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.
Journal Watch Online reports on a recent TREE paper Callis et al Improving Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility (DOI:10.1016/j.tree.2009.01.003 ) in Open Source Ecology
A University of Florida professor directed those energies towards a more noble cause: surveying and improving Wikipedia entries on ecological topics. The graduate students, enrolled in a seminar on plant-animal interactions, found the entries on frugivory, herbivory, pollination, granivory and seed dispersal to be lacking in breadth, and sometimes sidetracked by irrelevant topics (they were especially piqued by a long discourse about fruitarians – humans who choose a fruit diet — in the frugivory entry).
In Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the class reports that, although occasionally frustrated by other authors determined to repeatedly delete their changes, improving the entries was a valuable educational experience not too much different than writing a term paper.
They argue that updating Wikipedia, an increasingly influential public information source, is among the civic duties of scientists and should be an activity incorporated into student coursework, professional meetings, and even the peer-review publication process