I once spent an afternoon arguing over the molecular weight of fatty acids with my former research advisor. We were designing an experiment together, and needed to know the exact molar mass. I remembered it as one number, and he remembered it as another, and rather than look up the catalog number of the reagent we had in stock, we sat at the computer and typed “palmitic acid” into the Google homepage. The very first hit was the Wikipedia website on palmitic acid. Conveniently located on the right of the search engine results was a Wikepedia-derived summary of the chemical properties of palmitic acid: its molecular formula, melting point, molar mass, and other important characteristics for which we otherwise would need to search more deeply. Having quickly answered our question, we turned back to the experimental design, confident in the accuracy provided by Wikipedia.
It turns out that our confidence in Wikipedia is pretty standard for web-connected adults. “Wikipedia is the first place people go for information about science – and everything else,” says John Tracey, Research Assistant in Education & Outreach at the Simons Foundation. The Simons Foundation has teamed up with Google to sponsor the Wikipedia Year of Science 2016, an initiative to increase the breadth and accuracy of Wikipedia’s scientific content. Tracey is right: Wikipedia is a source of information for both scientists and nonscientists alike. “When I need information about a new topic (even a scientific one!), Wikipedia is often the first place I check,” says Jessica Polka, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School. “The fact that this resource is well-known, freely available, and heavily used makes it an ideal way to disseminate scientific information to a broad audience.”
Polka has organized past Wikipedia Edit-a-thons, a type of event where large groups gather to edit Wikipedia pages on a particular topic. In a little over a week, a large group of microbial sciences experts (hopefully including you, mBiosphere reader!) will convene at ASM Microbe 2016. During the meeting, on Sunday, June 19th, ASM will host a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, where participants can contribute their expertise on basic microbial research findings through clinical or industrial applications.
Why participate in a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon?
Why would someone update an open-access, online encyclopedia? Part of it is the ethos of Wikipedia: because it’s publicly available, the responsibility for content to be shared, and accurate, lies with all Wikipedia users. But few contributors can readily access the technical documentation to reference for fatty acid molecular weight, or know how to find original references to support a fact (or better yet, open-source references!). On the converse side, researchers with this knowledge are often too busy to edit Wikipedia inaccuracies. Some scientists may want to edit an entry, but not know how to do so.
The Edit-a-thon is an opportunity to alleviate these hurdles. In these specialized meetings, experts (you!) bring very refined knowledge and an ability to maneuver through technical literature. ASM has recruited volunteer facilitators to help participants easily edit or add information. “Editing Wikipedia is a lot easier than you might think, but it can still be intimidating,” says Polka. “Coming to an edit-a-thon is a fun, easy way to overcome the ‘energy barrier’ of making contributions – you’ll be surrounded by the energy of supportive colleagues, and there will be experienced editors on hand to provide guidance.”
Opportunity for broad scientific communication
Many scientists are interested in scientific communication: both to educate and share hard-earned knowledge with their audience. Writing for Wikipedia offers the opportunity to share technical information in an easily accessible format. “Scientists and science communicators are in a unique position to make the science content on Wikipedia as reliable and readable as possible,” says Tracey. Scientific details are important, but so is a broader picture, so that people outside the field can understand the context of information.
Another benefit that Wikipedia offers its editors is reach: 40 million American use the Internet to find science news and information, which is second only to television. “While there are many admirable outlets for outreach-oriented scientific writing, few have the traffic that Wikipedia boasts,” says Polka. It’s true: Wikipedia has a broad readership, reaching 450 million readers worldwide. “It’s a high-impact way to contribute to accessible global knowledge,” she adds.
A wider representation
Despite its universal usage, over 90% of volunteer Wikipedia editors are men. This can skew the citations used and the scientists highlighted by the volunteers. One of the goals of the Year of Science is to close the gender content gap, in part by attracting more women editors. Roughly two-thirds of the student editors recruited through these Edit-a-thons and science classroom Wikipedia projects are women, and the hope is that a more diverse group of editors will contribute broader scientific knowledge.
If you are inspired to add your expertise to one of the top-ten visited websites, join us at Microbe 2016! The event will take place Sunday, June 19th, from 8:15am-12:15pm. There is no registration for this drop-in event; you can come and go as best fits your schedule (which can be quite full, given all the excellent scientific content at the meeting). I hope to see you there!
-- Julie Wolf
Photo credits: Wikipedia Year of Science