Wikipedia? You may be thinking that this would be a great way to bump up your ratings in a Google search, and you would be correct. A Wikipedia page is typically ranked in one of the top five sites returned in a routine search. Officially launched in 2001, Wikipedia averages 460 million visits per month and has an international audience for its 27.8 million articles in 286 languages.1 Recent surveys have ranked the online encyclopedia as the seventh most popular website in the world, receiving 85 million unique visitors per month from the United States alone.2, 3, 4 The popularity of Wikipedia has especially gained the interest of educators and professional societies, who feel responsible for monitoring and enhancing articles on topics specific to their discipline.Now that you have an established research career with a good number of publications under your belt, should you have a professional profile on
Who Should Have a Wikipedia Profile?
There will always be controversy about when a person's life and accomplishments should be added to the "official historic record" and appear in textbooks or other references. Historically, a scientist may not receive recognition until after his or her death, but should that continue to be the standard? Online culture has enhanced our ability to recognize individual accomplishments. Scientific achievement can be visualized as more than just a list of publications and is now expressed through dynamic websites, online videos, webinars, and podcasts, to name just a few venues. This freedom of expression has made it even more complicated to determine. There will always be controversy about when a person's life and accomplishments should be added to the "official historic record" and appear in textbooks or other references. Historically, a scientist may not receive recognition until after his or her death, but should that continue to be the standard? Online culture has enhanced our ability to recognize individual accomplishments. Scientific achievement can be visualized as more than just a list of publications and is now expressed through dynamic websites, online videos, webinars, and podcasts, to name just a few venues. This freedom of expression has made it even more complicated to determine whether an individual has achieved enough to be worthy of recognition. Are you good enough to have a Wikipedia profile?
Because Wikipedia is one of the first places that people look for information, there is increasing concern about who is not included. For example, as part of a reaction to the underrepresentation of women scientists in Wikipedia, in 2012 the Royal Society hosted a group "edit-athon" aimed at improving Wikipedia articles about women in science. Volunteers were asked to review, edit, or create sections that highlighted the scientific contributions of women.5 Efforts like these continued this year with an edit-a-thon hosted on October 15 at Brown University.6
These and related events have created a heightened interest on the part of those in academia and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions to create a Wikipedia profile page to certify their expertise within the community. It is not uncommon to find cell biology students who have created Wikipedia pages for their mentors as well as profiles of their favorite scientists. There has been such a rush of interest in self-promotion through Wikipedia that companies such as Wiki-PR.com and mywikipro.com will write, update, or translate your profile for as little as $300.7 However, spokespeople from Wikipedia strongly recommend that you not use such services and that you pay close attention to the Wikipedia guidelines, specifically that Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, not a forum for advertising or self-promotion.
If you do decide to create a profile for yourself, improve the representation of historic scientists, or acknowledge the contributions of recent scholars, there are some good tutorials available to assist you.8 In addition to what is available on the Wikipedia site there are other websites and YouTube videos that will easily walk you through the process.
Here are a few key points to ask yourself before committing to the many hours of work it takes to create a profile or any other Wikipedia article: Is the subject worthy of an encyclopedia article; is it notable (will anyone want to read about the subject)?; and is it verifiable (is the content referenced elsewhere)?
The Disadvantages of Having a Wikipedia Profile
Why might having a personal Wikipedia page be a bad thing? Because Wikipedia is an open forum and you cannot control the content. Just because you feel you are the leading authority on a particular topic does not mean that others feel the same way. It may take a few months to put together the perfect profile, but it can be destroyed in minutes by one negative comment. If this does not sound so bad then think about the effect popular media has had on celebrities' images. Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods are two of the world's most talented and best known athletes, but due to some negative publicity many will remember them foremost for exploits in their social lives.
All content written for Wikipedia must be in neutral format, which includes the good and bad, and because they fall under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 and FNU Free Documentation license, "any contribution, including public page comments, can be freely copied, modified, deleted, reproduced, altered and quoted by third parties for both commercial and non-commercial use with the sole requirement that these contributions be properly attributed to their author on Wikipedia."9 So what does this mean to you? Basically, once your profile goes live, it's open game. There have been instances where inaccurate or misleading changes have been made to selected Wikipedia profiles, such as that of an eminent woman scientist who has been outspoken about the challenges to women's success in science. However, malicious edits such as these have become less common due to changes in the editing process whereby suggested changes are reviewed before being uploaded and anonymous edits are rejected.
How do you go about damage control if someone creates a flawed profile about you? Because Wikipedia has an open source format, once negative or incorrect information is posted, requests for edits or deletion are granted only when a reliable source of information that disputes the posted material is presented. In addition, if a site appears to be self-promoting or commercial it will be blocked. But once items become vandalized, edited, or blocked there are still online locations where the information is held and is accessible through Google searches, so it never really goes away. There have been documented stories of individuals who have suffered personal attacks and defamation leading to requests that pages be deleted.10
What Else Should Be Published on Wikipedia?
Wikipedia has been around for 12 years and is intended to be a repository for the world's knowledge in one location that is freely accessible by anyone. For many years educators have questioned the accuracy of its content and whether students should be allowed to use this resource for their research.11, 12 A study described in Nature in December 2005 compared the content of Wikipedia to the same topic areas in Encyclopedia Britannica and found that they had a similar level of accuracy.13
Although there are still many instructors who do not allow their students to use Wikipedia, it is a resource that is not going away soon. Due to its wide usage by students, some educators have chosen to correct poorly written entries. Similarly, many professional societies have decided to adopt portions of the relevant site(s) and to become editors of specified content. In 2009 the Society for Neuroscience launched an initiative to improve and expand the areas in Wikipedia that contain neuroscience content. It was seen as an opportunity to share and broaden understanding and knowledge of neurobiology. In addition to adding material, various committees were assigned to specific areas and asked to watch over the content to ensure its accuracy. Other groups such as the American Physiological Society took a different approach and created their own wiki-space to house information related to physiology. Some organizations, such as the American Chemical Society and the Microscopy Society of America, are developing new strategies to review and update scientific content within their areas of expertise. Their idea is that you may not be allowed to self-promote or use the venue for commercial gain, but you can promote knowledge.
Although there remain issues in regards to gender balance and accuracy, a larger concern for the cell biology community is how well cell biology and its investigators, both women and men, are represented in Wikipedia. ASCB members are encouraged to visit the website and review areas that fall within their expertise. What content already exists, where are the problems, what needs to be added, what needs to be fixed? You are the experts in the field of cell biology and it is up to you to make sure the field is represented well to the online community.
Take Home Message
Some scientists feel that it is worthwhile to create a personal profile on Wikipedia. Although there is some risk, the commercial editing organizations argue that it just takes a well-written piece and routine maintenance to avoid any problems.14 The decision is up to you, but if the ultimate goal is the dissemination of knowledge, consider spending your time upgrading and maintaining articles in your area of expertise and letting your contribution to science speak for itself.
11School officials unite in banning Wikipedia. The Seattle Times.
12A stand against Wikipedia. Inside Higher ED.
13Giles J. (2005). Special report: Internet encyclopedias go head to head. Nature 438, 900–901.
14I get paid to edit Wikipedia for leading companies. Business Insider.