Education / Events

Something wiki this way comes…

What are the most visited websites in the world?

To answer this question, many of us will refer to Wikipedia. While the site hasn’t quite achieved the stratospheric heights of Facebook and Google, it is rarely out of the top ten.

“Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”

says the foundation’s mission statement. And they really do mean ‘all’ knowledge – you can read up about quantum theory, find out who George Clooney’s dating or how many different types of jam there are without having to consult an encyclopaedia, or Hello! magazine once.

Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has been known as the scourge of teachers and lecturers, with students constantly reminded that cutting and pasting a wiki article isn’t the same as doing actual research. But is it?

You can see why they’re worried: anyone can edit Wikipedia, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in doing so. Whilst most editors are fastidious about their accuracy, it’s always tempting to play around with an article, if only to see how long you can get away with it before the editors descend.

But as the editorial process becomes more and more stringent, attitudes to Wikipedia are changing. Some universities are even including Wikipedia editing as part of their courses, to encourage students to share what they’ve learned. The site isn’t just a source of knowledge; the editing itself can be a learning process, as well as an opportunity to practise communicating complicated topics to a general audience. It’s not just the accuracy that needs improving – some articles on scientific subjects include far too much detail and technical jargon, contradicting the site’s own aim to make knowledge freely accesible to all.

There are over eight thousand articles about geology on Wikipedia – and that’s just those which are easy to classify. Whether you agree with it or not, this information is reaching a huge audience – the ‘volcano’ page receives over 160,000 hits per month. With so much traffic around the world, the consequences of errors or misleading articles can be huge.

To try and encourage greater accuracy, particularly in the science pages, Wikimedia UK is collaborating with scientific organisations to encourage more members to contribute to Wikipedia articles. On 30 March,we teamed up to provide a training workshop on becoming a Wikipedia editor. Participants learned about Wikipedia’s rules about neutrality, referencing and correcting entries, as well as using a ‘sandbox’ or trial area to produce entries.

Becoming a Wikipedia editor can be daunting – the English site currently has nearly four million articles in all, and is expanding rapidly. To simplify things, the pages are organised into ‘projects’, with editors volunteering to join in with the projects which best fit their expertise. Projects can be general – there is a ‘geology project’, for example, or very specific subjects. Once a member, editors can get a better sense of what articles already exist, and which are in need of shaping up. They can also discuss any issues with other editors.

All Wikipedia articles are rated for their accuracy, neutrality, completeness and style. ‘Featured articles’ (FA) are those which have come out on top, after being rated by Wikipedia editors. After this, articles are graded from A to C, or classified as ‘start’ or ‘stub’ articles which need completing. It’s easy to access the articles listed in the table, or have a look at a project which is more specific to your expertise, such as palaeontology, volcanoes, dinosaurs, etc.

A quick look at the geology project’s table shows that, whilst there are some excellent examples, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve geology’s presence on Wikipedia.

Like it or not, the site has become one of the first – and often only – resources people turn to in search of answers. And despite the occasional well publicised errors and hoaxes, the site’s commitment to providing accessible and high quality information is the reason for its popularity. The more experts engage, the better the information will be, and without their input, others less qualified will fill the gap. The responsibility lies with those who know better to get there first.

Original article in Geoscientist Online, 3 May 2012

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