Some principles of contributing to Wikipedia are the same as in publishing research (i.e. cite your sources); some quite the opposite (prestige will get you nowhere); and other elements ought to be as highly valued in the world of science (publishing with an open license allows collaboration and a better end product!). On this point, science can glean some valuable information from the ways of Wikipedia.
“Feeding bee-eater - the female (in front) awaits the offering which the male will make.”
This image from the Phoebus project of the Muséum de Toulouse was chosen as Wikimedia Commons’ 2012 Picture of the Year. (Wikimedia Commons/Pierre Dalous, CC-BY-SA)
It sounds like a joke: “What’s the difference between Wikipedia and your research?” So, what’s the punch line? Wikipedia will give me an article in an instant, but it takes you months or years? Actually, it’s a real question, because, there are a number of common points and some potentially instructive differences between the open principles of Wikipedia contribution and those ruling research. Both sides were presented by Adrienne Alix, until recently director of programs for Wikimedia France, at the launch of WikiCristallo. This French project, co-organized by the association Amcsti, aims to bring more of one particular area of science—crystallography— to the largest encyclopedia ever known, as well as a Wiki sense of collaboration to the diffusion of science.
Fundamental to both activities is, of course, citing one’s sources. In a Wikipedia article, though, which could be written by tens, hundreds or even thousands of people, the reader doesn’t care who authored which bit; he or she is looking for credible information. Wiki depends even more heavily on the sources cited than does a scientific article, since, in research, some of that sought-after credibility is carried by the identity of the author. The role of the expert is, in fact, profoundly different between the two worlds. In the realm of Wikipedia contribution, authors are judged on their actions, not at all on the titles they may hold. “Who you are isn’t really important,” Adrienne Alix explains. “That can be troubling for people.”
Open and Collaborative Process, Better Product
Troubling, maybe, but mightn’t it be a good idea for science to bow a little less to prestige? We’ve already seen the research an untitled, 15-year-old can do when given the chance. So, what else can science and scientists borrow from the realm of a community-born and -managed wealth of information? Above all, the efficacy of a collaborative exchange of knowledge.
Before Wikipedia was born in 2001, there was Nupedia. Experts submitted articles to this encyclopedia, also founded by Jimmy Wales, which were read and validated by their peers, but the whole process moved slowly. With the arrival of wiki software, several people could contribute easily to the same page, without any particular technical skills. It started taking off, spreading knowledge beyond the English-speaking world as users created pages in their own language. Wikipedia emerged not so much in the spirit of openness, initially, but because the system worked so much better than the traditional method of expert validation, Adrienne Alix says. The bet was that if the process were opened to all, the quality would improve—a wager that Wikipedia’s founders took to the open knowledge bank.
The Wikimedia family has proven the value of other open knowledge models, some of which can be adapted for and adopted by the research community. Indeed, Wikimedia Commons is a centralized repository of over 20,000,000 illustrations and multimedia files under open license that already takes a scientific approach to its cataloguing. In 2010 the Muséum de Toulouse, a French natural history museum, launched the Phoebus program, calling on volunteers to photograph and upload images of its collections. With full descriptions, in English and in French, the result is, essentially, an open, digital database of the museum’s collection. Wikimedia reports (in French) that, “every month, on average, over 3 million pages containing images from the project are visited on more than 260 linguistic versions of Wikipedia.” Talk about visibility.
Wikipedia’s bookish cousin, Wikisource, is a library of public domain and Creative Commons works – the parallel of an open access archive of scientific publications. Here, the community collaborates to correct errors generated by the text recognition software used to scan the works. Adrienne Alix explained that the francophone Wikisource is used a great deal by schools in Africa, for example, where classes usually have to rely on photocopies of photocopies of books. “It’s pretty fantastic for them. All of the French literature is available, they can just print it out.” That testimonial has a familiar ring to it, to anyone aware of the arguments for opening up access to scientific results.
Share Where Your Audience Is and Take the Best of Both
Given the similarities between the goals of researchers and contributors to collaborative projects, it could make sense for anyone communicating science to take a step closer to Wikipedia. Part of the motivation, in the spirit of popularization, Adrienne Alix says, would quite simply be to share knowledge where the audience is: Wikipedia is the number one site for science and culture in the world, and we’ve all noticed that Wiki sites always appear among the first search results. Another goal of Wikimedia groups is to build bridges with science institutions, by way of projects like WikiCristallo working to enrich French-language crystallography content and introduce new Wikipedians to the tools and the stakes of sharing science, or via contribution workshops for researchers. Adrienne Alix sees it as “a public service approach, adapted to current practices. We have a choice: leave a barrier between institutional communications and projects like Wikimedia’s, or try to take the best of both.”