Wikimedia UK at the Institute of Physics

On Thursday 1st September, two Martins from Wikimedia UK (MartinPoulter and Martinvl) visited the Institute of Physics building in London to train IoP members in contributing to Wikipedia. This was a pilot event, with an audience of six, building towards a larger event in future.

The training is part of Wikimedia UK’s wider programme of engaging with scholarly bodies and funding councils, bringing in experts to review and improve Wikipedia and its sister projects. The collaboration with IoP also includes an article by Martin Poulter and Mike Peel in the current issue of Physics World.

The attendees were very enthusiastic about the Wikimedia mission to make physics (and other areas of knowledge) accessible to as wide an audience as possible, not just through a free, multilingual encyclopaedia but also through projects such as Wiktionary and Wikibooks.

Reviewing articles in their area of expertise, the physicists observed that articles are often roughly correct but assume a high level of existing knowledge, so are unhelpful to newcomers. They were interested to see that there are sometimes separate articles for different audiences, such as Special relativity and Introduction to special relativity. One suggestion was that this approach could go further, with multiple articles for different readerships. This is particularly relevant to physics, where a researcher’s understanding of, say, an electron is different from an undergraduate student’s, which in turn differs radically from what is taught in secondary school.

Another criticism of the content was that articles such as Voltage and Quantum tunnelling were not technically correct but reflected common misconceptions. These errors are widespread beyond Wikipedia, even occurring in textbooks, so it is not just a matter of bringing Wikipedia in line with reliable sources. Wikipedia cannot publish original research and cannot give undue weight to minority opinions, so it would be hard to fix this problem without first fixing the published literature.

The day-long workshop also highlighted some ways that Wikipedia could be made easier for new contributors. We visited Wikiproject Physics, a page behind the scenes of Wikipedia where users focus on improving physics articles. This has lots of useful information and pointers. However, one of the researchers was specifically interested in minerals. Wikiproject Rocks and Minerals has similar information and support, but is laid out differently. For example, there is no standard way to find articles that urgently need attention.

These difficulties showed why it is an advantage for beginners to have help from experienced Wikipedians. That help is available in a variety of ways through Wikipedia itself, but in-person training is particularly useful if you can get it. These workplace events are possible because of Wikimedia contributors who have volunteered to share their skills, with travel expenses paid by Wikimedia UK. Any Wikimedian wanting to take part in future events is invited to email martin.poulter@wikimedia.org.uk .

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