When it comes to finding information online, Wikipedia dominates, but it’s only as good as its contributors. Google and the Simons Foundation are backing an effort to improve and diversify its science content.
Wikipedia has kind of an uneasy relationship with academia. While professors warn their students of its unreliability and plead with them not to rely on it for their research, it’s still usually a first stop for just about anyone trying to learn anything on the internet. Meanwhile, actual authorities and students in scientific subjects are putting out work inaccessible to most of the public—either difficult for most people to understand or stuck behind a big paywall. Then there’s the shared diversity problem in both arenas, as Wikipedia and STEM academic fields are overly white and male.
A project running throughout this year, with major funding coming from Google and the Simons Foundation, aims to confront some of these problems.
The Wikipedia Year of Science is calling on researchers and educators to use the online platform as an education tool and a way to improve the information available to the general public, while emphasizing better representation of women in science.
The project is being run by the Wiki Education Foundation (Wiki Ed), an independent nonprofit (a spinoff of Wikimedia Foundation) dedicated to linking Wikipedia and university classrooms. Year of Science is putting STEM fields at the forefront, working with professors to assign Wikipedia contributions instead of term papers. The idea is that this teaches aspiring scientists to gain clearer grasps of their subjects and become better communicators while improving Wikipedia by filling gaps. The corners of Wikipedia that are most problematic are usually where there is the least attention.
The initiative also allows Wiki Ed to partner with professional scientific societies like the AAAS, presenting at conferences and holding “edit-a-thons” and workshops to train scientists to contribute. Simons has hosted seven such edit-a-thons so far this year and plans to produce a blueprint for events in the future.
Wiki Ed reports that 65 percent of its student editors are women, compared to 90 percent of Wikipedia content writers overall. The project presents a chance to balance the gender content gap. Edit-a-thons and other organizing efforts have been working on multiplefronts to even the scales of representation in Wikipedia content.
The Simons Foundation first caught the bug for improving Wikipedia back in 2015, when it hosted its first editing workshop at a major physics conference. It clearly resonated as something that has greater potential, considering the scaling up we’re seeing this year.
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There’s a big open science case for driving academics to Wikipedia. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for carrying out a project like this is the one that’s been made by Simons Program Manager Greg Boustead—that science communicators have an obligation to make sure Wikipedia is as accurate as possible.
Given the outsized role the internet and sites like Wikipedia play in our lives, there’s a strong argument that the civil sector and philanthropy have a similar obligation. I like the idea that philanthropy can take a greater responsibility in shaping up digital shared spaces, just like it would support parks, libraries, or public art.
Wikipedia is an obvious choice because of its open nature, but it makes you wonder what other online platforms for sharing information could use additional support (have you been on Twitter lately?), shoring up problems where industry and government have failed.