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Are You a Knowledge Philanthropist? If Not, Why Not?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“Knowledge philanthropist.” This is how Jack Herrick characterizes people who contribute to Wikipedia. The title is apt.

Herrick was speaking at last week’s equally aptly named international Wikimania. That’s the enthusiastic and passionate annual tribal gathering of people around Wikipedia, let loose this year on Washington DC.

Odds are, whether you’re a big fan or not, you benefit from the Wikipedia, at least sometimes. There are close to 500 million unique users a year.

Odds are, too, that you’ve seen gaps or problematic content in areas where you are knowledgeable. You may well have complained about it to others who share your expertise. But there are only around 80,000 people who go that next step and actually do something about it. I had never been one of them.*

Herrick estimates that these knowledge philanthropists collectively spend about 74 million hours this way every year. But while usage and quantity is increasing, the number of editors – people actually putting finger to keyboard to improve Wikipedia – is declining.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Executive Director, Sue Gardiner, only about 10% of editors are women. And only about 30% of the readers are female (gulp!).

Active and diverse contribution matters a lot, because of the critical nature – and potential – of this resource. Young people grow up with it now. Most junior doctors appear to be using it every week for medical information, and possibly half of all doctors use it at least sometimes.

Recently, evaluations of the quality of pages in cancer, mental health, and otolaryngology concluded that medical accuracy was on a par with medical textbooks (and as hard to read). That’s impressive.

On the other hand, textbooks and encyclopedias are the easiest place to find information – but not necessarily the best. Aiming for a higher standard would be good! The Wikipedia is also weaker in some subject areas than others.

The worst entries can be quite catastrophic – an article has to be truly egregious to be deleted. Those really bad entries are marked “stubs”, and they’re kind of begging for someone to come and do something. To see what this means, go to the WikiProjects page, pick one of the 2,000 topic areas you’ve got expertise in, and find the list of “stubs”.

So the ultimate crowd-sourced web resource needs more “crowd” – especially female, and especially with content expertise. And it needs translators and bi-lingual people to improve translations. There are over 280 language versions, which are relying heavily on translations to grow.

As if that’s not enough, the whole thing has to stay up-to-date – as well as absorb older material when copyright expires, freeing it up for inclusion. Those Wikipedians are basically never going to run out of stuff to do.

Yet according to Herrick, Wikipedia participation peaked in 2007. He thinks the small decline after that is because of the emergence of popular internet activities like Facebook from 2008. “Knowledge philanthropy” took a bit of a hit, as people headed off towards more enticing internet pastures.

Still, the community is thriving – and directing its considerable energy to figuring out how to sustain and build momentum. The whole Wikipedia “thing” is social internet time but with a valuable purpose at its heart. It’s collaborative and communal action, rather than purely individualistic expression. At its best, it’s idealistic, fun and intellectually stimulating. Although as with all community action, there will be some obsession and uncivility to contend with (or better yet, to ignore).

If you wonder whether an article is worth your time, go to the Wikipedia stats tool, enter the title of a Wikipedia page and see how many people are visiting that page. You could be blown away.

Find someone in your network who knows how to edit Wikipedia and get them to show you how to do it. Or go to the Wikipedia Teahouse and be prepared to take some time to learn how to do it. If you’ve had (or heard of) a frustrating experience, don’t let it put you off.

Jimmy Wales said at Wikimania: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” Quite. It’s up to all of us, isn’t it? At the very least, stepping up to fix some of those places tagged [citation needed] is worth doing. It’s going to require some persistence. But surely knowledge philanthropy is a habit worth forming.

* When Wikimania started, I had never edited Wikipedia content: but I have now.

Image: by the author at Statistically funny

Hilda Bastian About the Author: Hilda Bastian likes thinking about bias, uncertainty and how we come to know all sorts of thing. Her day job is making clinical effectiveness research accessible. And she explores the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology at her cartoon blog, Statistically Funny. Follow on Twitter @hildabast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. SacoHarry 9:41 am 07/18/2012

    Had no idea “Wikimania” even existed, but I love that it does! I’ve made contributions to Wikipedia in the past on things of interest — Roman Britain for one. Been a while though, might be a good time to look into it again.

    Link to this
  2. 2. leafwarbler 10:30 am 07/18/2012

    I’m intrigued by the skewed gender ratio among wikipedia readers? Why are women such a small % of readers? And how do they know the gender of readers anyway?

    Link to this
  3. 3. alan borky 10:37 am 07/18/2012

    Hilda I like the idea of ‘knowledge philanthropists’ – indeed I heartily approve of them – but Jack Herrick’s characterization misses the point 1) much of what we take for knowledge’s really only what we THINK we know and 2) many of the contributions are policed by parties with specific agendas to suppress or discredit information they’re personally hostile to viz the complete absence on Wikipedia’s Paracelsus page of the fact many people consider him the father of homeopathy or indeed the pulling of the originally included repudiation by Professor Ennis of supposedly subsequently failed versions of her own (originally succesful) homeopathy test employed the same methodology and materials.

    Don’t get me wrong I’m not a homeopathist (or whatever they’re called) but there’re innumerable examples of this sort of thing covering most topics on Wikipedia and what I require of my ‘knowledge philanthropists’ is they give everything that’s known not just the bits that suit their own particular world views.

    Link to this
  4. 4. HildaBast 2:36 pm 07/18/2012

    Gender: the data were from studies and surveys, as well as editors’ registered information, which were summarized in a presentation at the conference. Readership can also be skewed by the editors’ biases. Because entries are developed (and linked to) by people with interests, if there’s a dramatic skew in interests of the people developing the information, it would follow through. The example they used is more than 100 articles on Linux distributions, but little on fashion. You see it in health too: major causes of men’s deaths all covered, but postpartum hemorrhage (a major global cause of death of young women) is a “stub”.

    Alan, in terms of contributors’ bias, I think there are also innumerable examples where these things are held in excellent balance. 4 million articles in the English Wikipedia alone, so there is a lot of everything. The point you’re making is exactly why I believe that more people with content knowledge should be contributing. I’m a knowledge professional these days – it’s reasonable for me to get philanthropic with that knowledge with a bit of my leisure time. Even half an hour here and there is going to be time well spent. (And I’m now feeling a personal responsibility to start chipping away at that postpartum hemorrhage entry for a start!)

    Link to this
  5. 5. HildaBast 3:06 pm 07/18/2012

    Data correction: oops – turns out it’s 500 unique million users a month, not a year. Thanks for the correction, Wikipedia! http://reportcard.wmflabs.org/

    Link to this

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