Community payback for undergrads

Two acquaintances of mine, both teachers of one kind or another, tell me that they no longer feel comfortable steering students away from Wikipedia, because they can no longer maintain the prim pretence that they themselves aren’t consulting it on a daily basis.

I’ve long appreciated Wikipedia for its convenience; and been amused by its unforgivable mis-prioritisation. On the other hand, I’ve been irritated by the scrappiness of articles on concepts I’ve taught and saddened by the thoughtless pasting of its content into some of the essays I mark.

Unfortunately, a straw-poll of sixty students I was teaching recently turned up only one person who had contributed an edit of any kind. In 2011, Wikimedia estimated that only 6% of readers ever edit articles, and even this low figure is probably an overestimate, given that those who responded to the poll were the sort of helpful (but highly unrepresentative) people who respond to polls with something other than “send to trash”. The main reason cited for not editing was “happy to just read the articles”, but the other popular reasons were related to lack of confidence in how to edit, and lack of confidence in the ability to incorporate accurate information (“how to write”).

So, aside from the obvious barrier of actually caring enough to correct or write an article at all, there is a barrier to entry for that “Anyone” who wants to edit Wikipedia. Some potential editors find the wiki mark-up difficult: the days of students being on speaking terms with HTML entities are passing as surely as have the days of grues and 5¼ inch floppies. There is the worry that you’ll be treading on somebody’s toes if you edit that somebody’s favourite article. And, of course, there is the fear of releasing your fragile words upon the world, when that world is full of spiteful and joyless critics.

Brocchinia reducta, Hampton Court flower show 2003 [cc-by-sa-3.0 Steve Cook]

The first substantial thing I contributed to Wikipedia was a blurry image of a carnivorous bromeliad. It’s still there.

Having made a tiny contribution to the carnivorous plant Wikiproject many years ago, I thought I could design a decent workshop on Wikipedia-editing as part of an undergraduate course I was involved with this year. Students are well-practised at navigating and summarising primary literature in essays, and must have come across unhelpful articles frequently, so I focussed the workshop principally on “how to edit” rather than “how to write”, although we did cover the importance of pitching the explanation at a suitable level for a general science audience.


It’s important that potential contributors know the basics of what Wikipedia is, and its core principles: No Original Research, Neutral Point of View, Verifiability, Free Content, etc. In retrospect, I needed to make it clearer what NOR meant, as some misinterpreted this as “you can’t use primary literature” rather than “you shouldn’t include concepts/data not published elsewhere”.

Licensing of text, and particularly of images, is rather fiddly. GFDL, and CC-BY-SA-3.0, and Fair Use, and Lions and Tigers and Bears Oh My, tend to obscure the basic premise: “that which you upload should be your own work, and once you upload it, people can do whatever they like with it as long as they credit you”. The sourcing of free images to illustrate articles can be difficult, but it’s generally not difficult to create simple vector diagrams with e.g. Inkscape. I think it is worth spending more time on this than I did, as a good image is worth a substantial amount of text, even if that text should still end up as an alt tag for screen-reader accessibility.


The “Edit” tab does come with WYSIWYG-ish buttons, but using the mark-up directly is important for all but very simple edits. To help the students with this, I asked them to reproduce a simple page on an ex-wood-preservative, using a crib-sheet of the syntax for headings, italics, lists, images, etc.

Referencing syntax became much less vile at about the time I was involved in the carnivorous plant pages:

  Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia<ref name="Goldstein1984">
  {{Cite journal | author=Goldstein E | title=The theory and practice of oligarchical
  collectivism | journal=[[Journal of the Brotherhood]] | volume=1 | year=1984 |
  pages=1-666 |  doi=mini.luv/eablair.1949 }}</ref>

This makes “Verifiability” a (relative) breeze. Crossref is useful to find DOIs for papers that lack them. The only common question about the syntax I received was how to use the same reference twice. Several students worked out how to include tables, cladograms, protein infoboxes, embedded video, etc., by modifying the mark-up from pages that had them already, which is the sort of copy-and-paste from Wikipedia I can actually approve of!


The articles edited by the students were:

Some articles started out as stubs, others were more complete before the editing took place. For a workshop done for course-credit, stubs are a simpler thing to assess, as the contribution is obvious. However, some stubs are stubs for the obvious reason that there’s precious little that you can say (let alone verify) about the topic, so allowing participants to edit more complete articles is sensible. It’s easy enough to use the diff to see what has been added and removed, providing the majority of the edit is committed as one big chunk (having been prepared in the participant’s sandbox).

If you think any of the improved articles are in need of further improvement, then you know what you can do.


There are plenty of dodgy, incomplete and missing articles on Wikipedia, and it would be great to get students involved in editing articles much earlier in their careers. I’m going to offer a similar workshop to some first-year students in the summer term, and I provide my slides for your CC-BY-SA-3.0 delight.


1 pings

  1. NB: This post was from 2012, and things have moved on. In particular, the WYSIWYG editor and handling of references through DOIs is now much more robust. The epistasis article is also rather better. I now allow students to edit non-stub articles, which – in theory – allows them to contribute to articles of more general interest than those of obscure species and proteins.

  1. […] Community payback for undergraduates by Dr Steve Cook […]

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