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The Importance of Editing Wikipedia as a Scientist

As I sit here cramming for my comprehensive graduate exams, I am finding myself on Wikipedia fairly frequently. It's truly an amazing resource, when you think about it -- a repository of all of human knowledge, freely available, right there at our fingertips. And yet, there are gaps in this database of knowledge that I believe we have an oppportunity (and a responsibility) to fill.

We all take Wikipedia for granted these days; some of us even use the references section of articles as a first-line entry to the primary literature. For me, I'm currently using it to read up quickly on the famous names in ecology, evolution, and physiology, and getting the quick-and-dirty history on these fields. Scientists stand on the shoulders of giants, after all -- it's important to know where we come from! (without getting too bogged down).

screenshot of california moray page from wikipedia

And yet, there have been multiple times over the past few weeks where I've searched for a person or topic on Wikipedia, and had only a sad short article (or no article at all) come up. And that's a damn shame. The articles on Robert MacArthur and Robert Paine -- two of the most influential ecologists of the 20th century -- are practically stubs. And the California moray article (one of the species I work on) is officially a stub! Even the general article on moray eels, is just over a page and half (at least my adviser's ground-breaking work on moray jaws is cited). There are many other important topics that don't have pages at all, despite potentially being useful for students (not to mention that they're also damn interesting!)

This has led me to realize that it's us, the scientific community, who should be editing Wikipedia articles in areas that we know about, or think about, or that are important to us. There have been some examinations of the gender bias in Wikipedia. The majority of editors are men, which might explain why there are more extensive articles on female porn stars than female writers. I now wonder if there is a field bias as well. How many colleagues do you know that have edited Wikipedia in their area of expertise? Wikipedia may represent an underutilized resource for getting your research findings into the hands of the public and communicating your work to a VERY wide audience. And beyond that -- I view it as our responsibility to contribute to this amazing database of knowledge.


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