How can we develop Wikipedia articles that we can trust?

Information share and quality education are core prerequisites for a global prosperous future. However, much of the world that needs these commodities cannot afford them. Over the past sixteen years, Wikipedia has served to educate and share information. Unfortunately, its role in the world education is still rarely acknowledged by the academic community. In this short article, I simply discuss my view on the issue and propose a way to improve it.

The question why largest encyclopedia ever created – Wikipedia remains an unreliable and little respected (but useful) information source for scientists has been bothering me for quite some time. To have a direct insight into the Wikipedia project, I registered an account and started to edit an article on an inorganic compound that is in the reach of my expertise. Less than an hour later, my mind was struggling with two questions: Why I am wasting my time with this, it does not help my scientific career in any way. Also, who is this “FootSmoker”* and what are his credentials to edit chemistry articles?

So why academics do not trust Wikipedia? It is obvious, everyone being expert or non-expert can edit. Normally most editors use aliases and therefore cannot be held responsible for the reliability of their edits. The internal “peer-review” method through discussions helps to improve the reliability of the updated articles, however, the lack “real names” of well-established experts makes it difficult the articles to be taken seriously. This is very different from the typical scientific publishing tradition, where articles submitted by scientists are peer-reviewed by other experts in the field. For any mistakes and misconducts, the authors of the original publication are held responsible.

To me, the original idea of Wikipedia to serve as a platform to provide free information globally is excellent. I am also aware of that many actual scientists directly support Wikipedia through article editing. However, the lack of transparency on who edits the articles makes it difficult if ever Wikipedia to be accepted as a reliable academic source.

To me, it seems that simply embedding the model of Wikipedia in an already existing researcher network platform can provide a new pathway for having free but reliable encyclopedia articles. Academia.edu and Researchgate.net are well-known research network platforms and they host many profiles of scientists with confirmed institutional addresses.

As a member and frequent user of Researchgate, I believe that this platform can afford in near future a possibility for generation of encyclopedic articles. At the moment, on researchgate.net users can already publish original electronic articles (e.g. posters, reports and so on) which obtain a DOI that can be cited in a later work.

So how this “Wikipedia embedding” can work?

  1. Top leaders in a particular research field or problematics generate an original edit on an encyclopedic article. They also serve to guide the development of the article.
  2. Competent researchers in the field suggest and add corrections and frequently “peer-review” the working edition.
  3. When a wide consensus is reached, the article with its improvements is concluded and published as a “stable” version that is equivalent to a scientific paper. All contributors to the “stable” article version become coauthors.
  4. The public has an access to the final version but also to the “peer-review” process.

This approach can help the public obtain quality and reliable encyclopedic articles freely. At this moment I can also foresee two other indications for the success of the approach:

  1. Motivation: Editing encyclopedic articles will be acknowledged with authorship which with time it will also bring citations to the authors. This is highly important for the career especially to young scientists.
  2. Collaboration: As more researchers are involved in providing contributions, full scientific communities will have to make consensus on particular issues and stand behind the articles. This can make the encyclopedic articles “golden standards” in the scientific literature. As more authors collaborate, it also reduces the urge for some scientists to generate competing reviews.

Can such idea ever be realized? To me, it seems sustainable as many may benefit in the process. What are your views? Feel free to leave a comment?

Picture2

Scheme depicting the the Wikipedia model (left), the online platform for researchers (right) and the embedded Wiki model (middle). The information share is depicted by arrows, while the circles with same colors represent editors with similar expertise background.

*”Footsmoker” is an invented name by me. It is not intended to offend anyone, just to expose the ridiculousness of some user name accounts  currently operating on Wikipedia.

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