The idea is pretty genius in its simplicity: Students develop writing skills while Wikipedia gets a booster shot of academic knowledge.
Do scientists and educators have a public responsibility to help make Wikipedia articles accurate? It's a fascinating question, especially when you consider the sheer power Wikipedia has over how people learn about the world: Some 8,000 people view the site every second, and it's almost always a top link result when we Google something we want to know.
That question is at the heart of a clever program that has university students, overseen by professors, create and edit Wikipedia articles instead of writing term papers to demonstrate their comprehension of a subject.
The idea is pretty genius in its simplicity: Students develop writing skills and critical thinking while the crowdsourced encyclopedia gets a booster shot of academic knowledge to fill in some of the gaps. This year the focus is on science—and specifically, women in science.
An independent nonprofit called the Wiki Education Foundation (not connected to the Wikimedia Foundation) has been shepherding the program for about three years now. About 200 schools have incorporated editing Wikipedia into their curriculum, including UC Berkeley, Harvard, Duke, George Washington and New York University. Students have worked on around 35,000 articles that have accumulated 78 million views so far, Wiki Ed's communications manager Eryk Salvaggio told me.
The "Year of Science" project will try to improve how Wikipedia informs the public about science, including honing in on the fact that women are notoriously underrepresented on Wikipedia. There's a notable absence of women scientists on the site, and not just because it reflects historic cultural sexism; activists found that thousands of female scientists, including many prominent ones, had no Wikipedia page, while many obscure male scientists had a presence on the site.
The site's gender bias points to an interesting side effect of the crowdsourced model. Because there's no central authority that "owns" the information on the site, the online encyclopedia only reflects topics that volunteer contributors find interesting, creating a systemic discrimination.
When the majority of Wikipedia editors are white men from developed countries (about just 8-14 percent of editors are women), diverse perspectives are missing, which seriously skews how the Wiki generation is learning about the world.
WiKi Ed is trying to correct that imbalance; this past term students contributed about 500 articles about women and topics related to women's studies, said Salvaggio.
The program is also grappling with the question of Wikipedia's reliability and how that impacts how people learn about science—which, frankly, scares me on a regular basis. Studies looking into the accuracy of Wikipedia articles had somewhat mixed results, but generally found that the the information on the site is more reliable than you might think, but there are huge gaps in what's covered and plenty of straight-up inaccuracies.
The ethos of the Wiki Ed project is, you can either bemoan that fact, or accept it as reality and work to make the prominent encyclopedia better. "If it isn't presenting the information you think it should be presenting, or you don't think the information's accurate—fix it," said Salvaggio.
But that will require academia to stop writing Wikipedia off as an illegitimate source and recognize that it's probably here to stay, so might as well get in the game and help improve it. "You can't ignore the fact that, for better or worse, this is the front page of the internet for people to find out detailed information about things," said Greg Boustead, an education program manager at the Simons Foundation, which is helping support the Wiki Ed project, along with a funding boost from Google.
"It almost seems like a hugely irresponsible thing to ignore the largest place for information where everyone goes to learn about science"
Wiki Ed is trying to convince scientists and educators to wield the Wikipedia firehose. Scientists, Boustead said, are already writing abstracts and speaking at conferences about their topics of research, but often overlooking this powerful outlet to get that information to the public. "It almost seems like a hugely irresponsible thing to ignore the largest place for information where everyone goes to learn about science—to not include your expertise."
Which raises an interesting question when it comes to bias, another controversial spot for Wikipedia: Is there a difference between experts and educators versus corporate shills when a group comes together to engineer the encyclopedia's content?
Neutrality is a sticky issue, and one the Wikipedia editing community is quite strict about, especially after hundreds of brands were caught using the site as a promotional platform. One-sided information is often flagged, and per the site's policy, scientists can't write about their own research without disclosing a conflict of interest on a Wikipedia talk page.
Wiki Ed also isn't the only example of a group of people with a shared expertise self-organizing to beef up a topic's presence on the site. There are dozens of task forces, called "WikiProjects," including a one focused on recognizing women in science. These groups help identify content holes that can be helpful as a starting point for student assignments—often esoteric or highly technical topics that are too difficult for most people to broach, or subjects that aren't touched on organically by volunteers.
The group will also be hitting the science conference circuit this year, including a stop at the White House, to promote the project to the academic community and continue the tradition of holding edit-a-thons focused on issues like gender diversity.
Professors are often skeptical about the idea, but what tends to strike a chord is that the assignment forces students to take a critical look at how to consume the information on the web. What is a reliable source? What biases are behind the content? Is it accurate and balanced?
"They're also just thinking about how to read things they find on the internet," said Salvaggio. Which is something we could probably all stand to get better at.