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Engaging Undergrads with Wikipedia

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

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Longtime science blog readers will certainly remember the popular cognitive psychology blog Cognitive Daily, written by Greta and Dave Munger, that had a fantastic five-year run at Scienceblogs. While Dave is still involved in the science blogging community through projects like Research Blogging and Science Seeker, and of course writing his own blogs, Greta has been pushing forward with online science communication in a slightly different way: working with her undergraduate psychology students at Davidson College in updating and improving psychology-related entries on Wikipedia.

Greta’s project is part of a larger effort spearheaded by the Association for Psychological Science, called the APS Wikipedia Initiative:

APS is calling on its Members to support the Association’s mission to deploy the power of Wikipedia to represent scientific psychology as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby to promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide.

All APS Members are encouraged to participate by adding new entries and enhancing existing ones with more complete and accurate information with references. This is an especially exciting initiative for teachers and students who can make updating or creating Wikipedia entries part of coursework.

I spoke with Greta about this project recently:

Why did you decide to include this somewhat unconventional assignment in your class? What might this sort of assignment offer for your students that is different from more standard papers or presentations?

I’ve always had students in my 200-level lecture course write research papers on a topic of their choice as a way to introduce reading journal articles and writing literature reviews. It also introduces them to the search tools in our library. When I read about the APSWI challenge to have students help correct Wikipedia, I thought it sounded like a really neat idea at many levels: taking some responsibility for how research psychology is represented; having a project the students might get more excited about; and having a chance to tap into the service and leadership part that is so important to Davidson College’s tradition. In order to write a good Wikipedia article, the students need the same reading and research skills that my older assignment was designed to teach them, with the advantage of also contributing to the public good.

In a way, this project seems to allow you to teach concepts in psychology to your students, while simultaneously teaching them to communicate science effectively to non-expert audiences. Was this intentional? Do you think it’s been effective?

I’m not actually talking much about communicating science to non-experts with the class, though obviously that’s part of what they are doing. I have made that an explicit topic in upper level seminars, but at the 200-level I’m focused on getting them to understand the science. Being able to write clearly about it is helping them learn the science. Writing for Wikipedia has made these students more aware of audience than previous classes, and I think that’s a very good thing.

I think a great seminar project would be for a class to tackle one of the bigger articles (like “mental rotation” or “attention”) and really make it shine.

Is it important to teach undergrad psych majors to communicate science?

Yes, I think it is, but in the past I’ve waited to have those conversations and projects with more advanced majors. My seminar last fall did a blog, and we registered with Research Blogging; a couple entries even got Editor’s Selection. My seminar students loved writing for the blog, which encouraged me to try the Wikipedia assignment. Both assignments highlight how hard it is to write with clarity about complicated and interesting science, and that there is an interested lay audience.

I know that APS has been pushing the improvement of psychology-related articles on Wikipedia. Did you get any help or guidance from them as you were planning this course? Have the people at Wikipedia been helpful? Do they even know that you’ve incorporated Wikipedia into your syllabus? What resources are there for college instructors who might wish to include this sort of project in their own courses in the future?

Yes and yes, I’ve gotten help both from the APS Portal and from the Wikipedia Ambassadors Program. I’ve just started using the APS Portal which has some neat ways students can review each other’s work: it can highlight what an individual student has edited on the Wikipedia article, and then you can comment. The comments are kept within the class, so their peer commentary isn’t totally public (unlike their Wikipedia edits).

I got a great Online Ambassador from Wikipedia, who helps over email, and keeps inviting me to the live chat, but I’m more email oriented. And, Wikipedia has a course page wizard that sets up all kinds of resources for the students (you can edit it to suit your class). Here’s the link to mine:

The best advice I got was that I should try to write a Wikipedia article, and nominate it for “Did you know…” and “Good Article” status. I wrote an entry about the particular task I’ve been studying for years, and was on the front page under the “Did you know…” – the section that highlights new content. Writing the article really helped me think through how this writing task was similar and different from academic writing, with the big realization that writing for Wikipedia would help students develop the reading and research skills that I wanted. And, I really love the way this project presents an opportunity for students to almost immediately use their education to contribute to the public good.

Would you repeat this experiment again next semester or next year? What might you do differently? Would you recommend that other psychology course instructors implement versions of this project?

Yes, definitely with this class. I’m thinking about ways to include Wikipedia in other classes, too, but it won’t be the same assignment in every class. For Psy 101 it might be adding just one or two references (so they would have to read one or two journal articles), but for a seminar we might tackle one of the larger existing articles.

What has the student feedback been? Have they enjoyed this experience?

Students have been excited from the very first day I described the project. Many, many students have told me they particularly appreciate that their work will be read by more than “just the professor.”

And now, a request to your readers: Please take a look at the articles my students are editing and let them know what you think on the articles’ “Discussion” tab. They, and other editors, will use these comments to make things even better.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia pages that Greta’s students have contributed to.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

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

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  1. 1. thekohser 5:50 pm 11/21/2011

    Wow, Professor Munger makes Wikipedia sound perfect. I wonder if there are any flaws in her class project to participate in Wikipedia? I wonder if there are any disappointments or setbacks regarding the content, whether we will ever hear about it in Scientific American? Because, I read elsewhere that there are a number of critically-important flaws in the Wikipedia system. Munger hasn’t encountered a one of them, it seems.

    Link to this
  2. 2. davemunger 9:03 am 11/23/2011

    One of the big problems with Wikipedia is that experts in various fields of studies have not embraced it. Thus it falls to amateurs to write about fields in which they have little expertise. The APS project is an attempt to remedy part of that problem by inviting experts in psychology to improve or supervise improvements to the psychology content of Wikipedia. Like it or not, millions of people rely on Wikipedia as their first source of information on a novel topic. The APS is acknowledging that and attempting, at least for psychology content, to make that first source more reliable. Is it perfect? Of course not. But the answer is not to say “there are a number of flaws,” but in fact to identify those flaws and try to address them.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Ajility 9:15 am 12/6/2011

    But Wikipedia is inherently flawed and it likely always will be. One can contribute a fantastic article and then see it butchered if not manipulated and distorted—and there is no guarantee you will be able to retain any say on it even if you are the contributor. On the other hand if making your contribution as widely available and without limitation is the goal and entire point, Wikipedia copyright is CC by-SA (one must still credit Wikipedia) not the even more universal and less strings attached Public Domain.

    Wikipedia is a self-promotional middleman. Supporting Wikipedia takes resources away from other more reputable sources that are more likely to give back directly to the field. Other information sources are suffering yet this flawed source is being supported. I wonder for example why the above described project couldn’t be done in partnership with Encyclopedia Brittanica with the stipulation it be offered for free. Encyclopedia Brittanica is for profit true but at least it is known for paying expert researchers for their contributions.

    What does Wikipedia really offer? Wikipedia’s competitive advantage is simple: search engine optimization. When a reputable science or information site is able to dislodge Wikipedia from the top of so many search engine result pages on Google, then this problem will be addressed properly. But the initiative described above will prolong the coming of that day and is a sellout to the current hierarchy of the internet.

    Link to this
  4. 4. smallm 6:48 pm 12/6/2011

    @Ajility, Your suggestion that “Wikipedia is inherently flawed and it likely always will be” is unsubstantiated.

    Wikipedia may be edited by anyone and as such, its articles may be created by anyone. (There are certain restrictions, but you may voice your opinions/concerns for all articles on the relevant talk pages). If, as in your example, an excellent article is deleted, you are welcome to recreate it elsewhere on the internet. It is unusual to have, as you describe “an excellent article” butchered. To the contrary, articles on Wikipedia are constantly improving. If you believe otherwise, you are welcome to correct errors provided your contribution is neutral and verifiable.

    The fact that Wikipedia is licensed under CC-BY-SA is hardly an impediment to its use. This license simply requires that Wikipedia be attributed where used, it does not require licensing fees as Britannica does. (You should be aware that a number of editors release their contributions under a public domain license.)

    Wikipedia is ranked highly in search engines because it fulfills the needs of the searcher. Wikipedia does not pay to be highly ranked, it is highly ranked because of its content, which is freely accessible.

    The APS initiative is not a sellout a “sellout to the current hierarchy of the internet” and to describe it as a such is absurd. The initiative seeks to rectify coverage and credibility concerns by having professional psychologists participate.

    While you may believe your comment to laudable, it is nothing more than a flagrant display of your ignorance.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Ajility 12:01 am 12/10/2011

    @smalllm, I don’t think you are aware of the subtleties of the situation at Wikipedia so let me educate you.

    Anyone can edit but who is motivated? What are the incentives?

    An altruistic number of people may be duped into contributing to the cause by working on articles. But article creation is a time-consuming process, and for a quality article, requires skill. Most skilled people have a job that takes away time. Also when an article is finished the enthusiasm generally diminishes and one moves on to something else possibly non-Wikipedia related.

    But not everyone is altruistic. There are a number of people who like to go on Wikipedia just for the gratification of imposing their judgment on the work of others to boost their frail egos. These people go from article to article and “edit” (i.e. delete) what they don’t like or just to have something to do. This takes up no time at all in comparison to building up an article and requires little expertise. Also when finished with the task they are motivated to do more of the same.

    In an argument, the group with lots of time, low skill level, destructive bent and propensity to move around is bound to win out because they are able to gang up on their hapless victims. The Wikipedia system is rigged to favor this outcome. This of course ticks off the real contributors who no longer contribute, which only tilts the balance further in favor of the parasites.

    That Wikipedia has still grown is because of fresh bodies unaware of this setup and the atrocious way in which contributors are treated. When the fresh bodies run out, the atrophy will set in.

    Anyone who wants to make information available is better off writing their own article and putting it on his/her own website. You can place ads and make money from it or make it public domain—whatever you want because you have control. Any questions?

    Link to this

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