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AAAS Hosts Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

AAAS member Dr. Meyer Katzper (left), a researcher, modeler and analyst for Simulation for Informative Analysis, and Mary Mark Ockerbloom, the Wikipedian in Residence at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, look over a Wikipedia article during one of four Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon sessions at the 2016 Annual Meeting. | Drew Costley

Scientists and Wikipedian wordsmiths teamed up at the recent Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. to bridge the knowledge gaps that exist on the free encyclopedia in four Wikipedia "Edit-a-Thons."

Articles about the Zika virus, gravitational waves, biology, entomology, statistics, and winners of AAAS awards, were some of the more than 60 articles edited at the events held as part of Wikipedia's Year of Science. Within a week of the first Edit-a-Thon, edited pages had been viewed nearly 1 million times.

Event organizers say page views were definitely influenced by news of the Zika virus and the recent detection of gravitational waves, but that wasn't the top priority of the Edit-a-Thons.

"It's certainly clear that when someone learns about a scientific term they hear in the public, they go and look it up. And almost always the first [search] return will be a Wikipedia article. It is where everybody goes to learn a little more about a specific scientific term," said Greg Boustead, program manager for education and outreach at the Simons Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing research in mathematics and the basic sciences.

"We can bemoan the accuracy of that content, as many people do, or we can work together to make it better. And I think that we as scientists, we as science communicators, have an obligation to the public to make sure that science on Wikipedia is as accurate as possible."

With that mission in mind, the Simons Foundation and the Wiki Education Foundation partnered to organize the Edit-a-Thons. The role that Wikipedia plays in science education has changed drastically. Whereas college professors were skeptical of Wikipedia in its nascent years and forbade students from using it as a research tool, some college professors now have students playing an active role in growing the knowledge base of Wikipedia through their own research.

Jami Mathewson, education partnerships manager for the Wiki Education Foundation, says, "Students are researching already in the classroom. They are already writing, but instead of writing a term paper, which then gets thrown away, they actually create new content for Wikipedia. ... In doing so, [they] actually get to close those content gaps so that the 500 million unique readers every month can access it."

The final Edit-a-Thon session at the AAAS annual meeting was devoted to diversity. While talking to AAAS MemberCentral, Boustead pulled up a list of American scientists on Wikipedia to highlight the lack of representation of women and minorities in the website's science content.

"The joke I made earlier is that if I was an alien just looking at this and trying to learn about American scientists, I would conclude from this list that about one in every 100 noteworthy scientists are women and that's not accurate," Boustead said.

According to Boustead, the lack of representation in Wikipedia's science sphere is due to the typical Wikipedian, someone who writes content for the site, being male and ranging between mid 20s and mid 40s in age. He said that only around 8 percent of Wikipedians are women or African-American.

"So when [I] decided to this and take this on, it [wasn't] just about accuracy," Boustead said. "Can we get a more balanced representation? And so far I think we've made a little bit of impact."

Peter Meyer, a board member of Wikimedia D.C., showed off the new Wikipedia page for Jean Maria Arrigo, the recipient of the AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility at the 2016 Annual Meeting. The Wikipedia page about her is just one of several new articles created at the Edit-a-Thons.

Daniel Mietchen, a biophysicist at the National Institutes of Health and Wikipedian since 2002, spoke at the beginning of the edit session. He said that oftentimes scientists need other Wikipedians to "translate" their substantive contributions to Wikipedia for a mass audience.

"They can inject their expertise and don't have to be afraid [whether or not] it will be fully understood as long it's understandable to those people who try to wordsmith. They can translate content from expert English to normal English that people can understand and we need all these different kinds of contributors," Mietchen said.