by Andy Mabbett, The Society’s Wikimedian in Residence.
Wikipedia’s great, isn’t it? All that free information, about the TV star whose name you can’t quite remember, the little fishing village where you’re spending your holiday, and the early singles history of the band you’ve just discovered and love to bits.
Wikipedia’s rubbish, isn’t it? Any fool can edit it, and put in anything they want. Not like a journal, with peer review and an editor. Only a fool would use it!
As a Wikipedia contributor since 2003, I’ve heard both of these things, many, many times. They can’t both be true, can they?
Of course they can’t, and it’s the latter that is a gross misrepresentation. Everyone who edits Wikipedia (in the sense of making any changes) is both a peer reviewer, and an editor (in the sense of exercising editorial oversight). It’s been said that Wikipedia is like a bumblebee – it doesn’t work in theory, only in practice.
Wikipedia needs subject experts, who know what should be in an article, and where to find that information. And when it comes to physiology, that might mean you. Spotted something wrong? You can fix it! Found something missing? You can add it. And please do!
However, some new contributors do find Wikipedia unwelcoming. Sometimes the changes they make are summarily undone (or “reverted” in the jargon). Here are ten reasons why that happens, and what you can do to avoid it:
- You didn’t cite your source — The Wikipedia community (of which you’re a part!) wants people who read its articles to know where the information comes from. As with a journal article, what you assert to be true should be cited to an independent, reliable, source. By reliable, we mean something in good standing, with its own editorial process: a respected journal, not a parasitic one; not a tabloid newspaper; and not your own blog. There are two areas where this policy is applied most rigorously, namely claims about living people, and matters related to medicine and healthcare.
- You wrote about someone (or something) who isn’t “notable” — Wikipedia doesn’t want an article about everyone, nor everything. The determining factor is what Wikipedia calls “notability.” Ask yourself: has society at large noticed this entity? Have there been press articles, biographies, television documentaries etc. about the subject? Note the plural.
- You didn’t sign in — Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and that includes people who don’t create an account and sign in. For small changes, that’s not usually an issue, but if you’re making significant changes, people are instinctively less trusting of “anonymous” edits. It shouldn’t be like that, of course, but people are people, and so it is. Also, signing in makes additional tools and editing rights available to you, and it actually gives you more privacy, as it hides your IP address. It’s best to create an account.
- You repeated an edit that had already been reverted — To many Wikipedia contributors, this (called “edit warring”) is a real no-no. If your edit is reverted, consider why and whether you can do it again, but better. Maybe one of the other reasons in this post applies. If you’re unsure, start a discussion on the article’s associated talk page.
- You pushed a fringe theory — Wikipedia aims to maintain a neutral point of view, and to be balanced, but not to give every esoteric view equal weight. So, while it mentions that some people believe the Earth is flat, or believe that vaccines cause autism, or suchlike, there is no requirement to give such views equal weight, and Wikipedia reflects that the scientific consensus is otherwise.
- You published original research — Have you just discovered a cure for cancer? Or proven beyond any doubt that a politician’s expenses have been fiddled with? That’s great, but please don’t put anything in Wikipedia until the discovery has been published in the kind of reliable sources mentioned above. Because getting information on medical matters right is so important, Wikipedia has special guidance on finding suitable sources. For instance, review literature is preferred to new primary research, and single papers based on in-vitro or animal testing should not be used in an attempt to debunk the established scientific consensus of secondary sources.
- You had a conflict of interest — CoI editing on Wikipedia isn’t prohibited, but should be declared. If you do edit in such areas, only do so with great caution. And please don’t edit Wikipedia solely to cite your own work – that will be noticed!
- You didn’t declare that you were paid to edit — This form of CoI is one of the few things on Wikipedia where there is a hard-line rule, rather than guidance. Any edit for which you are paid – whether with money or in kind – must be declared.
- You edited an article “owned” by someone else — (don’t worry, you did nothing wrong!) It’s good that some contributors are dedicated enough to “steward” an article, and keep an eye on it, but sometimes they overstep the mark, and will let no one else (or only their friends) change it. If that happens, don’t panic, and don’t get into an edit war (see number four above). Instead, start a discussion, following Wikipedia’s dispute resolution process.
- You were wrong! — Yes, I know that this is highly unlikely, but maybe you simply misunderstood the subject, or the tone of the article, or a Wikipedia policy. Please don’t dig in – it’s a sure way to frustration – but instead listen to what people tell you in talk page discussions, and try to come to agreement with them as to how best to proceed.
By encouraging all editors to avoid these pitfalls and adhere to the policies and guidelines to which this post links, Wikipedia seeks to make its content more reliable and useful to its readers, and to make the process of contributing more accessible and welcoming to everyone So what are you waiting for? Be bold!
Andy Mabbett – http://pigsonthewing.org.uk – is the Society’s Wikimedian in Residence. He is also Wikimedian in Residence at Queen Mary London University’s History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group, and with ORCID. He has previously held similar positions with the Royal Society of Chemistry, TED Talks, and a number of museums and art galleries.