Is Wikipedia Working Toward Academic Relevance?

Looking to settle a debate about whether a raccoon is a dog, a bear or a rodent? Want to find out where the latest scandalous Congressman went to college? Wikipedia's got you covered. If you're looking for less trivial information, though, the popular online encyclopedia isn't the best source out there. But thanks to some serious efforts to involve the academic community, Wikipedia could soon become a much more reliable source.

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Seeking Experts

In a previous article, we discussed the fact that Wikipedia isn't the best primary source for academic information. The main reason for this is the fact that anyone can edit a Wiki page to say anything, and though there are some controls in place to flag or remove inaccurate content, those controls aren't all encompassing. Mistakes slip through the cracks, and it's not wise to stake your academic performance on an unverified claim that may not be true.

Still, Wikipedia is a very popular source of information on the Internet, and the online encyclopedia's staff is well aware of the skeptical approach most academics take to information presented on the site. While some academics have informally been involved with the site, editing pages on their own time, a new effort is seeking to formalize and encourage expert academic contribution to entries in this digital information bank.

A 'Wikipedia Initiative'

One highly visible piece of evidence that gives support to the idea that Wikipedia is seeking academic relevance is the fact that the site is now working with the Association of Psychological Science (APS) to solicit contributions from academics in that field. The APS has started a 'Wikipedia Initiative' aimed at getting some of the society's 25,000 members to actively contribute to or edit Wikipedia pages in their area of expertise. The goal, according to the society, is 'to represent scientific psychology as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby to promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide.'

Because Wikipedia is such a popular source of information, the APS' Wikipedia Initiative has real potential to make a difference in the quality of information people receive about psychological science. In a field as technical and complex as psychology, input from well-educated experts is ultimately much more valuable than even the most well-researched information from armchair enthusiasts. And the APS isn't the only academic organization with an interest in using the world's most popular online dictionary to spread correct, reliable information. Universities are getting in the game as well, helping with Wikipedia's Public Policy Initiative.

A Shift in Relevance

The Public Policy Initiative started during the 2010-11 academic year, with the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates the Wikipedia empire, enlisting college professors to help lend relevance to encyclopedia entries in public policy-related fields. The discipline of public policy itself is many-faceted and engages multiple disciplines, from history and social sciences to law and hard sciences. Input from well-educated sources in this field is likely to cover a wide range of topics.

The interesting part of the Public Policy Initiative is that it's not the professors themselves who are developing content for Wiki pages, but students. Participating professors have made editing relevant entries part of their curriculums. The Wikimedia Foundation helps to ensure a standard format by training participating students. And the participating universities offer an impressive pedigree, with professors from the University of California at Berkeley, Syracuse, George Washington University and Harvard among those involved. If Wikipedia continues efforts like this to engage academic communities, its status as semi-reliable at best will certainly change.

It might take some time for experts to work out the problems in Wiki articles. Until they do, there's still a way to use Wikipedia as an academic source.

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