Musings on Wikipedia

You may have noticed, I have referred to Wikipedia a lot in my posts so far. It’s a useful tool, but one must always be wary of believing everything you read on the internet.

Wikipedia makes an excellent starting point if you are new to any subject. Its broad scope can provide the global overview necessary to start getting engrossed in a subject. A good article can provide a solid foundation and quality references can provide comprehensive background information.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. In theory, it’s a brilliant idea, invite people to edit pages and constantly add knowledge; when new discoveries are made anywhere, Wikipedia can be updated. Potentially, this means Wikipedia will never be out of date; unlike static pages updated by a few people with what may only be a limited scope of expertise, the global pool of knowledge can add and correct it.

On the other hand, it means that  erroneous information can be added to articles. Having said that, the constant revision means that most mistakes will be picked out and corrected. Wikipedia will warn you if it doesn’t believe there is evidence provided to support points made on page, so have a look to see what sort of references it uses. So obviously you need to be wary of pages that say:

This article does not cite any references or sources.
Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

Other problems occur with controversial subjects. Constant editing by two or more parties with opposing view points can lead to circular arguments that Wikipedia refers to “edit warring“, to prevent this, Wikipedia asks that disputes are discussed in the article’s discussion page. I can’t see this working in particularly emotive topics. Some pages are semi-protected to prevent vandalism; those editing anonymously cannot edit these pages. Other pages are permanently locked; these are protected by MediaWiki software so that only administrators and accounts associated with those pages may edit them. Wikipedia are currently running a trial on “pending changes protection”, where edits can be made by anyone but must be approved by established editors. Repeat offenders can be blocked or not allowed to edit pages on particular subjects.

My favourite term that I’ve found is “weasel words” – sentences in which something is stated to be believed by many people, possibly hiding (badly) behind opinions purportedly held by “some people”.

Myself, I have only felt competent to edit one Wikipedia page, the subject of my PhD thesis, the carotid body. Before I tinkered with it, the page had a woeful amount of information. Only one theory of the way it functions was noted and only one publication had been referenced – a comprehensive review from 1994. A lot can happen in 12 years of scientific research. It’s been edited since then, my academic writing style is not the easiest thing to read. A reference from 2010 has also been added, illustrating how it has been kept up to date. But the continued inclusion of 5 of the references I originally added (including a paper I co-authored) gives me a little pang of pride.

Anyone who has ever written a thesis knows that, whilst writing it, you are reading and absorbing so much information and you are so up to date with recent advances, that there is probably no one else at that point in time who knows, or cares, as much as you do about your topic. So while writing my thesis, I started procrastinating by taking the fledgling Wiki entry, and expanding it based on what I was reading. I added a number of theories and added 5 references that are still there. I should point out that there are only a handful of people researching the carotid body, so in more competitive areas of research – like learning and memory – there is likely to be a lot more interest in a page, the entry will be longer, there are more references and a lot more edits.

Pages are constantly being edited and updated, details will be corrected, grammar and flow improved. The Wikipedia platform allows recent advances in science to be added – presuming of course that those that are most informed are editing. It’s perfect for science – the method by which small details are added to the canon of knowledge reflects the way that research makes tiny incremental steps. Big leaps are rare.

I was encouraged to edit Wikipedia by my PhD supervisor; it is important that experts can edit the pages that overlap with their own research interests. better many experts in their fields edit than those with a broad but shallow range.

They have a helpful guide and some useful advice aimed at people wanting to edit pages including a “talk” section where changes can be proposed, if you are feeling a little tentative about your edit. The changes can then be reviewed by other editors.

I shall leave you with some curiously appropriate words from one of my favourite writers on the subject of encyclopaedias

“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

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