Guest Post: Crowdsourcing Skeptical Outreach on Wikipedia
We recently mentioned (in Skepchick Quickies 4.5) the Smithsonian Archives' Wikipedian in Residence Sarah Stierch who is encouraging more women to edit Wikipedia. Stierch led an effort in March to improve the site's coverage of women scientists. Tim Farley has been encouraging similar efforts by skeptics to edit articles covering skepticism and related topics for several years now. It is a fantastic way to publicize skepticism and take critical thinking to the masses. It also perfect way for skeptics to contribute in small doses – just a few minutes here and there can make a big difference.
I asked Tim to guest post some tips and resources if you would like to get involved. Check it out below the fold!
Why even bother with Wikipedia? The Smithsonian feature article pointed out that its coverage of many topics is wildly uneven. It has been subject to vandalism that has created controversy. And the percentage of volunteer editors who are women has dropped from 13% to 9% in the last survey.
At the same time, the site enjoys extraordinary visibility. Search for just about any skeptic-relevant topic (indeed, any topic) on your favorite search engine, and a Wikipedia article is usually in the first page of results. Further, because Wikipedia's content is freely licensed, it is also republished on other websites and printed in books. Facts and factoids from its articles are routinely repeated in articles and other writing. Like it or not, it has a tremendous worldwide impact.
Last July I attempted to compare that impact with our own, by comparing Wikipedia traffic stats with that of my own site What's the Harm. The results were sobering. I found that Wikipedia articles routinely get 5 to 50 times the traffic of the equivalent article on my site. Your mileage may vary, but I think my site is fairly typical. Thus it seems likely a huge number of people are getting their knowledge of skeptic topics from Wikipedia and not from us. That's a problem, but Wikipedia's open editing policy lets us turn it into an opportunity.
Getting started editing Wikipedia can be daunting. In the decade since its creation it has developed a unique culture and terminology that sometimes seems inpenetrable to a newbie. Terms like deletionism and inclusionism and acronyms like AFD, SPA and NPOV are routinely bandied about in discussions. As a result I always recommend new editors take things slow and gradually build up experience. I recently started a series of posts on my blog that take you through this process.
Fortunately for us, Wikipedia's own rules are pro-skeptic. They require reliable sources for all new material. Their policies prohibiting original research and limiting fringe theories prevent many of the wilder forms of pseudoscience from even gaining a toehold. Well established things like homeopathy and chiropractic must be documented, but significant criticisms of them must be included due to the requirement of neutral point of view.
But pro-skeptic rules are meaningless unless they are enforced. That's where you can come in through crowd-sourcing. Just a few minutes a day can make a big difference to correct vandalism and prevent (for instance) paranormalists from distorting articles in their own favor. I explain exactly how to do this in the first two parts of my beginning editor series.
One area where I've concentrated my efforts on Wikipedia are documenting skepticism itself – our people and organizations. As part of that I've made an effort to improve the coverage of women in skepticism by creating the Wikipedia biographies for both Harriet Hall and Karen Stollznow. There is always more work to be done, many notable skeptics still do not have biographies.
But this is another area where one must tread carefully. Wikipedia has extensive rules on whether a person is notable enough to merit an article, mostly centered around whether multiple reliable third-party sources (e.g. news articles) covering that person can be found. You must treat a Wikipedia article like you are writing a research paper for school – every major fact must be footnoted with a good source. For some lesser-known skeptics, sometimes there aren't enough sources to support a Wikipedia biography and it will be marked for deletion.
To avoid having your every move second-guessed on new article creation, I highly recommend creating it in your user sandbox, which exists for this purpose. Once you have all your footnotes lined up and the article ready for consumption, you can move or copy it to the main article space for the other editors to review and for the public to enjoy.
There are many good resources out there to help you. Based on my original call to action to skeptics on Wikipedia three years ago, skeptic Susan Gerbic created her own blog called Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia. She helps organize skeptics around improving certain articles or groups of articles, and offers advice based on her own experiences. I highly recommend her blog as a great place to solicit advice from skeptics on this topic.
I believe crowd-sourced projects like Wikipedia will play an increasingly important role in skeptic efforts online. To help shepherd this along, I'm teaching a workshop on this at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012 this July in Las Vegas. It is titled The Future of Skepticism Online: Crowd-sourced Activism. I hope many of you will join me there, I will be covering Wikipedia and many other online projects.