At the end of last year Peter Holland, the Head of Department, had the interesting idea that a few of us should get together and edit Wikipedia pages. It was an enjoyable day, where about 30 of us gathered in the brand new Elton room to be taught some of the basics of editing by two Wikimedia trainers. One of these was Charles Matthews, Wikimedia volunteer and project leader of the virtual learning environment project, who very patiently took us through some of the command lines to get started, and by the end of the day I think most of us had improved at least one page. So why were we all so excited about doing this?
First of all, everyone knows Wikipedia. It is consistently within the top 5 most-visited internet sites, and with good reason, it offers a quick, concise and broadly accurate summary of most topics you wish to know about. I’m not embarrassed to say that it is often my first point of call whenever I start with a completely unfamiliar topic. The problem is though, that it is only broadly accurate. When reading through the entry for Planarian, for example, I found many small errors, as well as high importance given to perhaps only slightly interesting things about the model organism that we work on, while its regenerative ability was only mentioned as a lesser point. So I set out to start editing it. There are perhaps less than 200 people in the world that work on planarians, so who better than one of us to edit the page who most members of the public are likely to read?
And to me, this was the key point to learn to help Wikipedia. As a hope-to-be-academic what I’d like to dedicate myself to is to the production and spreading of knowledge. At the moment we do this by publishing our work in academic journals, but these are only accessible to an academic minority, often even only in related fields. Most people don’t read academic journals, but they do read Wikipedia, and as scientists we should want this information to be as accurate as possible. This ties in nicely with the Wikipedia motto, ”imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”.
Some universities are using Wikipedia for teaching, both by giving their students assignments to write or edit entries on their subject of study, as well as by setting the translations of pages into other languages. The direct result of their work will be read and used by others rather than recycled and never looked at again other than by the professor who marked it. Wikipedia is understandably looking for more contributions from academics. Among the group, formed of academics all with very busy schedules, a great concern was that of vandalism, and we were all quite relieved to hear that vandalism takes a lot longer to do than it takes for us to revert it, which can be done in just two clicks. In my opinion, adding to Wikipedia is a great way to spread knowledge, and a place where we can really make a difference and reach out to a huge number of people.