in Wikipedia. Most surprising to me was that for the case of science or medical topics, primary literature articles are not supposed to be cited. The reason for this is that these articles are only one snapshot of a complex scientific question or issue. Especially for medically relevant topics, where readers could use information from the website to dictate decisions about their health, it is very important that a scientific consensus is represented. Secondary sources, like review articles published in peer-reviewed journals, are an example of this. Or, information from government organizations like the Center for Disease Control. However, there are still a significant number of missing citations throughout a wide range of articles. Since Wikipedia has an automatic citation generator, you can easily plug in an article link or DOI number and a well-formatted citation appears. This is a way to add to the robustness of Wikipedia, without much of a time commitment.
With the ease at which anyone can edit Wikipedia, I thought that it would be a relatively simple task to contribute to an article. And, while it is easy to spot statements lacking citations, incorrect grammar, or plain false information, it is actually quite time consuming to craft meaningful Wikipedia edits. Some articles are for very broad topics, such as One Health, that one must try to summarize appropriately, without being redundant with other more specific, related topics. Other articles are very specific and pointed, such as the article for Mycobacterium bovis. The approach to these two types of articles is very different. I can easily see why training more people how to improve Wikipedia is a full-time job for those at Wiki Education. Additionally, you have to be mindful of putting bias into article content, and it is actually recommended that individuals with very close ties to a topic refrain from making substantial article edits, or at least reveal their connections within the Talk page.
For a perfectionist like myself, I spent a significant amount of time agonizing over the smallest paragraphs. This information was going to be accessible by individuals across the globe, after all, and people would assume it was correct without necessarily verifying it for themselves. One of Wikipedia’s mantras introduced by the instructors helped significantly with this: Be Bold. Never be afraid of putting content out into the void of Wikipedia, because it is better for readers to have your additional contribution as soon as possible, rather than wait for it to be a perfectly crafted statement. After the information is in the main space, other Wikipedians can assist you with and provide comments/guidance or completely undo your efforts. When I did actually get my edits into the main space of Wikipedia, I found that I was often virtually thanked for those edits. That was an extremely gratifying experience, to know that my contributions were valued by others and would help educate individuals looking at the article for years to come. The mantra of Be Bold seems to hold true for many aspects of science and is the beauty of advancing knowledge through scientific inquiry. We don’t always have the complete story or all the answers, but disseminating our knowledge helps others advance their understanding and overall helps society move forward.
I can understand why it might be daunting to consider incorporating Wikipedia edits as a part of your scientific practice. Or, maybe you still don’t see the utility or benefit of making these contributions. But, there are MANY articles that still need improvement. There are quality ratings for each article that are publically accessible, and significant topics, such as the page for “veterinary medicine” are still considered of the poorest quality. Spending a few hours in an afternoon to craft a paragraph for a page, or even ten minutes finding a citation has lasting and important impacts. I firmly believe it is our duty as scientists, particularly scientists funded via government agencies/taxpayer dollars, that we are able to communicate our science in a way that everyone can understand, that we acknowledge the myriad of ways that our science impacts our communities, and that we ensure our scientific expertise is openly accessible. Your small contributions impacts information for ALL. There are many different levels of involvement that I have alluded to—just adding citations where they’re needed, fixing grammar and spelling in articles, contributing section paragraphs, completely revamping an article’s content and structure, or even creating a completely new Wikipedia page from scratch, which someone in our course did! So, while it may take time to make substantive edits, it doesn’t take much time to contribute—you can define what your contributions are.
Taking this course allowed me to learn about my peers, their interests, and connect with other young scientists passionate about improving scientific communication and contributing to evidence-based science policy. The more you engage with the Wikipedia community, the more connected you become with others around the globe, from all walks of life and with many different perspectives and motivations for their contributions. User pages are almost like social media profiles, with biographies, widgets for specific interests, and places to send other users awards, called barnstars, for their great work. This is just one other way to connect to the broader scientific community, escape the academic ivory tower, and expand your knowledge dissemination outside of paywalls and the confines of an academic journal. With the ease at which information, and more importantly misinformation spreads within our digital age, it is even more imperative that the source options that are open access have curated, accurate information presented in ways that everyone can understand. I could envision this type of an exercise being incorporated into lab meeting or journal club settings, where you begin a culture of contribution from the top down, with PIs, postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads all working together for an hour each week to improve relevant pages. Scientists at all career levels can benefit from practicing ways to distill information into succinct, jargon free sentences.
With the end of the semester and holiday season, I took a bit of a hiatus from my editing. However, I am looking forward to starting this New Year with the goal to make contributions, no matter how big or small, each week. I encourage you to explore the opportunities that Wikipedia editing may offer you, or seek out a Wiki Education course yourself. It was an invaluable experience.
Dilara Kiran is in her sixth year of the Combined Degree DVM/PhD program at Colorado State University and recently completed our Wikipedia training course sponsored by the National Science Policy Network. She aspires to use her knowledge of both clinical practice and research to contribute to evidence-based scientific policy and is passionate about science communication. Follow her on Twitter @dvmphd2be.
Interested in taking a course like this? Improve information about disability healthcare on Wikipedia through our upcoming course sponsored by WITH Foundation (here). Or write Wikipedia biographies for women across disciplines and professions (here). To see all courses with open registration, visit learn.wikiedu.org.
For inquiries about partnering with Wiki Education, contact Director of Partnerships Jami Mathewson at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit partner.wikiedu.org