Lunch & Learn: Improving Wikipedia

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

Wikipedia, said David Goodman at the October 13 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, is by far the most used online encyclopedia, and the most referenced source in the world, with more than 338 million unique visitors a month. It contains articles in more than 260 languages, has an impressive geographic reach, and extensive coverage of topics, currently with more than 16 million articles and 5 million illustrations and media files.

It owes its success as a modern, comprehensive, encyclopedia, and its challenges, to its five pillars. It is designed for its online environment, it has a neutral point of view (which sometimes requires multiple points of view), its content is free, and all involved should act in a respectful and civil manner. Beyond that, suggests the fifth pillar, Wikipedia does not have firm rules.

Number of articles on en.wikipedia.org Number of articles on en.wikipedia.org [Source: Wikipedia]

The staggering and unexpected growth, even to those close to the project, carries with it an inherent problem: the reliability of the information. Conventional methods of certifying information are not applicable: basic principles of the site are that anyone can edit, and decisions on content are made by consensus among whoever wishes to participate, rather than by any form of centralized editorial control or peer review. There is therefore considerable resistance to its use for serious purposes. Nevertheless it is inevitably being used for such purposes, including in the academic world. This imposes a responsibility on those working at the encyclopedia to try to upgrade and maintain the quality.

This responsibility has given rise to multiple layers of control , for preventing the inclusion of improper material, and evaluating the accuracy of what is included. In his talk, Goodman explained some of these procedures, and demonstrated them in action. Though they have an effect, he acknowledged that they  work erratically and unsystematically.

Their effectiveness depends upon a sufficient number of suitably qualified people participating in writing, screening, and upgrading the articles. Therefore, there are organized efforts to recruit qualified users to work in a systematic way on content in specific areas. There are informal workgroups of skilled amateur and professionals in some subject areas. And there are experiments where some college faculty use Wikipedia writing assignments in their courses.

Most successful method, says Goodman, is the individual participation of knowledgeable people. Most involved encounter certain barriers: an anti-elitist lack of respect for formal qualifications, the somewhat artificial prevailing style, the peculiarities of the interface, the difficulties in writing simultaneously for readers with a wide range of background, the impossibility of getting one’s own way with an article, the impossibility of stabilizing a finished article, and the lack of personal authorship for completed work–in short, the crowd-sourcing environment.  Goodman recognizes that Wikipedia will never be a medium for academic authorship. But it is an unmatchable medium for communicating knowledge to the widest possible audience. The barriers can be overcome with skill and patience, he insists, and the necessary abilities are the same as those for teaching a class of beginners.

Above all, he hopes that more will become involved with the writing projects. Some you you, he hopes, will also become addicted.

David Goodman David Goodman [Source: Wikipedia]

Speaker Bio: David Goodman is one of the volunteer administrators at Wikipedia, and Vice-President of the New York City chapter. David was previously Biological Sciences Bibliographer and Research Librarian at the Princeton University Library. He has a Ph.D in Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and a MLS from Rutgers University. Goodman’s Wikipedia page contains a link to the notes he presented at the Lunch ‘n Learn talk.

A podcast of the presentation is also available.

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