The foundation gives professors the technical assistance they need to assign students, instead of writing a research paper, to write a brand-new Wikipedia entry, or expand an existing entry, on any topic in virtually any discipline.
This spring, 7,500 students are expected to participate. Among the many items past students written on are:
Since the program began six years ago, Davis says, students have collectively added more than 25 million words of content to Wikipedia.
Jennifer Malkowski, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Smith College, assigned her class on new media and participatory culture to write and contribute to Wikipedia entries this past fall.
"One of the things they really liked about it was the ability to share knowledge beyond the professor — that audience of one," she says. While all Smith students are expected to use good research methods in their classes, knowing that their entries might be rejected outright if they didn't conform to Wikipedia's standards "felt like a higher stake than the difference between a B and an A-minus," she says.
Malkowski will be leading a workshop to help her colleagues, some of whom are less technically minded, learn how to make Wikipedia assignments in their own classes as well.
Davis says many professors report a greater level of effort from their students on Wikipedia assignments. "If you're writing something millions of people are going to read, it's a reason to do a really good job, to go into a library and get a deep understanding of the topic."
Some professors, like Tamar Carroll, an assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology, see Wikipedia as a way to make previously neglected areas of knowledge more visible. For Carroll, it's women's history. She says a former student recently emailed her to say that her Wikipedia entry on Mary Stafford Anthony, the suffragist and sister of Susan B. Anthony, was "the most meaningful assignment she had" as an undergraduate.
There's another learning opportunity too. Every Wikipedia entry has a "talk" page, where editors discuss changes, and a "view history" page that shows additions and deletions over time.
Peeking behind that curtain, says Malkowski, helps "expose how knowledge is collectively created and how different voices might come to consensus, or not, on a particular topic." Right now, she adds, "is an especially important time to be asking these epistemological questions."
According to the foundation's own survey, 87 percent of university faculty who participated in the program reported an increase in their students' media literacy. By grinding some Internet info-sausage themselves, essentially, they gained a better understanding of what goes into it.
It's an interesting turn of events for Wikipedia, which, as Davis acknowledges, has had a bad rap in academic circles as the lazy student's substitute for real research.
"When I first started going to academic conferences, people would hide and say, 'Don't let my department chair see me,' " talking to you, says Davis. She added that Wikipedia should only be a starting point for a university-level research paper, never a footnoted source.
When researching acid rain, evolution, and climate change – cast a critical eye on source material
(Millbrook, NY) Wikipedia reigns. It’s the world’s most popular online encyclopedia, the sixth most visited website in America, and a research source most U.S. students rely on. But, according to a paper published today in the journal PLOS One, Wikipedia entries on politically controversial scientific topics can be unreliable due to information sabotage.
Co-author Dr. Gene E. Likens is President Emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Likens co-discovered acid rain in North America, and counts among his accolades a National Medal of Science, a Tyler Prize, and elected membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Since 2003, he has monitored Wikipedia’s acid rain entry.
Likens explains, “In the scientific community, acid rain is not a controversial topic. Its mechanics have been well understood for decades. Yet, despite having ‘semi-protected’ status to prevent anonymous changes, Wikipedia’s acid rain entry receives near-daily edits, some of which result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science.”
In an effort to see how Wikipedia’s acid rain entry compared to other scientific topics, Likens partnered with Dr. Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at the University of Buffalo. Together, they analyzed Wikipedia edit histories for three politically controversial scientific topics (acid rain, evolution, and global warming), and four non-controversial scientific topics (the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift).
Using nearly a decade of data, Likens and Wilson teased out daily edit rates, the mean size of edits (words added, deleted, or edited), and the mean number of page views per day. While the edit rate of the acid rain article was less than the edit rate of the evolution and global warming articles, it was significantly higher than the non-controversial topics. Across the board, politically controversial scientific topics were edited more heavily and viewed more often.
“Wikipedia’s global warming entry sees 2-3 edits a day, with more than 100 words altered, while the standard model in physics has around 10 words changed every few weeks, “ Wilson notes. “The high rate of change observed in politically controversial scientific topics makes it difficult for experts to monitor their accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections.”
Likens adds, “As society turns to Wikipedia for answers, students, educators, and citizens should understand its limitations for researching scientific topics that are politically-charged. On entries subject to edit-wars, like acid rain, evolution, and global change, one can obtain – within seconds – diametrically different information on the same topic.”
The authors note that as Wikipedia matures, there is evidence that the breadth of its scientific content is increasingly based on source material from established scientific journals. They also note that Wikipedia employs algorithms to help identify and correct blatantly malicious edits, such as profanity. But in their view, it remains to be seen how Wikipedia will manage the dynamic, changing content that typifies politically charged science topics.
To help readers critically evaluate Wikipedia content, Likens and Wilson suggest identifying entries that are known to have significant controversy or edit wars. They also recommend quantifying the reputation of individual editors. In the meantime, users are urged to cast a critical eye on Wikipedia source material, which is found at the bottom of each entry.
Wilson AM, Likens GE (2015) Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134454. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134454
For more than 30 years, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been a global leader in ecosystem science. Areas of expertise include disease ecology, freshwater and forest health, climate change, urban ecology, and invasive species. As an independent, not-for-profit organization, our scientists produce the unbiased research needed to inform effective management and policy decisions.