Mind the Gaps: Improving the Science on Wikipedia

The Wikipedia Year of Science aims to rethink college class assignments and coordinate mass editing sessions to fill critical gaps on the site’s science coverage


UPDATE: This article, originally published on September 16, 2016, now includes a description of the edit-a-thon guide and updated event listings.

Download “Crowdsourcing Expertise: A working guide for organizing Wikipedia edit-a-thons at science conferences

Where does the general public first learn about science? When people hear an unfamiliar term in a conversation or read about a new concept in a magazine article, where do they go? Statistically speaking, the journey starts with a search — one that often begins with Google and quickly leads to Wikipedia.

Search for almost any scientific term on the Internet, and chances are that a Wikipedia page will be the first result. Wikipedia’s content reaches more than 450 million readers around the world, at a rate of about 8,000 readers every second, according to Wikipedia Library/Publishers.

A study by the Knight Foundation found that Wikipedia is overwhelmingly the most popular destination on the Internet for news and information. In fact, mobile users visit Wikipedia’s website nearly as often as the next four most-trafficked sites — including CNN, Fox News and USA Today — combined. Putting that into perspective, Wikipedia reaches approximately one-third of the word’s total mobile-connected population each month.

Besides being the single largest and most widely accessed collection of general knowledge on the planet, Wikipedia is free to anyone with a basic Internet connection. Together, these factors make Wikipedia a powerful platform for communicating science to the public.

Although Wikipedia’s coverage of science topics is robust, clear gaps remain, especially with subject matter that requires technical or specialized expertise. Some information is woefully out of date, and a small number of entries are simply inaccurate. Furthermore, the underrepresentation of women scientists as article subjects, and a lack of diversity in general, remains a real issue.

Those of us who care about the public’s access to accurate scientific information have a clear choice: We can grumble about the quality of science on Wikipedia, or we can work together to leverage the powerful reach of this platform and make it better.

The Wikipedia Year of Science 2016 is an initiative designed to realize Wikipedia’s potential for communicating science to the public. The multifaceted effort was conceived by the Wiki Education Foundation and made possible with support from the Simons Foundation and Google.

At the heart of the campaign is a rather simple but potentially powerful idea: that students could share what they’re learning — and learn something else important along the way about communicating that knowledge. Specifically, college instructors could task their students with authoring Wikipedia articles instead of writing traditional assignments, such as term papers, which might end up collecting dust in a drawer. (See Motherboard’s coverage of this initiative for more on this classroom model.)

For an overview of the impact of this project — including firsthand insight from participating professors and five reasons why a Wikipedia assignment is better than a term paper — check out Year of Science blog posts on the Wiki Education Foundation’s website.

In addition to facilitating science contributions to Wikipedia through classroom integration, one of the initiative’s major goals in 2016 was to engage and train scientists via a series of ‘edit-a-thons,’ workshops and invited talks at conferences throughout the year, organized by the Simons Foundation and presented in partnership with major scientific societies. During the edit-a-thons, conference attendees got the chance to learn the basics of Wikipedia editing, make substantive changes to Wikipedia articles within their area of expertise, and find out more about the Wiki Education Foundation’s classroom program.

The Year of Science edit-a-thon series kicked off with a multiday edit-a-thon during the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in February 2016, and officially wrapped-up on December 15, 2016, at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

But that wasn’t really be the end. Motivated by requests from our partners this year, and in collaboration with participating scientific societies, the Simons Foundation has produced a Year of Science edit-a-thon ‘blueprint’ — a how-to guide that includes recommendations and lessons learned about engaging scientists with Wikipedia at conferences.

We see this as a living document — a starting point for societies that want to host edit-a-thons in 2017 and beyond. We invite feedback and ideas to make the guide as useful as possible.

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science

Held February 13-14 in Washington, D.C.
Read more >

  • American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 

Held April 4 in San Diego 
Read more >

  • American Astronomical Society

Held June 15 in San Diego
Tweets from the event >

  • American Society for Microbiology – ASM Microbe 2016

Held June 19 in Boston
Read more >

  • American Society of Plant Biologists 

Held July 11 in Austin
Tweets from the event >

  • International Society for Computational Biology – ISMB 2016

Held July 11 in Orlando
Read more >

  • American Chemical Society

Held August 24 in Philadelphia
Tweets from the event >

  • American Geophysical Union – Fall Meeting

Held December 15 in San Francisco
Read more>

Get involved: If you would like to inquire about organizing a Wikipedia Year of Science edit-a-thon at your organization’s scientific conference, or if you’d like to learn how to use Wikipedia to teach science in your class, please contact eo@simonsfoundation.org.

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