It’s one of the refrains in Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy”, but it’s a serious thing to talk about. I’ve been editing Wikipedia articles on and off since October last year, usually bulking up the woefully lacking New Zealand music section.
I’m lucky in some respect in that I frequent a weird little corner of the wikisphere where any content is good content. (Of course, I do try and write things well and reference accordingly … though there have been a couple of articles where I’ve been so embarrassed by my clunky prose a few months later that I’ve had to clean it up). Hell, as a female from outside the US, I’m a recognised—and wanted—minority.
However, one of the issues with wikipedia is that it’s not just about adding information, it’s about adding it well (namely referencing facts, writing well, and not plagiarising). While on the one hand it’s great to get extra people working on a topic, in some cases an article can get worse rather than better. This appears to have been what happened with a 2011 Wikipedia experiment when 1700 undergrad neuroscience students were asked to create an account and add a sentence to the site for extra credit.
According to a pretty comprehensive writeup of the experiment, the Wikimedians monitoring the project suggest that of the few (19) that actually bothered, most (16 of them, which equals the sensationalist 87% used in the Hacker News article) plagiarised. They felt that the assignment made that section of Wikipedia worse rather than better (so much for undergrads being able to reference properly), and asked the professor not to do it again. However, he did, but didn’t tell the wikimedians he was doing it, much to their chagrin.
What are we supposed to do about this? In a way, the Wikipedia site has some fallbacks in place already: new users can’t upload media, some articles are locked, and it’s highly recommended that people edit before they create new posts. (I have to admit I’ve cheated on this one and immediately started making articles, but this was mainly as there were some obvious gaps in the New Zealand music section that were too notable to not have articles, even with mere stubs).
The other option is one that Wikipedia is also running through various drives: edit days, where people can get advice on how to make and edit an article and go from there. (Check out their meetups page for various events going on). Certainly I’d like to think that these types of introductions would help get over some of the issues from the university experiment.
[EDIT: It turns out that Wikipedia actually have an amazing set of resources in their Education Portal for educators interested in getting their students editing with Wikipedia. Including a suggestion for a 12 week program. I haven’t looked at all of the resources, but it looks like gold. ]
Some other links: