Wikipedia and academia

Posted December 2nd, 2009 by Paul Ayres

Today’s guest post about Wikipedia has been written by Martin Poulter.

Martin (User:MartinPoulter) has made more than 2,000 edits to the English language version of Wikipedia, including a rewrite of the Confirmation bias article, and new articles on Introspection illusion, Attribute substitution and Illusory superiority.

Martin has a PhD from the University of Bristol and is the ICT Manager for the Economics Network, where his work with wikis has informed the development of the TRUE project – where wiki based websites provide access to Open Educational Resources in economics.

Martin writes about his experience as a contributor to Wikipedia.

Voluntary work for an obscure educational charity

Behind the apparently chaotic, wild-west culture of Wikipedia (WP) is an ethos that is very serious about article quality, reliable sourcing and academic credibility. Look just behind the scenes, and there is a great bulk of policy documents and style guidelines covering everything from fair representation of scientific controversies to the proper use of italics.

The quality of individual articles ranges from outstanding to appalling, but the system keeps improvements and rejects vandalism, allowing the quality to evolve upwards. Inevitably, there are crackpots (the bad kind of obsessive) pushing fringe views as fact, but there are dedicated administrators (the good kind of obsessive) reverting and punishing vandalism and enforcing policy.

Debates about what is true are irrelevant to WP, which is only concerned with what can be verified in reliable published sources and summarised in an engaging way for a general audience. This clear goal makes it possible for people with widely different perspectives to collaborate, since our focus is on article quality, not our own opinions.

Since WP is for summaries of published material, not for original research, I cannot include my critical reflections on the sources I use. That can be a difficult adjustment when you are used to academic writing, but balanced against that is the prospect of reaching a huge readership; thousands of hits per day for many articles.

The very best articles have Good Article and Featured Article badges that are earned through a review process as demanding as that for some academic journals. I have had rapid, detailed, sometimes line-by-line feedback on my contributions, which has really helped both my writing and critical thinking about the article topics.

All users are on a level playing field, where existing qualifications mean nothing. Here again, what initially appears to be anti-expert actually weighs in our favour. Contributions are judged on their own merit, rather than on who wrote them. Hence it is enormously useful to actually know the subject, especially if you can access subscription-only journals and research databases. Text that is referenced to the best peer-reviewed sources is what I call “armoured”; another user who tries to remove it will get into trouble unless they have a good reason.

By joining a Wikiproject, users can find out what needs doing in a particular subject area. Some tasks require serious thought and research, while others take literally a minute. I follow the Rational Skepticism and Psychology wikiprojects, although the latter is relatively quiet.

The English Wikipedia is only one of many projects run by the Wikimedia Foundation, a US-based charity. There are versions of the encyclopedia in 270 other languages, as well as sister projects including Wikisource (for public-domain primary materials), Wikimedia Commons (audio-visual content) Wikiquote (quotations), Wikispecies, and Wikinews.

So although I tear my hair out at some of its misleading junk content, I am impressed with the process behind WP. That process has produced a lot of excellent content in only a few years: let’s see what happens in a generation or two.

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