Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Let us discuss Wikipedia

I was going to write a post about a new word I learned at the March meeting (you will have to wait until next time to hear what it is!), but instead thought I'd talk about this afternoon's unnatural disaster. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but Wikipedia has died.

Well, not died...sorry, I hope you didn't freak out just then. Wikipedia just had its (their?) servers overheat and shut down for about 2 hours. It appears to be back up and running now.

I must admit, those two hour period was dark for me. It left me feeling like a kid who's playmate is sick and can't come outside. I just feel safer when it's here. I miss it...I just want it back!


My brain reaches out and brings me back to reality. Aren't I, a hard-nosed journalist, supposed to despise Wikipedia? I feel like I am constantly reminded not to develop this kind of relationship with it. Such a relationship is sinful. If I give in to the temptation I risk having a big W burned into my chest.

So even though Wikipedia is like a childhood playmate to me, I guess it's like having a playmate who is also a pathological liar. He can't help it, and I guess you shouldn't hate him for it. But you know - don't buy insurance from him.

In Buzz Skyline's post yesterday about cold fusion, a commenter took a swap at Buzz for linking to a Wikipedia article. Buzz came back in very respectful form and let him know that the Wiki article was the most convenient for linking, but that he, Buzz, had been covering this subject for years. His sources were legit.

I find Buzz's argument valid. In the blogging world, and particularly in the science blogging world, sometimes Wikipedia is the easiest way to point people to a quick and dirty definition. Or sometimes it's the only place to find a page that directly defines something or gives its history.

As a science writer, I frequent Wikipedia. Let me say up front, I never use Wikipedia as a primary source. But it is a great place to start; it's easy to click around to related topics; I can use it to set up a framework of the topic in my mind; if the post is cited, I can find other reliable places to look. And once again, in the science world, it is quite often the only place to start.

I can't tell you how many times I've Googled a term from a physics paper, and come back with nothing but a list of research papers that usually only mention the word (they don't define it), some group of obscure documents, and, if I'm lucky, at the top of the page is a Wikipedia entry; glowing like a neon sign in the desert. It's possible that there are text books at the science library that would hold a definition, but not necessarily at the level that I need. And then again, a lot of these terms are very new and may not be in a text book anywhere. And I'm really sorry, but I can't get over to the library for every assignment I do.

If I can find a Wikipedia entry about a scientific term, I read it. I don't make it my primary source. My internet research is almost always followed up by an interview or email conversation with a scientist, and I need to have some information to start with. Sometimes whatever I think I know about the topic is unhelpful. But usually, it makes the interview go smoother. It allows me to ask more advanced questions instead of spending time establishing the basic framework (although I usually run my understanding by them and we correct it as necessary). It's best when the scientist can give me a paper or other document that I can reference. Wikipedia is the beginning, and it's a beginning that I appreciate having.

For that reason, I wish more scientists would contribute to Wikipedia.

The general public might not have the strict research rules that I do. In fact, some journalists don't even abide by those rules. It's been shown that journalists will use Wikipedia as a primary source, even if that Wikipedia page does not have citations. Which sucks.

But everyone else uses Wikipedia whether you like it or not. And quite often, it's a great place to find information. It is in no way perfect, and incorrect or un-cited information on Wikipedia has sparked internet rumors about things that never had backing to begin with. But in many cases it is a good place to satisfy an information craving. So if the general public wants to become educated on a weird science term they heard about, I bet about half the time they find their way to Wikipedia. I bet undergraduates who, like me, can't find a new term in a text book, also find their way there. I know at least one science writer who would love to find more links in Wikipedia articles to relevant papers, articles and websites, and scientists are probably the best people to add those.

It might also be beneficial for the field. I am constantly amazed at how far apart physicists of different subdisciplines and specialties are growing. In general, we need to talk about these things. And even physicists studying generally the same thing may come up with different terms to describe the same thing. It happens. This could definitely cause confusion when people try to communicate, and Wikipedia might offer just one place to make people aware of the discrepancy.

On a more basic level, there is no direct translation book written about all of physics. It's a language that has a lot of variation between specialties. It's a language translated from another language (math) and a language that is constantly making up new, necessary words every day. When I finally get to talk with a scientist, we try to translate their particular science into (somewhat) plain English. Sometimes we can do it with great success and sometimes we can't.

I'm doing my part to build the dictionary of scientific terms, but the scientists are churning out words, experiments and results faster than all us science writers can write. It will always overwhelm us. If scientists can help out a little, then why not?

Wikipedia is hopelessly flawed, and while I do not think we should try to make it a primary source, we must recognize that a lot of people use it as a source of information. So why not build it up? Why not add your two cents, especially if you happen to be an expert on the topic?

Don't crucify the Wiki for its being what it is, even if it's not what you'd like it to be. Embrace the fact that even if it's never authoritative, it could still be great.

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