11 November 2019

I had my doubts about Wikipedia…until an Edit-a-thon

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Our own Olivia Ambrogio getting ready to edit some pages. Credit: AGU

By Shane M Hanlon

I use Wikipedia. I feel like most folks on the internet have made their way to the website for one reason or another. It’s a treasure trove of information. Just the other day I found myself deep diving on 2018 earthquake that hit Alaska as it was the first (and only) one I’ve experienced. There was a lot of really science-y, technical language in the article. And I trusted it.

Science on Wikipedia has gotten a bad rap over the years. There’s the old trope of “don’t cite Wikipedia” when writing research papers. And while yes, don’t do that, the actual information on the site is usually accurate because the content is self-policing. Editors enter information and must show where they got it via citations. If they don’t, other editors will erase it.

Like I said, I am a Wikipedia user but I was never really a contributor, even though Sharing Science has hosted two Edit-a-thons (events where folks get together to learn how to create/edit Wikipedia pages…and then do it) in the past. I anticipated that the same would be true for an Edit-a-thon we hosted this year as part of Earth Science Week – an “event to help the public gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Earth sciences and to encourage stewardship of the Earth”, via its overseeing organization the American Geophysical Institute. Every Earth Science Week has a theme and this year’s was “Geoscience is for Everyone.” To me, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to host an Edit-a-thon with the goal of editing and fixing gaps in publicly available scientific information, specifically to:

  • Ensure accurate and robust information on Wikipedia pages for individuals traditionally underrepresented in science.
  • Teach scientists how to use Wikipedia as a science communication outlet for issues surrounding science and society.
  • Support AGU’s dedication to promoting participation of international audiences.

Having never hosted an Edit-a-thon, or even edited a page, myself, I reached out to my friend and Story Collider colleague Maryam Zaringhalam, who is a champion for increasing scientific representation on Wikipedia, to lead an Edit-a-thon workshop. I figured that I’d like her do all the heavy lifting and I’d sit in the back and observe.

Well, she did do all the heavy lifting and gave a great instructional presentation on how to start editing pages. What I hadn’t expected was that I would want to participate…but I did, and I really loved it. I realized that small edits could make a huge difference. We had a small group dedicated editors who made a lot of pages and created a few as well. One of the great things about the event was the ability to track all of our changes. There’s also a recording of the presentation here.

The dashboard of our progress during the Edit-a-thon.

It was great being part of a group who contributed to increasing representation of scientists on Wikipedia. Consider me a convert.

-Shane M Hanlon is a Program Manager in AGU’s Sharing Science Program. Find him @EcologyOfShane