Underpinning Wikipedia’s Wisdom
In December, Alex Bateman, whose opinions on open science I support and have touched upon earlier, wrote a short correspondence letter to Nature  in which he again repeated the points of his talk at FEBS last summer. He concludes by the paragraph:
Many in the scientific community will admit to using Wikipedia occasionally, yet few have contributed content. For society’s sake, scientists must overcome their reluctance to embrace this resource.
I agree with this statement. However, as I also touched upon earlier, but like to repeat again – bold statements doesn’t make dreams come true – action does. Rfam, and the collaboration with RNA Biology and Wikipedia is a great example of such actions. So what other actions may be necessary to get researchers to contribute to the Wikipedian wisdom?
First of all, I do not think that the main obstacle to get researchers to edit Wikipedia articles is reluctance to doing so because Wikipedia is “inconsistent with traditional academic scholarship”, though that might be a partial explanation. What I think is the major problem is the time-reward tradeoff. Given the focus on publishing peer-reviewed articles, the race for higher impact factor, and the general tendency of measuring science by statistical measures, it should be no surprise that Wikipedia editing is far down on most scientists to-do lists, so also on mine. The reward of editing a Wikipedia article is a good feeling in your stomach that you have benefitted society. Good stomach feelings will, however, feed my children just as little as freedom of speech. Still, both Wikipedia editing and freedom of speech are extremely important, especially as a scientist.
Thus, there is a great need of a system that:
- Provides a reward or acknowledgement for Wikipedia editing.
- Makes Wikipedia editing economically sustainable.
- Encourages publishing of Wikipedia articles, or contributions to existing ones as part of the scientific publishing process.
Such a system could include a “contribution factor” similar to the impact factor, in which contribution of Wikipedia and other open access forums was weighted, with or without a usefulness measure. Such a usefulness measure could easily be determined by links from other Wikipedia articles, or similar. I realise that there would be severe drawbacks of such a system, similar to those of the impact factor system. I am not a huge fan of impact factors (read e.g. Per Seglen’s 1997 BMJ article  for some reasons why), but I do not see that system changing any time soon, and thus some kind of contribution factor could provide an additional statistical measure for evaluators to consider when examining scientists’ work.
While a contribution factor would be an incitement for researchers to contribute to the common knowledge, it will still not provide an economic value to do so. This could easily be changed by allowing, and maybe even requiring, scientists to contribute to Wikipedia and other public fora of scientific information as part of their science outreach duties. In fact, this public outreach duty (“tredje uppgiften” in Swedish) is governed in Swedish law. In 2009, the universities in Sweden have been assigned to “collaborate with the society and inform about their operations, and act such that scientific results produced at the university benefits society” (my translation). It seems rational that Wikipedia editing would be part of that duty, as that is the place were many (most?) people find information online today. Consequently, it is only up to the universities to demand 30 minutes of Wikipedia editing per week/month from their employees. Note here that I am referring to paid editing.
Another way of increasing the economic appeal of writing Wikipedia articles would be to encourage funding agencies and foundations to demand Wikipedia articles or similar as part of project reports. This would require researchers to make their findings public in order to get further funding, a move that would greatly increase the importance of increasing the common wisdom treasure. However, I suspect that many funding agencies, as well as researchers would be reluctant to such a solution.
Lastly, as shown by the Rfam/RNA Biology/Wikipedia relationship, scientific publishing itself could be tied to Wikipedia editing. This process could be started by e.g. open access journals such as PLoS ONE, either by demanding short Wikipedia notes to get an article published, or by simply provide prioritised publishing of articles which also have an accompanying Wiki-article. As mentioned previously, these short Wikipedia notes would also go through a peer-review process along with the full article. By tying this to the contribution factor, further incitements could be provided to get scientific progress in the hands of the general public.
Now, all these ideas put a huge burden on already hard-working scientists. I realise that they cannot all be introduced simultaneously. Opening up publishing requires time and thought, and should be done in small steps. But doing so is in the interest of scientists, the general public and the funders, as well as politicians. Because in the long run it will be hard to argue that society should pay for science when scientists are reluctant to even provide the public with an understandable version of the results. Instead of digging such a hole for ourselves, we should adapt the reward, evaluation, funding and publishing systems in a way that they benefit both researchers and the society we often say we serve.
- Bateman and Logan. Time to underpin Wikipedia wisdom. Nature (2010) vol. 468 (7325) pp. 765
- Seglen. Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. BMJ (1997) vol. 314 (7079) pp. 498-502
Thanks for your very thoughtful post Johan.
Why do you think funding agencies would be reluctant to support Wikipedia? I was recently awarded a 5 year fellowship in NZ. One of the questions I was asked during the interview was how I planned disseminate the discoveries I make to the wider public. Aside from the usual response about publishing in open-access journals I could talk at length about the advantages of blogging and adding relevant published information to Wikipedia articles. I don’t think the only reason I was awarded the grant was due to this, but I believe that discussing Wikipedia contributions didn’t hurt either.
I believe most funding agencies want the results of their funds to be broadcast to the wider public as well as the scientific community. Wikipedia, being the top Google hit for most scientific terms, is the most prominent way to do this.
Paul, thinking about it, I cannot recall why I think funding agencies would be reluctant to support Wikipedia, at least not indirectly. It should be in the interest of them, at least the public ones, to spread the results further than into the niche scientific community. On the other hand, I get the impression that funders often dislike when they are told what to spend their money on. Nevertheless, I totally agree with you that Wikipedia would be the most prominent (and obvious) way of distributing knowledge to the public, which should be in the interest of funders as well as researchers.