Geophysical Scientists Take Red Pencils to Wikipedia

By inviting its scientists to a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, the American Geophysical Union helped to boost the quality of the Earth and space science information available to the public.

You’ve heard of telethons, dance-a-thons, and hackathons. But edit-a-thons?

It’s an event that makes sense for a giant content repository like Wikipedia, which encourages groups of experts to collaborate to review and enhance the online encyclopedia’s content in their specialty areas. Last month, the American Geophysical Union got into the act.

We are willing to try and experiment with new things, and we are dedicated to getting science from the hands of researchers to the public.

AGU recently hosted an edit-a-thon to update and improve Wikipedia’s content on Earth and space science.

“There is a perception that Wikipedia is not reliable,” said Shane Hanlon, specialist at AGU’s Sharing Science program. “We want to shake that perception and provide accurate content on the website.”

The edit-a-thon was part of the Wikipedia Year of Science 2016, an initiative to improve scientific literacy through Wikipedia. Both AGU and the Wikipedia community have been working to make reliable scientific information more accessible to the public.

AGU seized the opportunity to partner with the site. “As an organization, we are willing to try and experiment with new things, and we are dedicated to getting science from the hands of researchers to the public,” Hanlon said. AGU works to give its scientists the skills and tools they need to promote their research widely—outside of scientific audiences.

To recruit participants for the edit-a-thon, AGU crowdsourced members through social media, and participants had varying degrees of experience editing Wikipedia. Together, they created some new articles and improved others.

“Participants worked on topics ranging from the legal definition of the Arctic to geoneutrino research,” said John Sadowski, who serves on the board of directors for Wikimedia District of Columbia, a regional outreach organization for Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation.

Wikipedia has been collaborating with other scientific societies on edit-a-thons as well.

“Science is not just about performing research; it’s about disseminating the knowledge gained, and not just in peer-reviewed journals,” said Sadowski. This collaboration helps “connect Wikipedia to subject-matter experts in various disciplines, including a broad range of backgrounds.”

Disseminating scientific information “to laypeople in a language they understand and in venues they can access” helps make these resources available to everyone, especially people who lack access to formal education, Sadowski said. “We want to remove the gatekeepers to information.”

AGU’s experience with last month’s event “set us up nicely to do this again,” Hanlon said, noting that the association is planning to hold another edit-a-thon at its annual meeting this fall. He added that the event required minimal planning.

“There was no risk out of doing this,” he said, “only reward.”

(Wikimedia commons)

Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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