Let’s get serious about Wikipedia

Photo shows Dr Martin Poulter
Dr Martin Poulter

This post was written by Dr Martin Poulter, Jisc Wikimedia Ambassador

If you use Wikipedia to read about shell shock, look at the skeleton of a greater flamingo, or investigate the Enquiry into the Cost of the National Health Service, you benefit from scholarly content shared by academics or institutions.

Over the last year, I’ve been working with Jisc, the national charity providing expertise on digital technology for education and research, to explore how academia and Wikimedia can work more closely together. From an office in the University of Bristol, I’ve reached out to lecturers, librarians and other staff across the country, running events and creating guidance documentation. It has also been a chance to explore these experts’ perceptions of Wikipedia and its sister sites.

Although the Wikimedia sites aim for universal accessibility, their complexity and patchy  documentation can be off-putting for newcomers. Then again, there are extremely helpful resources that just need to be better-known, such as the educator portal and case study booklet, expert outreach portal, or guidance for new users.

I have focused on discussing three kinds of opportunity: using Wikipedia in education, promoting content collections such as image archives, and expanding the impact of research.

The case studies I’ve written with academics address:

Exploring the wiki way of working

The project supported three ’editathon’ events, delivering free training in using scholarly resources to improve Wikipedia. These included the first-ever editathons on veterinary science (hosted by WikiVet) and medical humanities (hosted by the Wellcome Library). The Women in Science editathon hosted at Oxford University was one of the most successful ever in terms of content created and improved, including five articles that were linked from the front page of Wikipedia. Since the relative lack of female Wikipedians has been in the news recently, I’m pleased to say that the great majority of contributors at these Jisc-supported events have been female.

One of the main outputs of the project is an infoKit, Crowdsourcing: the wiki way of working. It looks at cultural reasons for Wikipedia’s success and shows how professionals and volunteers can work together to create or improve scholarly and educational materials.

Another output is the collaboration flowchart, which shows how Wikimedia sites including Wikidata, Wikisource, and Wikimedia Commons can benefit projects in scholarly and educational sectors. In each case, the flowchart suggests next steps and key links.

Digital literacy and digital enlightenment

We’ve all heard that academics are hostile to Wikipedia and its ‘anyone can edit’ ethos, but I’ve found attitudes right across a spectrum. Peter Murray-Rust, of the University of Cambridge, recently described Wikimedia as “infrastructure for the digital enlightenment”: a phrase that also applies to many of Jisc activities. He is one of many who see strong parallels between Wikimedia’s open way of working, based on continuous mutual review, and the core values of academia.

This overlap of values is a topic that many people are keen to explore. My article for librarians and information professionals about educational assignments on Wikipedia passed 300 mentions on Twitter and prompted a Reddit discussion among teachers and students about the proper use of Wikipedia and other sources.

Starting small

Each Wikimedia site is driven by a community with its own policies and values. Working with those communities, we can do more and reach huge audiences. Work against them and there will be frustration and wasted effort. The practitioners I’ve met are quick to understand this. They appreciate Wikipedia’s goal of free knowledge for everyone, and its relevance to their own goals in education or public engagement. They don’t want to barge in recklessly, but to learn in small steps. Starting might be as simple as adding a citation or uploading an image. For many of them, their involvement with my project is just the start of a relationship with Wikipedia.

The relationship between Jisc and Wikimedia is also at an early stage. Both are now established parts of the landscape, and both are helping institutions and experts around the UK work in an environment of increasingly free and open access to knowledge and culture. I’m sure that Jisc will continue to be an evolving source of advice about Wikimedia and the contacts and working relationships made in this project will continue for a long time to come.