The following guest post is from Dr Panagiota Alevizou, member of the Wikimedia Research Committee, Research Fellow in Education and Educational Technologies at the Open University, and member of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on Open Science.
Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary last January was followed by a frenzy of media coverage in the mainstream and specialised presses. One of the world’s largest collaborative and reference sites, it mobilises more than a total of 1.6m contributors globally. As a reference site, its status is far from consensual.
Some continue to be skeptical about its credibility and authority, potentially compromised by user anonymity and lack of centralized editorial control. Others celebrate its potential for the very same reasons – anyone can contribute – and they note the provision of novel modes of expertise and peer review as guarantees of credibility. A Chronicle article observed that, today, the project does not represent “the bottom layer of authority, nor the top, but in fact the highest layer without formal vetting” and, as such, it can serve as “an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web”.
Addressing controversies, the Wikipedia community recognises its weaknesses and provides guidelines to help readers assess information quality and relevance. Content is routinely reused – and often it’s quality vetted – across other Open Educational Resources and projects (for example with Fotopedia, Encyclopedia of Life, Wikieducator). Several strategies exist to improve not only the content quality of the reference material, but also, to enable public engagement among individuals within educational and cultural institutions.
Yet many among academics, scientists and experts are reluctant to contribute to Wikipedia, despite a growing number of calls from the scientific community to join the project. The Association for Psychological Science launched an initiative to get the scientific psychology community involved in improving the quality of articles in their field, while biomedical experts recently called upon their peers to help make public health information in Wikipedia rigorous and complete. In December 2010 Alex Bateman and Darren W. Logan from the Wellcome Trust noted that “Wikipedia’s user-friendly global reach offers an unprecedented opportunity for public engagement with science”.
These initiatives remain sporadic and as anecdotal evidence suggests most academics – despite goodwill to contribute – still perceive major barriers to participation, which typically include a general lack of time to contribute, but also barriers of a technical, social and cultural nature. These also encompass the lack of incentives from the perspective of a professional career, the poor recognition of one’s expertise within Wikipedia, the widespread perception of Wikipedia as a non-authoritative source.
A survey has been launched by the Wikimedia Research Committee to understand why scientists, academics and other experts do (or do not) contribute to Wikipedia, and whether individual motivation aligns with shared perceptions of Wikipedia within different communities of experts. The survey is anonymous and takes about 20 minutes to complete. Whether you are an active Wikipedia contributor or not, you can take the survey and help Wikipedia think of ways around barriers to expert participation.