10 years of learning to engage experts

This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Student Program with a series of blog posts telling the story of the program in the United States and Canada.

Saying that Wikipedia has changed a lot over the past ten years is an understatement. One of the ways that Wikipedia has changed the most is a need for expert knowledge and engagement with expert communities. One of Wikipedia’s enduring strengths is that it is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. This democratizing feature is what has made the Wikipedia community what it is. It doesn’t mean, however, that Wikipedia is averse to having experts contribute to it. There are essential roles for amateurs and experts alike to have on Wikipedia. Wiki Education’s programs have engaged experts over the last 10 years and, we’ll share what we have learned from this engagement.

The Student Program

Pursuing experts does not mean excluding non-experts, amateurs, or newcomers. The emphasis on non-experts contributing to Wikipedia is one of its enduring strengths. At the same time it is also a reason why institutions of expertise have tension with Wikipedia. Academia used to frown upon Wikipedia. The rift still exists, but experts are beginning to embrace Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Student Program helps to bridge that. Experts should feel compelled contribute to Wikipedia because it is where people go for information. Cultivating responsibility for experts to share their knowledge is not currently built into academic systems. It is our hope that programs like this can advocate for that responsibility, space, and time for experts to contribute.

The Student Program promotes students as experts. Although students make the contributions, they are doing this under the guidance of their professors. As the facilitators of these courses, professors are able to identify references, share articles for improvement, and help with phrasing in the articles. Students are able to become experts as they evaluate sources, draft articles, and synthesize them for Wikipedia. Writing for a wide audience also instils a sense of responsibility that a research papers, only read by a professor and maybe a TA, would not. As a result, this gives students editing Wikipedia a chance to feel like an expert and be an expert.

The title of expert can be shared by both the instructor and student. Redefining what being an expert means places a particular emphasis on the privilege of access — access to information behind paywalls, access to time, and access to resources to edit, which encourages the sharing of expertise with the world and not just keeping it in colleges and universities. Take a look at these articles, ranging from a common topic like, sand to a newsworthy topic like Refugees of the Syrian Civil wars in Lebanon to see their impact.

This makes Wikipedia into a space where experts feel compelled to contribute. Everyone benefits from higher quality content on Wikipedia. Having concepts that are part of experts’ research be well represented will only help educate and courage more research in those areas.

The Scholars and Scientists Program

The Scholars and Scientists Program began as a way to more directly engage with experts and expert knowledge. The notion that Wikipedia is hostile to experts is now a dated view. Everyone goes to Wikipedia to learn about things — for voting, for self diagnosing, for school, for curiosities. Wikipedia’s popularity backs up the consensus that this is true. In spite of this, contributing is not without its challenges. Lack of time, transitioning from academic prose to Wikipedia-style writing, conflict of interest (wanting to write about their areas of expertise), verifiability not truth, and no original research work against the structure that a lot of academics are used to. Having no direct benefit for their career — not part of tenure or easily to include on a CV, lack of time — defines contributing to Wikipedia as a volunteer experience. So Wiki Education created a formal space in which experts can work, be recognized for their work, and improve Wikipedia in the process. The program began in 2018 with 100 people applying for 9 slots: It was clear that there was interest.

An example like inhomogeneous cosmology demonstrates how expert knowledge can contribute to a complex topic that only a small community of people may know about. Having articles like this allow others to learn about a topic that would otherwise be less accessible. Similarly, the article for the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution demonstrates how expert knowledge can elevate an accessible topic from an average article to a Good Article. Ultimately this program serves as a funnel for WikiProjects, creating alumni groups, and drawing more attention to professional organizations themselves.

A different side of the same Scholars and Scientists’ coin is the newer Wikidata program. Starting in 2019, this program works to build off the engagement model that both of these other programs use. As Wikipedia has changed over the last ten years, the Wikimedia movement has also grown. In an effort to unite Wikipedia’s 300+ languages though structured data, Wikidata serves a unique purpose in the Wikimedia landscape. Working with structured or linked data requires a different set of skills than editing Wikipedia does. The two are, however, united through the community experience and that they are projects that anyone can edit.

The goal of the Wikidata courses is to engage data stewards and experts across several fields — museums, libraries, cultural heritage institutions, government organizations, non-profits — to teach them how to contribute meaningfully to Wikidata. Again newcomers and experts alike both play essential roles in Wikidata. Reaching out and encouraging more expert use builds the community not only in a people-oriented sense, but also access to more data. As of September 2020, this program has engaged with just under 200 experts who have edited more than 17,000 items on Wikidata. You can see more statistics here.

wikidata visualization
Wikidata plays an important role in the internet’s linked data ecosystem. (Image credit: https://lod-cloud.net/, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In being both human and machine readable, part of Wikidata’s influence is obscured by the role is plays with digital assistants, AI, and its increasing structural on in the internet. Having expertise present on Wikidata will not only improve data quality for other Wikimedia projects to take advantage of, but it will also help enrich the internet’s linked data content by having more institutions regularly contribute their data.

As we look forward to ten more years of all of these programs engaging with all kinds of audiences, we continue to actively explore new ways to engage with subject matter experts. These ways include, always testing out new curricula, delivery options, presenting at conferences on our results, and expanding programming into other Wikimedia projects. As we explore these new avenues for deeper and higher quality engagement, we hope that you will continue to participate in our programs and tell others about them. It is because of our active community that all of this is successful. We couldn’t do it without you and we’re eager to keep going.

This blog post drew heavily from the presentation Engaging Experts Three Ways: How Wiki Education is building a bridge between Wikipedia and Subject-Matter Experts by Blumenthal, Kent, and McGrady. Click Day 1, Session 3 32-155, Wiki Conference North America 2019 in the link to view.


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