Wikipedia: A scientific and educational opportunity

An image used on the Wikipedia entry for pollination.

Emilio Bruna of the University of Florida wanted to assign students in his graduate seminar on plant -animal interactions something different than a term paper.  So he devised a novel plan that would help them learn some crucial concepts while writing concisely: rewriting Wikipedia entries.  I caught up with Emilio and student Kristine Callis, who is the first author of their resulting Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper, to learn about their experience.

What prompted the idea to edit Wikipedia entries in class?

Emilio Bruna: I was looking for an alternative to the standard research review paper for class, so I went onto Wikipedia.  I noticed that although some of those entries are really good, the ones for the class I was teaching, which was plant-animal interactions, were really bad. And it’s not the authors’ fault – they wrote about what they were interested in and what they knew. But I thought it was an opportunity to do better. So at first I thought I’d give it to them as an assignment.  And then the idea came up to write a paper about the experience, and that’s the product you can read in TREE.

What was the assignment?

EB: Students were working in groups of 3 or 4. Each group tackled a different Wikipedia entry: frugivory, herbivory, pollination, granivory and seed dispersal. The groups had to critique the entry, rewrite it, and upload the changes. Some groups had an easier time than others, depending on the critiques of other authors.

Kristine Callis: All of us were familiar with Wikipedia, but we’d been told in the past, since most of us are teaching assistants, that you can’t really use Wikipedia because you don’t know how good the content is. By doing this project we discovered instead that there weren’t a lot of things in the entries that were outright wrong, but there were a lot of things that were either misleading or left out.

Or, in some cases, given too much treatment?

KC: Definitely. We discovered that most entries seemed to have an anthropomorphic spin. The human aspect is important, of course, but in many cases it went too far. For example, the entry for the term “frugivore” spent a lot of time talking about humans who eat only fruit.

EB: That was everyone’s favorite. The fruitarians were a real highlight for us.

Were other authors resistant to your changes?

KC: At first we didn’t know how the culture of Wikipedia worked.  One group just uploaded their changes directly, so another author just reverted their changes back to the old entry. What we didn’t realize is that there is a culture in uploading things that you have to obey. Posts are usually discussed before getting posted because you get experts in all kinds of fields. It’s a give-and-take, and you work around those issues to make the best out of the situation.

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.

At least one journal is even requiring that their authors edit Wikipedia entries.

EB: The journal RNA News has a category of papers in which they publish descriptions of new types of RNA. If you submit to this category, then you also have to create a Wikipedia entry in which you describe that type of RNA. But on the whole, scientific professional societies can go beyond requiring it for publication in their journals.  All societies have a service and outreach component to them where scientists interface with the public. This fits right into that category of a service to your profession.  Universities are very interested in using the web and new media in their teaching, so this is also something faculty can highlight as a way of showing off that they’re thinking about ways to use technology creatively in their classrooms.

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.

To access the TREE paper, contact Emilio Bruna at embruna at ufl dot edu.

Callis, K., Christ, L., Resasco, J., Armitage, D., Ash, J., Caughlin, T., Clemmensen, S., Copeland, S., Fullman, T., Lynch, R., Olson, C., Pruner, R., Vieira-Neto, E., West-Singh, R., & Bruna, E. (2009). Improving Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.01.003