Improving Wikipedia: University of Washington Grad Student Teri Kirby Talks About Adding Correct Information

Wikipedia has been taking steps recently to ensure the quality and veracity of information in its database. Part of this effort is a collaboration with the Association for Psychological Science called the Wikipedia Initiative. Learn.org spoke with Teri Kirby, a psychology grad student at the University of Washington, about contributing to articles on the free online encyclopedia.

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It's becoming common knowledge that Wikipedia isn't always the most reliable source of information. But the online encyclopedia has been making strides toward relevancy, notably through efforts to have academic experts and their students contribute to Wikipedia pages in their field. University of Washington graduate student Teri Kirby is one of the academics involved with the Association for Psychological Science's Wikipedia Initiative, so she has a firsthand view on the importance of this new development.

Learn.org: Can you describe your current academic status and tell us how you began working on Wikipedia?

Teri Kirby: I just completed my first year as a Ph.D. student in Social Psychology at the University of Washington. I am currently doing research on prejudice, stereotyping and social cognition. I began working on Wikipedia as a result of a class I took in the spring quarter called Implicit and Unconscious Cognition. The class was taught by my research advisor, Dr. Anthony Greenwald. In lieu of taking a final exam, we could opt to get involved in the APS (Association for Psychological Science) Wikipedia Initiative by writing a Wikipedia article on a topic relevant to the course.

Learn.org What is your involvement with the Wikipedia Initiative?

TK: As I chose to contribute to Wikipedia rather than take a final in my course, I ended up registering through the APS Initiative as a graduate student contributor. I have edited one article so far, but I intend to contribute to more articles in the future on topics in which I have some expertise as well as to rate the quality of current articles - this allows others to know that a particular article needs improvement.

Learn.org What kind of information are you adding to Wikipedia?

TK: So far, I have made substantial revisions to an article on the Implicit Association Test (IAT). My advisor was one of the creators of the test, so I do a great deal of research using this method. The IAT is a method used primarily in social psychology to measure the strength of associations between concepts. The IAT is probably best known as a test measuring implicit racial preference and stereotypes. As the method has become fairly well-known, even outside of the field, and has engendered some controversy, improving the article and trying to ensure that it presented a relatively unbiased perspective seemed to be a good place for me to start.

Learn.org What special skills did you have to learn, if any, to work on Wikipedia? Had you ever contributed anything to the site before?

TK: I had never previously contributed to the site. I primarily needed to become familiar with some of the basic code Wikipedia uses on its site as well as its general reference format. It was fairly straightforward to understand the process - the most important step was becoming familiar with conventions for editing articles (e.g., how to clearly label edits I was making, how to use appropriate headings within the article).

Learn.org Why do you think it's a good idea to get more experts involved with the information presented on the world's most popular online encyclopedia?

TK: First of all, it is important for experts to disseminate information about research in their field in a way that can be understood by non-specialists. If they cannot make this information understandable to a general audience, the research they do may only benefit a small minority of people.

Second of all, non-experts who contribute to articles may unknowingly misrepresent research. If experts can help to create and revise these articles, they will hopefully be able to represent them in a way that is relatively understandable but does not over-simplify to the point of misrepresenting.

Learn.org Not everyone who reads Wikipedia has the advanced science knowledge that you have. Are you trying to make sure the material you put on the site has a broad appeal?

TK: Yes, that is definitely the goal, although it is a difficult task to accomplish. Researchers are accustomed to using jargon from their field and get little practice explaining their work to a broad audience. Despite only being a year into my research training, I already struggle to write about my research in a way that does not use too much jargon.

I actually have plans to make further revisions to the IAT article I worked on in order to give it a broader appeal. To help with this issue, I tried to create links to other Wikipedia articles when I used a term that I thought might be difficult to understand.

Learn.org You work in a specialized area of the broader field of psychology. Are you making contributions to the general psychology page on Wikipedia? Do you think that experts should be concerned about what's on the broader pages for their academic fields, since more people are likely to visit those pages than pages for more advanced material?

TK: I have not yet made contributions to the general psychology page. However, I do think that it is important to do so. At this stage in my training, I would only feel comfortable contributing to more specific pages for which I feel I have adequate knowledge, but that may change in a few years. Professors in the field should definitely be concerned about this - they have generally taught classes on the broader topics so are well qualified to write about psychology in general.

Learn.org Has anyone edited anything you've contributed to the site? Is there a system in place for dealing with the possibility that any random non-expert with editing powers might alter the information you contribute?

TK: So far, the only edits have been automated ones meant to standardize formatting. The current system does not prevent others from altering my contributions. However, history logs are kept for each article, so if an article I edit is drastically changed in a problematic way, it would be easy to return to a previous version of the article. There are also discussion pages for articles, so contributors can discuss what they feel are inaccuracies or shortcomings of an article.

Learn.org How would you encourage other academics to get involved with adding accurate and reliable information to Wikipedia?

TK: If their field has a Wikipedia Initiative, that is a great way to get involved. The APS initiative has a system that indicates what articles are relevant to our field and it rates the quality of those articles. A psychologist can easily look through the articles and pick ones that need revisions that are in his or her area of expertise.

Learn.org What advice do you have for readers who are looking for scientific information on the Internet?

TK: Those who simply need general information can try looking at the information on Wikipedia but should pay close attention to the messages Wikipedia gives at the top of the article about its quality. For example, if a message says that the article lacks adequate references, readers should be careful about the information they take from the article.

If the article is well done, then it should have links and references at the bottom that will give more information about that topic. This will often tell readers what research articles the Wikipedia article cites. It is a great starting point to find out where you should be looking for the information you need.

Another way to ensure that you get reliable information from Wikipedia is to look at the history of an article by selecting 'view history' at the top of a page. You can then click on the user names of the people who have been editing the article. The users sometimes have information on their page that may give you clues about their knowledge base. For example, my user page indicates that I am a member of the APS Wikipedia Initiative.

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