Is Wikipedia for Scientists?

Participation in a social network can have it's perks. Thanks to the O'Reilly Group on Facebook (that other social network), I received a review copy of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual. But why would a scientist want to know how to write and edit articles on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia has become a respectable source of information that rivals the more traditional encylopedias such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Remember the December 2005 Nature study that compared the two? Wikipedia has accurate information even on such obscure topics as dwarf woolly mammoths from Wrangel Island.

But we all know that Wikipedia is not perfect. If we want to improve the information on topics we care about – and probably have spent years working on – we could become a Wikipedia editor. Especially if we are interested in an audience that includes not only fellow scientists, but also people from other scientific disciplines, journalists or students.

Writing and editing content on Wikipedia is a complicated process. Because anyone can edit content, a great number of rules exist to make sure that the articles have correct information, don't violate privacy, aren't misused as marketing opportunity, etc. All these rules, as well as many practical tips and other tools are of course available online. But Wikipedia: The Missing Manual is a very good text for the aspring new Wikipedia editor that wants a more systematic introduction.

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10 Responses to Is Wikipedia for Scientists?

  1. Bob O'Hara says:

    Interesting idea, Rebecca. But would you _really_ want to see wiki pages on (say) the population dynamics of cereal powdery mildews?
    Hmm. Actually, it’s a neat way of making the literature review useful, so that it might be read by more than 5 people.

  2. Nicholas Wigginton says:

    I’ve made some changes to a few wikipedia science pages that were glaringly incorrect, but not much beyond that. It would be fantastic if more ‘experts’ contributed to Wikipedia, but it means more time for things that they get no credit for like reviewing manuscripts/proposals. I’ve heard that you should review at least 3 manuscripts for every paper you publish yourself/year. How many wikipedia entries would that correlate to? :)

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    Spending time writing Wikipedia entries is one of those activities that doesn’t really help your career. But 15 minutes here and there can have an impact in the long run, e.g. good visibility as a featured article. Maybe 5 Wikipedia edits for every published paper?
    Wikipedia also allows group efforts, e.g. “WikiProjects”: or “Collaborations”: It could be fun to work together on one or more articles.

  4. Massimo Pinto says:

    I have never contributed to WikiPedia, but I do use it, with caution.
    A recent “article”: published on _The Economist_ is addressing the problems that Wikipedia is facing right now. It’s a good read and it includes some thoughts on including trivia, as also pointed out by *Bob*, above.

  5. Maxine Clarke says:

    Forgive the lack of link, but a couple of days ago I read a post at the excellent Female Science Professor blog, in which she writes that she got fed up with doing what is suggested here, as she spent some time correcting errors in Wikipedia in her subject (one of the physical science disciplines), but when she went back, it had been re-edited to be incorrect again. Eventually, she gave up.

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    FSP’s “link”: . I’ve also said why I think it’s “suss”: .
    The whole _Britannica_ vs _Nature_ catfight is fun to watch, but ultimately: Would you use a resource controlled by 14 year olds and adults still living with their mothers?

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    Even with all the controversy surrounding Wikipedia (“here”: is another article on the topic from yesterday’s *The New York Review on Books*), I still see it as a very successful experiment. And “Citizendium”:, one alternative that relies more on experts, still stays at only 5700 articles.

  8. Grace Filby says:

    I agree with Maxine’s point – it’s very disheartening when new independent research is deleted and still brushed aside as if it counts for nothing. I won’t bother again with Wikipedia on phage therapy, except perhaps to laugh at the muddle but feel sorry for the missed educational potential.

  9. David Crotty says:

    Would that it only worked that way. Unfortunately, too much of Wikipedia seems to be treated as the fiefdom of petty lords, who have taken it upon themselves to defend their knowledge of a given subject, whether right or wrong. “Jaron Lanier”: has famously written on this subject, as has author “Neil Gaiman.”:
    Perhaps the future lies more in vetted collections, like Google’s proposed “Knols”.

  10. Kyrsten Jensen says:

    Wikipedia is always to be taken with a grain of salt. But sometimes, when I’m trying to explain what a Cluster of Differentiation molecule is (to an engineer, for example), and I don’t have a textbook handy (esp. in an electronic format), I can just link to the page to show what I mean.
    What is dastardly is that some companies are using it as a marketing tool. For instance, if you look up “CD14″ as an article, you will find lots of info on CD14 (gene, homology, publications, etc), and you will also find out in the article that you can isolate CD14+ cells. Sadly, the link to the isolation method leads to a companies’ brochure, which they’ve uploaded on Wikipedia’s website as text (so it’s not obvious). So for the uninformed, they would think “wow this is great info” when in fact it’s nothing more than propaganda…