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Wikimedia in Universities: an untapped potential



Nick Sheppard works across Research Support and Research Data services at the University of Leeds promoting open research to improve discoverability and transparency of research outputs including publications, data, software and code. In 2018 Nick was awarded a Data Management engagement award* to explore linking research data with the Wikimedia suite of tools. In this post Nick reports on the award and the broader potential of Wikimedia for research, teaching and learning.

* Award sponsored by Jisc, SPARC and the University of Cambridge.

A note on Wikimedia

Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is a ubiquitous resource and one of the most visited websites in the world. Perhaps less familiar are a range of related projects that together comprise a powerful information ecosystem. Wikimedia Commons, for example, is a repository of openly licensed media files for use in education, while Wikidata is a store of ‘structured data’ that is enabling a new generation of applications for education and reference.

“The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space…by writing something together [people] could iron out misunderstanding.” Tim Berniers Lee (2003)

At the FORCE11 conference in October I presented a paper Contributing to the global commons: Repositories and Wikimedia that traced my learning curve, ever steepening, from Wikimedia novice to, well, slightly less novice.

Spool back to May 2018 and my successful proposal to link Research Data Management with the open science movement via a series of editathons and I soon realised that the project would require a more strategic approach to Wikimedia as a whole. So in December 2018 a colleague and I visited the University of Edinburgh to take part in our very first editathon led by Wikimedian in Residence Ewan McAndrew and based on the Women in Red model that aims to redress the gender imbalance in biographies on the site.

Edinburgh is one of only three UK universities to employ a Wikimedian in Residence (WIR), the other two being Oxford and Coventry. A WIR is an experienced Wikimedia contributor who can advise on how the different Wikimedia platforms can contribute to research impact, educational assessment and, yes, information and digital literacy.

“Universities really can’t afford not to have a Wikimedian in Residence these days. It still surprises me how few do.” Melissa Highton, Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services, University of Edinburgh

In a supportive and collegiate environment Ewan led us through setting up an account, basic editing and the fundamental principles of Wikipedia, the importance of using reliable sources and presenting information in a neutral point of view for example. Then we were off. My colleague Kirstine used verifiable biographical sources to create a Wikipedia page for Issobell Young, accused of witchcraft in 16th Century Scotland, while I added information about Scottish suffragettes to Wikidata, used to import to the Women’s suffrage in Scotland timeline.

Every Wikipedia page has a corresponding item on Wikidata comprising ‘structured data’ such as dates of birth, death and location which has also been used to generate this fantastic interactive map of the places of residence of accused witches (can you find Issobell? Clue: she lived in East Barnes not far from Dunbar.)

Ewan has argued that working with Wikipedia provides students with an awareness of “how knowledge is created, curated and contested online” and Wikipedia is increasingly embedded across the curriculum at Edinburgh with Senior Honours students on the Reproductive Biomedicine programme, for example, undertaking a Wikipedia research assignment to “help address knowledge gaps and allow students a motivating opportunity to share their scholarship with the world for the common good”.

Ewan also organised a Skype call with Martin Poulter, his counterpart at the University of Oxford, who has done a lot of work using Wikidata as a platform to link open data about collections at the Bodleian Library and elsewhere.

By the time we returned to Leeds I had become an evangelist for the enormous inter-disciplinary potential of Wikimedia, not only for research but for teaching and learning.

An untapped potential?

A mere 3 universities with full strategic engagement with Wikimedia seems…underwhelming, though there are other examples of courses and individual academics using it. Teaching translation through editing Wikipedia at UCL for example. I’ve also had conversations with several colleagues here at Leeds who use Wikipedia in their teaching, Alaric Hall in a research methods workshop for instance, and Antonio Martínez-Arboleda on his Spanish module, where students critically appraise questions of style and framing in the Spanish Wikipedia entry for the Economy of Ecuador.

“”For God (sic) sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia”” Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia

I suspect that a big part of the issue might be a generally negative attitude to Wikipedia in academia. It is of course a tertiary source and undergraduates are, quite rightly, strongly discouraged from citing it in their work. In the current information environment, however, is it reasonable to expect them to avoid Wikipedia altogether? Better, surely, to empower them to engage critically, to contribute missing information, correct errors and cite reputable sources? More than that, I would argue that universities have a responsibility to ensure that Wikipedia is as accurate as possible.

Google will increasingly put information from Wikipedia at the top of its search results and don’t most of us, after all, use Wikipedia ourselves? Perhaps as a means to orient ourselves with a novel subject and follow links to cited research. Data from Crossref shows that Wikipedia is a major referrer of DOI resolutions and in a 2017 paper Thompson and Hanley demonstrated how it actually influences the language of academic research, suggesting that while academics might not cite the encyclopedia they are most definitely reading it in the course of their research.

Another issue is the steep learning curve associated with becoming a proficient editor. Like any platform, Wikipedia has its fair share of technical idiosyncrasies, though it is perhaps cultural issues that are more off putting for the novice user. When pages are swiftly removed for failing to meet ‘notability’ criteria for example, or edits are reversed by established editors who can act in many ways as ‘gatekeepers’. Relevant here is that Wikipedia editors are overwhelmingly skewed to a male demographic whose bias, unconscious or otherwise, surely contributes to the lack of female biographies on the site. As good a reason as any to encourage a more diverse user-base.

Wikipedia and Open Access

One of my own first editing experiences was to be flagged as spam when I added open access links to the White Rose Research Online repository (WRRO) for this article cited across multiple Wikipedia pages.

Given the broad audience for Wikipedia it is especially important that cited research is available open access and preliminary research across the White Rose Consortium indicates that approximately half of citations are behind a paywall (Tattersall et al, forthcoming). At the time of writing there are well over 500 links to records in WRRO and Wikipedia is a significant referrer to the repository.

Wikipedia articles can also be improved with figures or other openly licensed material from research data repositories or Special Collections which is of course the basic idea behind the award. It also highlights another huge potential benefit, not just interdisciplinary but inter-silo. Already at Leeds we have found that working with Wikimedia can bring together colleagues from across the Library, the University and the local community to develop interesting collaborations.

With the support of Richard Nevell from Wikimedia UK, for instance, we ran a couple of editathons of our own in October 2019, one that we led from the Library and one with Dr Melanie Bell centred on her research project Histories of Women in the British Film and Television Industries, 1933-89 that, in addition to staff members from the School of Media and Communication, included external colleagues from Leeds museums and the Hyde Park Picture House. We’ve even set up a page for people interested in Leeds’ cultural institutions to work together on Wikimedia projects.

What next?

With the support of experienced Wikimedians and from Wikimedia UK I’m certainly gaining in confidence and will continue to extol the benefits at my own institution and beyond, ideally to encourage more formal strategic engagement. I’m especially conscious that I need some formal deliverables from the award and must thank Lauren Cadwallader at Cambridge and Vanessa Proudman from SPARC for indulging my meandering over the last 18 months or so! We will be running more editathons in the New Year and I hope to build Wikimedia into our training offer as we explore an open research agenda here at Leeds and to work with specific research projects to leverage the various tools.

I’m also running a survey to try to understand why more universities aren’t yet engaging with Wikimedia and to begin considering what sort of resources might be useful to help universities and their libraries get started. Please consider contributing at the link below and sharing among your networks.

Wikimedia in Universities

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