Top 10 Reasons Why Academics Should Edit Wikipedia

Top 10 lists are all the rage with the kids on the internets these days, so I thought I’d give it a shot with a list of reasons professors, graduate students, and other academics should be editing the Wikipedia [sic]:

  • 10.) It may be likely to assist in the overcoming of the predilection (i.e., inclination) to compose impenetrable prose, instead fostering the increased utilization of brevity.
  • 9.) You can cite your own work as a reference.
  • 8.) Articles in JSTOR don’t have hyperlinks.
  • 7.) You can write as many pages as you want, and use color images on every one.
  • 6.) Accessing Wikipedia articles doesn’t require a subscription.
  • 5.) It’s fun, easy, and gives you a warm feeling inside.
  • 4.) You have a responsibility to spread knowledge.
  • 3.) It’s easy to spot plagiarism when you’re the original author.
  • 2.) It fosters interest in what you do, and in the long run will strengthen the job market in your field.
  • 1.) People will actually read what you write.

Are there better reasons I missed?

HSS meeting in Vancouver, open journals, Wikipedia evangelism

Last weekend was the History of Science Society meeting in Vancouver, BC. Despite growing up in Seattle, I had never been to Canada before.

I gave my first scholarly paper (which I had tried out a week before at the department’s Holmes Workshop): “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America”. I was in a panel with two other very good talks on physics education-related texts–one on 20th century Canadian high school textbooks, which fit well with mine on 19th century American textbooks, and one on children’s biographies of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. I’m really pleased with how it went; I got some good questions, and I had at least reasonable responses to all of them, as my Yale colleagues had prepared me well. Turnout was pretty good, really good for a panel of two early graduate students (myself and Michelle D. Hoffman of U. of Toronto), one guy not yet in graduate school (Trevor J. Owens, majored in history of science at Wisconsin), and one junior professor talking on a topic only marginally related to the rest (Steve Sturdy, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh who does history of medicine). I was really excited because David Kaiser was in the audience, but he left after the first two talks (i.e., right before mine).

One of the great things was talking with Adam Shapiro; his dissertation project, on the textbook industry and the Scopes Trial, is freaking awesome (and he has the kind of cultivated idiosyncrasy of dress and manner that I can appreciate).

As is typical at conferences, much of my best-spent time was with people from New Haven. I didn’t spend as much time meeting new people as I have at previous conferences, but no regrets. I did stay up drinking late into the night (along with Brendan) with the marvelous Gar Allen, which was great fun. And I met John Rudolph. And, in one of the great ego-inflating moments of my entire life, I was recognized by a stranger as… the writer of this blog. But beyond that, I mostly stuck with people I already knew.

John Rudolph invited me to work up my textbook research into something publishable, to submit for an upcoming special science studies issue of Science Education. Assuming I can find the time to do that (what with qualifiers hanging over my head) and that I could make it good enough to get accepted, it’s time to decide how seriously I want to take my free-knowledge ideals, since they conflict with my goal of actually being able to get a history job someday. I would like to only publish in open content journals… ideally, ones that support copyleft, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon. There aren’t really even any open content history of science journals (the closest things are History of Intellectual Culture and Science, Technology & Innovation Studies) or general American history journals (the closest thing is American Diplomacy). What needs to happen is for a broad flagship journal (like Isis or JAH) to totally retool for open content: increase the number of published articles drastically, invite contributions from a wider range, and start poaching from all the competitor journals. If it was done right, with a plan for expanding the editorial positions to keep pace with submissions and maintain quality, it could force the whole journal ecosystem to switch to open content. Before there was search, it made sense to have highly specialized journals. But at this point, it would make far more sense to get rid of the vast majority of paper publications and make open content online publication the standard.

Another variation on that theme… Despite the marked lack of enthusiasm for Wikipedia among professional science studiers in listservs (like the HOPOS and H-SCI-MED-TECH lists where I pump the History of Science Collaborations of the Month and get ignored), scholars express a fair amount of enthusiasm or at least convincibility when I talk to them in person about Wikipedia. The most effective line of argument (sadly) is not the “contribute to society” one, but the one about how creating high-quality free content expands the market for our work; what science studiers do has the potential to be popular, as far as scholarship goes, but not many people know how compelling our stories are. Even down to an individual level, it will probably pay off in career-prospect terms a few years down the road to have good Wikipedia articles about your area of expertise; it will whet people’s appetites for more, and give people (including the scholars who might hire you) an entry point into your particular esoteric specialty.

On Wikipedia burnout and hostility toward expertise

Wikipedia editing can be stressful if you let it, and for plenty of editors, their time spent on Wikipedia becomes progressively less pleasant, until they leave and declare the whole thing a lost cause. Philosophy experts, in particular, tend to enter with enthusiasm and leave with hellfire and brimstone blog posts. One such malcontent (who hasn’t quite given up) is cataloguing fellow experts who are dissatisfied with Wikipedia.

It’s true that Wikipedia is, in many ways, a difficult venue for expert knowledge (and the keepers of that knowledge). JKelly puts it well:

Wikipedia is an unwelcoming place for the expert. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. As with the internet as a whole, there is no convincing way to exert expertise, other than by making sound arguments. As with the entire internet, sound arguments have less impact than persistence, belligerance and popularity.
  2. Experts rely upon original research and sources that cannot always be verified by the public. Neither of these belong on Wikipedia.
  3. Experts expect, quite reasonably, to be rewarded for the effort put into acquiring their expertise. There is no reward system in Wikipedia.

So Wikipedia is, and will remain, a great place for hobbyists. One might say that this has little impact on Wikipedia’s quality as the treatment of subjects in thirty-two kilobytes rarely demands an understanding of any subject beyond the hobbyist level. There is a loss is in those places in which the popular view of a subject is misleading. Furthermore, an expert has immediate access to reliable sources which may take a hobbyist a great deal of time to find, or elude them completely. I don’t see any way to reconcile Wikipedia’s mission with supporting expert editors, however. Experts can, of course, contribute to articles on subjects on which they are themselves hobbyists. The side-effect is that hobby subjects get enthusiastic coverage, while drier topics languish, and will continue to do so until fashion touches upon them.

But JKelly, unlike many ex-Wikipedian philosophers, takes this reality with a wink and a nudge:

Taking a proactive approach, I hope to solve part of this by marketing a French novelist vs. German literary figures collectible card game.

This isn’t just clever irony; Wikipedia’s greatest potential is as the mass culture point of entry to otherwise esoteric and over-specialized scholarly subjects.

The common complaint of burnt-out experts like Chris Hillman and Windy City Mike is that the bad editors, the opinionated amateurs and ideologues with 16 hours a day to devote to pushing their skewed views, tend to win in the long run through sheer tenacity. A knowledgeable expert puts in a lot of work improving an article on their pet topic, but without constant diligence, the mob will introduce pablum and distortion until all their precious work is undone.

Wikipedia’s epistemological foundation, the expert realizes, is fatally flawed. “Consensus does not equal truth!”, they proclaim. Not to get all post-modern, but I think that critics take the wrong approach to issues of truth vis-a-vis the encyclopdic project (perhaps philosophers, especially). When Wikipedia works (from an expert knowledge perspective), it works because editors writing (and citing) from the experts’ corner are able to create a strong enough consensus that they are no longer fighting against the mob to retain the quality information in an article. Instead of thinking of Wikipedia in terms of personal epistemology–how do I know what I know, and how can I infuse the steps to truth into this article?–we should think of it in terms of cultural epistemology–what do most people think about this topic, where does that information come from, and what should this article say to bring them from where they are to where they ought to be?

As the self-identified post-moderns and social constructivists frequently point out, it isn’t that they don’t believe in truth or objective reality (for the most part, they do) . It’s just that, at the end of the day/career/life, the amount and quality of scholarly knowledge that you’ve produced matters much less than what you do with it and how you make it meaningful within the common cultural-intellectual framework. Barring the fulfillment of Ray Kurzweil‘s prophecies (in which case we’ll have hybrid computer-minds with infinite room for details and virtual immortality), the endgame of scholarship should be intellectual products consumable by those who haven’t sacrificed years of their lives to be able to understand that specific narrow body of knowledge.

Three inter-related topics on Wikipedia that I get frustrated about are Intelligent Design, pseudoscience, and scientific method. As a science studies scholar (and someone with a fair amount of experience with both the practice of science and the ID movement), I feel like I know better than the Wikipedia consensus, have access to and knowledge of more reliable/neutral sources, etc. But I have (in the short term) given up on reforming these topics, because I know how out of line my views are with the general WP population, and I’m not good enough (yet) to convince them. But I feel like the fault is as much with the experts I channel and the broader set of experts who should be involved in the public discussion of these topics as with myself and my failings as an editor. I know that Michael Ruse and Steve Fuller are much more credible sources than Barbara Forrest, Eugenie Scott and Robert Pennock, when it comes philosophy of science, the Intelligent Design movement and its history, and the demarcation of science and not-science, but they (and the intellectual communities they represent) have failed to bring good enough arguments, forceful enough rhetoric, and (here science studies scholars are especially at fault) enough willingness to engage in controversial topics publicly. (As an aside, I’m increasingly convinced that we did, in fact, lose the Science Wars; humanists no longer seem to think they are entitled to a place at the table when it comes to science policy and interactions between science and society.)

It is important to note that the WP population is very different from the general US population, much less any sort of “general” world population. Somewhat more intelligent, much more educated, much more technophilic, much more male, etc. Wikipedia is more of an intermediate level of expertise than a mass culture free-for-all, even if membership in the semi-elite is theoretically open to all. That means that, while it can be difficult, progress is possible; Wikipedians are educable and often reasonable and willing to be convinced by the proper application of argument and authority. But the goal has to be changing or creating the consensus, not defending the truth from the consensus.

The structure of Wikipedia is a compromise between the ultra-populist caricature that disaffected philosophers describe and the expert authority-based but ultimately culturally impotent traditional encyclopedia model. As Wikipedia consolidates its cultural power, the chaotic open system that made it successful in the first place will be less and less necessary, and more structured and restrictive policies and software elements can be implemented, and the culture of Wikipedia will continue to focus more on reliability. This has been happening gradually for some time, and things are clearly getting better; just look at the typical level of citation in Wikipedia today compared to a year ago. There’s no need to rush things in that regard, lest it lose some effectiveness by becoming too elite too fast. In almost every way, Wikipedia is getting better, not worse. Individual articles may go through cycles of decay and renewal, and experts may get frustrated with the lack of perfection, but the price of perpetuating disinformation via Wikipedia is small compared to the culturally-embedded misinformation that Wikipedia dispels.

Free at last (sort of)

What’s Update: Courses over, Orals Fields shaping up, HSS paper accepted, WikiProject History of Science going great

My second year of coursework is over, so technically I’m done course-taking (except for the paper on science fiction for Agnew, for which I took a temporary incomplete until June). Next year I’ll be TA-ing, and probably sitting in on a least 1 additional course each semester. In the meantime, I’m studying for orals and working part-time in Manuscripts and Archives (this time working on the digitization of the finding aids, which means I get to become much more familiar what’s available here).

Because we still don’t for-sure have an early-modernist on the faculty and I can’t do both “Early-Modern Science” and “History of the Physical Sciences” with Ole, my fields are still up in the air. However, I may have found someone to supervise a field in “Science Fiction and Science Writing.” If that works out, I’ll split the cream of the early-modern crop into the Physical and Biological fields, and my four fields (~50 books each, though the Sci-Fi & Science Writing field might need to be much larger if it consists siginficantly of primary sources) will be:

  • History of Biological Sciences
  • History of Physical Sciences
  • Science Fiction and Science Writing
  • 20th Century American History

My presentation abstract for HSS was accepted; at the Vancouver meeting in November I will be giving a talk, tentatively titled “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America.” How trendy is that? Visual culture, pedagogy, and popular science, all in one. It will be based on a paper I wrote in the Fall on the use of images in 19th- and early 20th-century introductory (high school/academy) natural philosophy and physics textbooks and popular science magazines. As I develop it more this summer, I’m probably going to focus on textbooks, and and try to connect the use of images to the changing role of science in American society as well as the changes within academic culture (professionalization, the rise of university research, and the related changes in teaching methods). I may dip into the archives of some of the Yale textbook authors.

WikiProject History of Science continues to grow; now there are 47 nominal participants, and a new subproject for History of Biology. Among the recent additions is Steve McCluskey, a well-known expert on archaeoastronomy. Beginning in June, there will now be a History of Science Collaboration of the Month; it looks like the first one will be Women in science. I’m very excited about this, as there are a bazillion women in science list-servs, and I plan on spamming every one (as well as my former classmates from “Science, Feminism and Modernity”). In anticpation, I got the two volumes of Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America. And best of all, the History of Science Portal (which I maintain) has been promoted to “featured” status, one of only 14 so distinguished.

In other Wikipedia news, I turned my term paper for Peter Westwick into Military funding of science, I’ve done a bit of recent work on the always enjoyable Science Wars, my re-write of Johannes Kepler is about halfway done and continues to creep along, and I have plans to use the material from Michael Kammen’s “American Nationalism and American Culture” to greatly improve Nationalism in the United States (a few of my classmates have given me permission to GFDL their book reports and short papers).

Bonus links:

History of science manifesto

Here is my

As someone with aspirations to change the world, I figured it was high time I wrote a manifesto. I’ve never written one before, so I found the style hard to master… writing skills don’t completely transfer from genre to genre, and blog posts, encyclopedia articles and archive-based research papers all require practice individually. So I’m not completely satisified with it, but I’ll try to improve it in the future. One nice thing about writing in Wikipedia (as I did with the manifesto) is that you can use links to avoid having to choose between a) over-explaining things for the readers that share your background and b) confusing the uninitiated with jargon and obscure allusions.

I was inspired somewhat to write this after reading an article on “Good and Bad Procrastination,” which quotes from this essay the following:

ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

I’d say the most important problem in my field is popularization, without a doubt. Historical study of the ways scientific ideas move and transform between the elite and popular realms is just one part of that. Even more crucial is the popularization of history of science itself; translating between esoteric scholarship and mass culture, making history of science an essential component of cultural literacy. Think history of science dramas replacing medical dramas, crime dramas, and lawyer dramas as the top TV shows; that’s the level of popularization to aim for. So my Wikipedia adventures are the first step in this regard.

After popularization, pedagogy is the next most important problem. Again, both the relationship between training and scientific development, and the effective teaching of history of science itself (with the latter taking precedence again). The ultimate goal with history of science pedagogy is take over every other academic field; the sciences, literature, garden-variety history, art, all specializations with history of science.

I’ll have to think some more about what other problems are important. Meanwhile, back to reading about the social construction of nuclear missile guidance.

Haeckel’s illustrations

A few weeks ago I checked out Ernst Haeckel‘s amazing Kunstformen der Natur (1904), and I’ve been gradually scanning the plates and uploading them to Wikipedia. So I’m going to share a few of the coolest. As of right now, I have 62/100 uploaded, and 5 more ready to go.

Actiniae (Sea Anemones). This is now a featured picture on Wikipedia, and should end up on the main page for a day, eventually. I’m quite proud of it; almost as if I actually created it.
Discomedusae: Desmonema Annasethe. The central medusa, shown from the top and the side, was named after Haeckel’s deceased wife, Anna Sethe; found and described the year after her death, it’s tentacles reminded him of her long blonde hair.

Stephoidea (radiolarians). 1 of 10 radiolarian plates out of the 100 images in Kunstformen der Natur, which was itself a selection of the best of Haeckel’s image from earlier work. Haeckel helped to popularize radiolarians for recreational microscopists.Update (2/28/06): This post is part of this week’s Circus of the Spineless, which collects blogging on spineless creatures of all sorts.

Randy Olson’s science communication suggestions

Recently, the film Flock of Dodos was screened at Yale, followed by a discussion with the director Randy Olson, science writer Carl Zimmer, and others. As you might infer from the title, a poke at March of the Penguins, the movie is a humorous take on the public controversy over intelligent design. Unfortunately, I didn’t even find out about this until after it had come and gone. But the discussion afterwards focused on how evolutionists should deal with ID, and from the report of one of the students in Lloyd’s class, Olson recommended an excellent approach (with Zimmer providing an opposing perspective more in line with the approach of Panda’s Thumb, NCSE, etc.). Fortunately, Zimmer has provided some of the material, Olson’s 10 suggestions for “improving communication,” and I think he pretty much nails it.

Especially notable is number 3: “The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience.”

Effective storytelling is something that the scientific community as a whole simply fails at. But, ironically, the humanist disciplines (e.g., history) are nearly as bad. Scholars of all persuasions can continue, as PZ Myers suggests and John Lynch seems to support as well, to emphasize their strengths of “depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence.” But that just serves to further insulate an already insular group; putting more priority on effective mass communication does not mean abandoning good explanations, it just means making them available to non-scholars.

While the more practical branches of science might be able to justify their work in terms of the tangible technical payoffs that society gets from it, evolutionary biologists, historians, and most types of scholars simply don’t have any other reason to exist except for the general enrichment of society. Technical monographs and detailed case histories are a proximate goal to enhance the collective knowledge of a specialist community and body of literature, but we ought always to keep an eye on the larger goal of distilling the broad and deep scope of that literature into stories for the rest of society.

This is, of course, the same broad issue that draws me to Wikipedia, one of the easiest and most effective means of actually applying specialist knowledge to reshape public understanding. The way things are now, the extent of historical outreach is the occasional late-career book that aims at a (very limited) popular audience along with the requisite scholarly one. The only historical work that really makes it into public consciousness is what the media industries ask for from historians; Wikipedia (perhaps among other venues) is a chance for disciplines to shape their own public destinies and forge their own places in mass culture.

Ballad of Gresham College

Something wonderful was brought to my attention by one of the participants in the History of Science WikiProject: the Ballad of Gresham College. The ballad is a 1663 ode to the Royal Society, recounting the noble exploits of the Fellows. It was first (and probably only) published in 1932 (ISIS, vol. 18, no.1, pp. 103-117), along with Dorothy Stimson’s speculation on authorship and sparse notes about the individuals and RS publications to which it alludes.

Topics include:

These be the things with many more
Which miraculous appere to men
The Colledge intended: The like before
Were never donne, nor wilbe agen.

For anyone with a casual interest in the early Royal Society (or fans of The Baroque Cycle), you should definitely check it out. It’s now on Wikisource for the enrichment of the masses lacking JSTOR access.

Getting the word out

I figured it was time to move the History of Science WikiProject to the next level, so I sent an email about it to h-sci-med-tech. While no one has responded directly on the listserv so far, a surprising number of readers from the list have blogged about my message:

Medical Museion Weblog РThe blog of Thomas Șderqvist
Paradigms Lost – A new History of Science and Medicine blog from Saint Joseph’s College of Maine
LIS 569 – A library science course blog at U. Wisconsin (Madison)
Rational rants – The technology and media blog of Mitch Ratcliffe (a journalist who apparently lurks on h-sci-med-tech)

The response by each is quite positive. Then again, the people who are blogging at all are probably more disposed to see Wikipedia in a positive light than the average historian.

Update: – The blog of Thad Parsons, a graduate student at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

Spring 2006 classes

Last week I finally got my course schedule figured out:

  • American Nationalism & American Culture – Michael Kammen
  • Science, Arms and the State – Peter Westwick
  • “The American Century”, 1941-1961 – Jean-Christophe Agnew

I’m also taking French for Reading, auditing a bioinformatics class and sitting in on Lloyd Ackert’s History of Ecology. Up until the middle of the week I was still hoping to take Advanced Topics in Macroevolution, the syllabus of which consisted of going through Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Being that I’m an historian of evolutionary biology, have audited a graduate-level evo course, and have a fairly broad science background in general, I figured this would be perfect for me, and Ole encouraged me to take it as a graded class instead of an audit. But the professor, who just returned from vacation and returned my messages on Monday, will not let me take it because I don’t have enough graded coursework as relevant background; she says it would be unfair to the other students (paleontology grad students) to let me in. I wrote her a caustic email about how, in fact, it was unfair to her students not to have me there. But only in my head.

But aside from driving to New Haven 4 days a week (probably 5 on weeks with job talks, like this week), this semester should be really good; the Westwick and Agnew courses are superb so far, and the Kammen course was awkward at first but is getting better. The department is now going to administer language tests internally, and I expect to be able to pass French at the end of this semester. The bioinformatics class (in the statistics department) has been really enjoyable so far; I forgot how fun math can be. And Lloyd’s class is really small (two undergrads, and me), so I get to show of my book learnin’ and have nice informal discussions with Lloyd twice a week about various historical topics related to the cycle of life.

The Wikipedia history of science project that I started is going really well; it’s up to 19 participants. I’ve decided to take advantage of my access to Yale, so I’m going to try to periodically find well-illustrated old science books that haven’t made their way to Beinecke yet, scan illustrations, and put them on Wikipedia. This week, I checked out Ernst Haeckel’s incredible Kunstformen der Natur (1899), a 13 inch folio with 100 full-page illustrations, many of them in color. I’ve scanned sea anemones, orchids, nepenthes, and ammonites so far.