Why Wikipedia? Are more science-trained Wikipedia editors a step in the right direction for democratic access to science and research?

Posted on August 27, 2014

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After 8 long years of University education I have to admit that I still do it. What’s worse; I’ve even been known to do it for my own area of research, which I’ve spent most of the last half decade working on. Yes, even though I have been trained to wheedle out dodgy data from the most complicated journal articles, I still often find myself using Wikipedia.

I have an absolute belief that knowledge is for everyone and that everyone should be able to access and have the skills to interpret it, that’s why I signed up to the Students 4 Best Evidence Wikipedia Editathon on 16th September. However, as soon as I got in touch I was hit by a wave of apprehension. I am familiar with my small area of research (I work on a human virus that infects most people without causing them any harm, but relatively few people have heard of), but how can I claim to know about other areas of science? After all, being four years into a PhD, I realise more and more every day that the adage “the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know” is completely true.

So what to do? Back out? Leave it to the “experts”? Well no, because the lack of so-called experts and the sense of social responsibility that comes with being a Wikipedia editor are exactly what it’s all about. Wikipedia’s greatest strength is that it is openly editable by anyone and therefore can be updated, changed and adjusted constantly. Meaning that over time, articles improve, continually moving closer to a fair, unbiased and up-to-date view of expert opinion on any given subject. Of course, this strength is also Wikipedia’s biggest weakness; there are over 70,000 people registered to edit the UK site and all of those editors are expected to write as factually as possible, without bias. We all know that people are not perfect, but the beauty of the Wikipedia model is that mistakes can easily be edited out by others, making it self-correcting, like any good database of knowledge ought to be.

Wikipedia is not perfect and we all know cases of untrue information making its way into articles, but we have to remember that encyclopedias and even peer-reviewed journal articles are also far from perfect. They are out-of-date from the moment of publication, open to bias and cannot easily be corrected. A traditional encyclopedia also gives the impression that the facts contained within it are final, whereas we know that new research is constantly being published; after all we live in an ever changing world. That’s why it is critical that as many people as possible contribute; we have to choose between the imperfect open model and the imperfect closed model and the concept of democratic access to knowledge is far too important to leave to ‘someone else’. Never is this truer than for science, which helps us understand our bodies and minds, and informs how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

If you are interested be sure to check out our event page on Wikipedia:Students 4 Best Evidence September 2014 editing campaign.

Leah Fitzsimmons

Leah Fitzsimmons

My CV says I'm a virologist, but generally I like to split my time evenly between bellowing at anyone who'll listen about science (and there is no subject upon which I do not have an opinion...), going to the pub and playing the ukulele. Sometimes I even do all three at once.

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Why Wikipedia? Are more science-trained Wikipedia editors a step in the right direction for democratic access to science and research? by Leah Fitzsimmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Unless otherwise stated, all images used within the blog are not available for reuse or republication as they are purchased for Students 4 Best Evidence from shutterstock.com.

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