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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Nature to scientsts: edit Wikipedia!

So can Wikipedia move up a gear and match the quality of rival reference works? Imagine the result if it did: a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date reference work that can be accessed free from Manhattan to rural Mongolia. To achieve this, Wikipedia's administrators will have to tackle everything from future funding problems — the site is maintained by public donations [note from Wikipedia blog: Wikimedia's running a fund drive until January 8th] — to doubts about whether enough new contributors can be found to increase the quality of the mushrooming number of entries. That latter point is critical, and here scientists can make a difference.

Judging by a survey of Nature authors, conducted in parallel with the accuracy investigation, only a small percentage of scientists currently contribute to Wikipedia. Yet when they do, they can make a significant difference. Wikipedia's non-expert contributors are, by and large, dedicated to getting things right on the site. But scientists can bring a critical eye to entries on subjects they study, often highlighting errors and misunderstandings that others have unintentionally introduced. They can also start entries on topics that other users may not want to tackle. It is no surprise, for example, that the entry on 'spin density wave' was originated by a physicist."

The article also tackles wikipedia protocol -- how to get your edits to stick.

Editing pages is not always straightforward, as some users may disagree with changes. In politically sensitive areas such as climate change, researchers have had to do battle with sceptics pushing an editorial line that is out of kilter with mainstream scientific thinking. But this usually requires no more than a little patience. Wikipedia's users are generally interested in the reasoning behind proposed changes to articles. Backing up a claim with a peer-reviewed reference, for example, makes a world of difference.

Nature would like to encourage its readers to help. The idea is not to seek a replacement for established sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but to push forward the grand experiment that is Wikipedia, and to see how much it can improve. Select a topic close to your work and look it up on Wikipedia. If the entry contains errors or important omissions, dive in and help fix them. It need not take too long. And imagine the pay-off: you could be one of the people who helped turn an apparently stupid idea into a free, high-quality global resource.

(Thanks to the readers who told me about this article.)

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