Wikipedia frequently is the first stop when looking up the answer to a trivia question, filling in a homework assignment, or finding the name of that actor that you can’t quite remember. But Wikipedia is also a major resource for educators, journalists, and even scientists to find background information or to get an overview of a new topic. Unfortunately, many scientific pages often are incomplete, out of date, or simply missing.
To help improve the Wikipedia coverage of Earth science topics, DCO put out a call for volunteers to become Wikipedia Fellows, and several DCO members responded. The volunteers took courses from the non-profit organization Wiki Education through their Wiki Scholars and Scientists program. DCO members have improved 23 articles and added 13,000 words to the site since 2018.
“I love Wikipedia. Who doesn’t?” said Wikipedia Fellow Laura Zinke, (previously at the University of California, Davis, USA, but now an editor at Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, UK). “During grad school I realized that a lot of the topics in geosciences in general weren’t well explained or were overly detailed on Wikipedia. Just creating an account and starting to edit on my own was terrifying though. The program was a nice way to have a guided introduction to being a Wikipedia editor, with a supportive group of fellow Wikipedians.”
Since 2018, eight DCO scientists have participated in courses through Wiki Education. The organization’s goal is to improve the quality, quantity, and completeness of the content on Wikipedia, as well as the diversity of voices that contribute. In 2016, they launched a “Year of Science” initiative and began recruiting scientists to improve content on the site. “Experts are really well-positioned to do this kind of translation from the scientific journals into public communication because they have access to both the latest research as well as having a deep understanding of these topic areas,” said LiAnna Davis, deputy director of the organization. Wiki Education offers two courses through this program, one for academics to edit pages within their area of expertise, and another for researchers who want to improve the representation of women scientists.
Wikipedia Fellows attended weekly online meetings for 12 weeks where they received instruction on the ins and out of editing the site and access to online trainings and other Wikipedia resources. They also did “homework,” which consisted of editing and composing new articles, and networked with other participants, many who came from other academic fields.
While anyone can sign up for a Wikipedia account for free, taking a course gave many Fellows the confidence and the deadlines needed to jump in and make edits. Jonathan Tucker (Carnegie Institution for Science, USA) previously had dabbled on the site, but appreciated learning the policies, guidelines, and technical aspects from Wikipedia experts. Tucker made significant edits to the mantle and silicate perovskite pages, which are related to his research on mantle geochemistry. “I have a lot more confidence now about editing pages,” said Tucker. “People use these things for legitimate resources, so it’s really important that the information there is accurate, broad, and representative.”
DCO engaged Andrew Newell (North Carolina State University, USA), also known by his username, RockMagnetist, to be the Wikipedia Visiting Scholar. As an experienced Wikipedia editor, he could offer his expertise on navigating the editing process and answer questions from new editors.
Several DCO members, including Lotta Purkamo (formerly at University of St. Andrews, UK, now at Geological Survey of Finland), were inspired to join the program to increase the number of biographies of women in STEM fields. “I’m aiming to contribute to the Women in Red project, which aims to turn red links i.e. pages that do not exist, into blue ones,” she said. “There’s still an enormous gender gap between articles about male and female scientists, so it would be great to do my part in mending this discrepancy.” Currently 86 percent of Wikipedia editors identify themselves as male, and that sex imbalance is reflected in Wikipedia’s content. Only 17 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are on women.
The article on Marie Tharp, an American geologist who co-created the first map of the Atlantic Ocean’s floor, which revealed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, received a makeover thanks to Kristen Rahilly (University of New Mexico, USA). The earlier version of the article lacked a description of the significance of Tharp’s scientific contributions.
Rahilly signed up for the program along with her graduate advisor, Tobias Fischer (University of New Mexico, USA). As a former eighth-grade science teacher, Rahilly understood the value of Wikipedia as an education tool, and also wanted to work on her communication skills. “I really love the idea of learning how to write at a more accessible level and figuring out the best way to communicate science to the broader public,” said Rahilly. Also, since anyone in the Wikipedia community can change or object to an article, the process is a good way to get comfortable with criticism, group writing, and proper citation techniques. For these reasons, Rahilly plans to incorporate Wikipedia editing into her future teaching.
Donato Giovannelli (University of Naples Federico II, Italy) signed up for the program specifically to find ways to incorporate Wikipedia editing into his classes. In a previous class, a student complained that the writing assignments were a waste of time because no one read them except the professor. “I started thinking, maybe it would be nice to have them post their assignment on Wikipedia as a way to increase the amount of information out there,” especially for underrepresented topics, said Giovannelli. This fall he plans to assign his marine microbiology students to write new articles that are missing from Wikipedia.
Many of the Wikipedia Fellows plan to continue editing Wikipedia in the future, but say it can be difficult to find the time. “That’s why so many articles on academic subjects are so poorly written,” reasons Tucker. “The people who are most qualified to write them are the people who have least time to do it.” However, he still sees this work as an important service that scientists can provide for the general public.
“As academics, it’s drilled into you that your time is precious and limited,” wrote Chelsea Sutcliffe (University of Toronto, Canada) in a blog post about her experience. But she thinks using Wikipedia to increase visibility of women in science is worth the effort. “There is nothing more satisfying than providing content for the world’s most accessible platform for anyone to see, respect, and admire.”