Science / Social Media

Wikipedia and Science – A Healthy Symbiosis?

Ever since Wikipedia has been availlable, this question was asked. First, scientists and humanists ignored it, trying to disgrace Wikipedia as a laymen project not to be taken serious. Then, they had no choice but to deal with it due to Wikipedias increasing importance. But is it a symbiose? How can one describe the connection between Wikipedia and science?

The project started at the 15th January 2001 with an English page, but soon it was growing fast. Articles were written not only in the commonly known languages like English, French or Spanish, but also in languages you do not hear every day – Latvian, Mongolian, or even constructed languages like Esperanto. All in all you can find articles in over 280 languages. The German Wikipedia contains at the moment nearly 1.6 million entries.

I am a member of Wikipedia since 2010, but have never written an article entirely on my own. I just corrected things here and there, when I stumbled across them during my researches. Yes: my researches. I write this without being ashamed. When I do not know something – may it be a date or a detail when writing my PhD, I look it up at Wikipedia. Since years this is since years always my first reaction. But being a humanist I am aware of the containing problems of using Wikipedia as a source. Is it citable? Will I be sneered at when or if I cite an article? Can I even dare to mention I am using that site? ‘What do I tell my students?’, I wondered when I was teaching at uni.

I decided to be honest, because I have always wished for honesty when I was studying. I told my students to use it, if they wanted. BUT – and that is important – but always to be careful! Do not believe everything you stumble upon, look out for references! References are the most important pieces of information you can get out of an article. What books or papers did the author use? Where did they get their information from? So, even if the article is crap you can use the references (assuming there are some).

Often, there are none. And that is the big problem with articles from Wikipedia or, generally speaking, with information from the Internet. Often, there are none. Wikipedia tries to set up a certain quality standard for its articles. When a new author writes one or corrects an already existing articles, these alterations are not immediately on display for everyone. More experienced authors have to check, before the new version can go online. Furthermore, in 2007 Wikipedia established the Mentoring Program. If you are a new Wikipedia author you can ask for a personal mentor who will help you. He will tell you how to write a good article so that it will not be deleted. In the end, for new authors the entry into the community might be difficult, but only to guarantie certain standards of quality. So, over 90 percent of the articles are written by less then ten percent of the authors.

The next problem is the name of the authors. Often, they do not use their real name, but a nickname, like I do it myself. Only few reveil their true identity, mostly out of fear being blamed for mistakes in the article. Citing an article, may it be even an excellent one, of an author where you only know the nickname is really not practicable in science. And above that, the articles do constantly change, and, as a matter of fact, one could change the article in a way they need it for citing. And due to the fact that everyone can change an article, there is not a single author, but many. So – whom should you cite?

But the main difference between articles in Wikipedia and articles in scientific magazines is the purpose. Scientists try to approach a specific problem with a specific question to receive new results, using a comprehensible method. Articles in Wikipedia only documentate the current state of research without asking a specific question. So, Wikipedia is definitly not a place for research and science reports.

The authors range from interested laymen to professionals. An example is the mediaevalist Dr. Thomas Wozniak, who is currently working at the Philipps-Univerity of Marburg. He started writing for Wikipedia in 2003 and his articles “Quedlinburg” and “Bhaktapur” are awarded as “excellent” ones. Together with his collegue Jürgen Nemitz this summer he lectures about, the “Historical Knowledge in Wikipedia” already for the second time. This course is supported by Wikimedia Germany to intensify the communication between the authors, the users and the teachers at schools or Universities. Students have to write their own article as a progamme achievment.

Being asked if he experienced reservations or even rejection mentioning his authorship, Wozniak clearly confirmed: “Yes, I had to delete it from my applications. For example, some collegues I’ve met at the Frankfurt book fair had the strict opinion that Wikipedia is a source of plagiarism and everyone who uses it or even writes for it is connected to it. Being a Wikipedia author means for them supporting plagiarism.” So, not every collegue knows his work. “Some would not even know what Wikipedia is or how it works because they are too old. And those who are deeply involved into the Web do not bother.” But now, after over 6000 modifications of existing articles and several new ones, he retired. “I write now only in the context of academia, writing in my freetime affordes too much time I have to use for my own researches. Back when I started, I wanted to unterstand the rules how this works, and now, after ten years, I comprehende them and can draw back.” In his opinion an excellent article affordes two months of intensive work, time, he does not have any longer.

About nine percent of the active authors are postdocs. But what about professors? They are rare, and mostly emeriti are writing. Professors still at uni seem barely to work for Wikipedia, presumably due to their crushing workload. But the motivation of all authors seems to be the same: The idealistic tenor to spread their achieved knowledge thoroughly.

There is yet another approach to the topic “Wikipedia and science”. It attracted scientists to write about it as phenomenon. Since 2005, 28 papers, bachelor, master thesis and even dissertations were written about Wikipedia. Not much, but one can assume, that this number will increase, because it is simply impossible to ignore Wikipedia from now on. 80 percent of the students at German universities admitted to use it for researches, professors are forced or are willing to teach, how to make use of the information given by it and to evolve a critical view.

So, is there a symbiosis? Before I answer that question, I have to define “Symbiosis”. In nature, a symbiosis, which is ancient Greek and means “living together”, is a “close and often long-term interaction between two or more different biological species (…) where both individuals benefit.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

That Wikipedia improves, when professionals are writing articles, does not have to be discussed. But where is the advantage for science? One cannot learn the latest research achievments, nor can you even cite the article. So, is it a symbiosis or is it rather a parasitical relationship?

The big and unbeatable advantage for scientists are the links within the articles. The speed of how you can gather information by jumping from article to article outweights much. Writing is another question. Here, the balance between the chance to channel your thoughs, if you write about something you are currently working on anyway or to learn something new and the time you have to invest in writing, where you could use it for your own researches makes the difference.

So I would answer the question like this. When I am a recipient of Wikipedia – means reading the articles for research – I profit. When a single scientist writes an article in Wikipedia, it is mostly the Database that profits, but not the scientist. So, in the end the question cannot be answers with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it is all shades of grey. Whatever point of view you choose it seems to be a one-way relation. But summed up – a symbiosis!

Katja Skokow

For further reading about the development of the connection between science and Wikipedia:

Wozniak, Thomas: Zehn Jahre Berührungsängste: Geschichtswissenschaft und Wikipedia. Eine Bestandsaufnahme. In: Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 60 (2012). S. 247-264.


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