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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.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I had an interesting experience with Wikipedia last year when some folks decided Jenny Lawson should have her own Wikipedia pge. It was immediately marked for "speedy deletion" because it was an article was "an article about a real person that does not credibly indicate the importance or significance of the subject". Translation: They'd never heard of her, so how important could she possibly be? (Note: This is on a site that contains a detailed description of all 648 Pokémon.) The article was saved by fans pitching in and adding references to articles about her.

    1. Okay, Wikipedia admin here: the "credibly indicate the importance or significance" part exists because we get lots of articles that don't say in their lead what that person does. We do this because we get hundreds of articles where it is almost impossible to begin to work out whether references exist because no information exists to help even work out what that person or thing is. Someone might create an article called 'Billy Smith (football player)' which asserts that Billy Smith is an awesome football player. And that's it. Credibly asserting importance or significance would be simply to expand this to say that he plays for such-and-such a team. The importance or significance standard isn't about the person, it's about the article.
      As you can imagine, we get a massive tirade of junk every day, and speedy deletion is kind of a very rough instrument created to try and cut the worst junk away.

  2. Thats a great example of where working in the user sandbox first, and only posting after all the footnotes were in place, would have saved alot of stress and panic. The key is to have as many newspaper and magazine articles as possible, because oddly enough Wikipedia seems a bit biased against sources that are only on the web. Google News and Google Books can come in handy here, assuming your subject has been written about.
    I always do this, and not one of the 12 articles I've created from scratch has ever been nominated for deletion.

  3. One other point about Wikipedia policy that skeptics should know about is MEDRS or medical reliable sources. This is really a useful policy: it basically says that for medical articles, we have to follow good scientific consensus, and to prioritise systematic reviews and meta-analyses over individual clinical trials, and to not use the popular press (newspapers etc.) for medical subjects.
    If I had to give one tip to skeptics who want to edit Wikipedia, it's this: work with rather than against the community. If you've got a question or concern or don't understand something, do seek out an admin or experienced user: we usually don't bite (in fact, we have a policy that says we aren't allowed to bite people) and try our hardest with the limited hours in each day to help people.

  4. I agree with Tom.  I've heard all these stories of horrible interactions with other Wikipedians, but I've had pretty much 95% good experiences. It really does help to follow the assume good faith rule.  That's Wikipedia's version of "Don't Be A Dick!"

  5. Speaking as a liberal arts skeptic, I would add that something that some of you sciency types could do is look over articles on your specialty and see if you can write a "regular English" version… an executive summary for those of us who didn't study your discipline.

    1. That would be cool.  I think a lot of those entries are really daunting for people who aren't in STEM.  Having to look up definition after definition while trying to get through a paragraph can be frustrating.

      1. It's a real tough problem, partly because I know in certain scientific fields (specifically maths and chemistry) Wikipedia is actually used as a ready reference. Making it more beginner-friendly might threaten the use of it by experts. There are overview articles though, and there's also Wikibooks, Wikipedia's sister project which is intended to try and produce textbooks that give a guide through the subject. I know for computing-related topics, Wikipedia is useful as an encyclopedia but not necessarily as good as a guide through the subject like a textbook.

        1. I understand that some pages are used for scientific references and that is wonderful.  But the page really needs to be written so the average person can understand the concept.  As I wrote below about evolution in non-English languages, Wikipedia isn't about educating scientists, but someone who has little knowledge of the subject and wants to learn more. 

          There should always be links the expert can follow to further their knowledge, but the main page should be easily understandable to most people.  Math might be one of the exceptions.

        2. I don't think the whole page needs to be edited, but if the overview could be a little more accessible to non-scientists that would probably be a huge boon.

  6. Thank you Tim for the mention.  I'm already seeing traffic from this blog to Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.   I have many projects discussed on my blog, the one most popular these days is the We Got Your Wiki Back! project, which aims to improve existing pages for our skeptical spokespeople.  When our spokesperson is in the media, people are going to wonder who they are.  Almost every internet search is going to give a Wikipeida link, when they visit that page I want them to see a well researched, well cited page with great photos.  If the skeptical community does not have our speakers backs then who will?  We just finished rewriting pages for Tom Flynn, Sikivu Hutchinson and Alison Gopnik in the last week.  What an amazing difference (see the before/after on my website). 
    Another major project that gets little attention is to improve science pages in languages other than English.  Evolution for example is on the attack in many Muslum countries, yet the Wikipedia pages for Evolution in many Arabic languages are stubs. We know those stubs are being accessed, in fact the hit count for Evolution in Arabic and Hindi are one of their most popular hits. 

    The bottom line is we need help.  We need editors.  We need attention on this problem.  I will train and/or mentor if you ask for help.  Contact me at [email protected]

    1. Nice blog krelnik! I never knew there was such a movement within the skeptic community to improve articles in a neutral and well sourced way. Great news. I'm also flattered that you found inspiration in my work, thank you.
      We've done a few things at Wikipedia to make the space friendlier, for those of you who are having problems on-site seeking help. The Teahouse is a great place to ask a question and get easy to understand help:
      Also, for outcomes about the event at the Smithsonian, you can check out the SIA's blog:
      Thanks again for the great post and for sharing your experience. Good luck in Vegas!

    1. Don't worry, even us liberal arts types (ok ok ok, I have two liberal arts degrees, don't judge!) and non-liberal arts types will only make it better. Don't fret :)

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