Should you write on Wikipedia?

So what should we make of Wikipedia?  We all know that as a student you should be careful about using Wikipedia as a cited source. There is no guarantee that the information is correct.  However, there is no denying that most of us use Wikipedia on a regular basis: When looking up stats on your favorite football player, reading up on your next vacation spot, yes even learning the basics of a field you didn’t study.

In many ways it’s brilliant, and there are good reasons why it’s one of the most used webpages on the internet.

But the question is: Should academics spend their time contributing to Wikipedia? In 2011 the Guardian wrote an article on this: Wikipedia wants more contributions from academics. Clearly, one can see the positive arguments for doing so. The public would have access to information from people who have spent their life studying a specific field, and there are some great communicators and good writers at universities who could explain difficult topics to readers.

The role of Wikipedia

But in order to contribute to Wikipedia, one also has to learn what is different from traditional academic writing. There is, of course, no traditional peer-review-system, although in many ways, Wikipedia is perhaps closer to the open peer-review-system that many academics in the Open Science-community long for.

We recently made a podcast episode with a professor in Sámi Language Technology, Trond Trosterud, at UIT The Arctic University of Norway. He has been editing Wikipedia for the last 14 years and keeps his eyes on the Nynorsk-page (He also contributes on the Norwegian site, Finnish, English, and German sites).

– The role of Wikipedia is to make a synopsis and to be a guide in this quite big and messy world of online information.

It’s understandable that some academics are hesitant to engage themselves in the Wikipedia-community. This page on Wikipedia (!) kind of sums it up: ” […] an editor who is also an academic, a professor with a PhD in her field, may find the climate for editing here a difficult, sometimes a hostile climate, most certainly a strange and unfamiliar one”.

But there are certain mechanisms to handle disagreements. Trolling, for instance, will get you banned from editing. If several writers are in disagreement on an issue, there is little tolerance for what they call an “edit war“.

Resolving conflict

Issues are resolved on the discussion page of the topic (each entry on Wikipedia has a “shadow page” with an ongoing discussion on the edits being made). Administrators can lock certain pages until the matter is resolved.

Your academic background might count when putting forward your arguments on this discussion page (Some of the contributors have their own profile page where their name and bio appear). However, Wikipedia is not a democracy.

– If people with unscientific views continue the article can be locked so that only administrators can edit the article. The struggle over the content will then be outside the article. What will get into the article will be the result of the discussion. It’s not always the case that a professor is right, but more often it is, says Trosterud.

Wikipedians also take a vote on matters of conflict, but never on scientific results. And where there are different opinions matters can be resolved by presenting the dominant theory in the article first, then any alternative theories later in the article.

New research? No, thank you!

The message from Trosterud is clear: More researches should contribute, especially if they want to get more readers. However, Wikipedia is not a place to publish your new research. The site even states this in their Help-page:

“Wikipedia surveys existing human knowledge; it is not a place to publish new work. Do not write articles that present your own original theories, opinions, or insights, even if you can support them by reference to accepted work.” 

This means that as an academic there is no room for your latest research on Wikipedia.

– It’s a good principle, Says Trosterud:

– There are journals, conferences, and publishers where you can submit your original work and where there is peer-review by colleagues.  Then you might cite yourself on Wikipedia, that’s fine, says Trosterud.

Want to learn more? Listen on our episode with Trosterud:

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