Monday, 15 October 2012

Wikipedia and Academia

Wikipedia: the undergraduate essay marker's nightmare. How many of us have been reduced to tears of anguish at seeing a bibliography full of citations derived from that capricious source?

Wikipedia can be a really great resource; who hasn't Googled an unknown fact, and clicked on the first link to find out more? Inevitably, that first link will be from Wikipedia. Which is fine, so long as we never admit to it in a professional or academic setting.

Photo: Jo Taylor. The British Library - just as proof that the sun
has shone a bit this year.
But - and those of a nervous disposition should look away now - times are changing. At least, so hopes the British Library's "Wikipedian in Residence," Andrew Gray. Andrew is the first to fulfill a post that reveals much about the new directions being explored research institutions: this AHRC-funded position reveals not only the British Library's interest in the potential of Wikipedia, but also funding councils' awareness of its ever-increasing importance for individual researchers and academia more broadly.

On Friday afternoon, I attended the AHRC's Wikipedia workshop, run by Andrew and held at the British Library. It aimed to introduce arts and humanities researchers into the somewhat daunting arena of Wikipedia contribution. As well as an overview of the history of Wikipedia, and providing a sense of the project's immense scale in 'real', numerical terms, the workshop helpfully guided us Wiki-beginners through the process of constructing a profile, engaging with other users and contributing our own knowledge to that vast compendium of knowledge, useful and otherwise. Several issues were thrown up: the construction of that all-important online identity; communicating (nicely) with our fellow Wikipedians; and disseminating our own research in that increasingly-important public-friendly manner.

The online identity is an issue well explored by several others (see, for example, this Guardian article or this post by Charlotte Mathieson), and all that should be added to these already great discussions is a reminder (and one stressed throughout the workshop) that Wikipedia is completely open access - so, if you're going to use a name identifiable with your real one, make sure that you're happy for anyone and everyone (including potential employers and funders) to read your contributions. Even if you delete something later, the action will be visible in the site's easily accessible history. If that sounds scary, it should; to quote an old cliché, everything you say can and will be used against you.

A screen-grab of the edit history page of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge's Wikipedia entry.
Don't, then, fall into the trap of disrespecting your fellow users. Yes, of course it will be frustrating when someone changes something you've added. It may be something that you're an expert on; you may be completely certain that you are right, and your new Wiki-nemesis is not. Nevertheless, be nice. Be sympathetic. That goes, too, for the way you write your posts: Wikipedia may be a uniquely helpful resource for the academic looking to hone their pubic engagement skills. If you write something incomprehensible to the average reader, it will be changed - often, quickly. (As Ben Fenton noted on Twitter this morning, it took 90 seconds for the news of Alvin Roth's Nobel prize to make it onto Wikipedia.) Wikipedia entries are dynamic texts: they are constantly changing, revised by contributors the world over. It's not difficult to imagine Wikipedia being used as a resource for the academic of the future; the changes made to those pages can reveal much about changing attitudes towards institutions, people, or ideas. They can reflect general attitudes towards knowledge as much as the growth of that knowledge itself. Don't assume, too, that your topic will already be there, or that there won't be something you can add - in all likelihood, you will be able to contribute something new.

Anyone wondering who actually cares about their research, head to Wikipedia; you may be surprised by who is already engaging with your area of interest. And if no-one is already, make a page - they soon will be.

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