Why don’t you think more scientists contribute to Wikipedia?
EB: I know exactly why they don’t contribute. It’s because they don’t get any credit for it. We get credit for certain things to get promoted in science, and writing Wikipedia entries isn’t one of them. We work on an incentive system, and the incentive isn’t there.
Touché. What are some incentives that could be added?
EB: At a university, the ways to get credit would enhance your publication record, enhance your teaching program, and — if you’re at a land-grant university — enhance your extension program. Incorporating revision of Wikipedia entries into classes is a really creative way to get these entries revised. Students are on the cutting edge in terms of knowledge of the literature and they can further practice their writing by editing entries. Assigning them as projects hits all those goals we have as teachers: writing, critical thinking, and revisions of the literature. And it also gets that quality of thinking and writing out there for everyone else to see.
Kristine, as a student, what was your most valuable experience with this project?
KC: We were much more motivated to do a good job than if we were just turning this assignment in to a professor. This was going to go out to everybody, so we wanted to triple-check everything and make sure that it was exactly the way that we wanted it. If you’re just doing a term paper, sure, you do a good job, but it only influences your reputation with the professor. Not only did we learn something, but we also gave back to society. Also, we didn’t just learn how to publish, but we learned how to publish collaboratively. It’s very easy when there are just two or three authors on a paper, but …how many did we have, twelve authors?
EB: Fourteen. There were fourteen student authors on the paper, besides me.
KC: It’s a whole new ball game when you have fifteen different authors trying to agree on things.
So, given your experience, how would you convince scientists that they should contribute to Wikipedia?
KC: No matter where you publish, even if you’re publishing in Science or Nature, you’re not getting your research out to as many people as you will through Wikipedia. And it’s so important today because so much of the general public doesn’t understand or appreciate the science that goes on. Disseminating knowledge can really help motivate more appreciation and more funding for the sciences. If we continue to publish only in journals that scientists read, the public will continue to be in the dark.
EB: It’s a way to do the things that we want to do as teachers while also doing the things that our universities want us to do for the public.