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Working With Wikipedia

ACS Meeting News: Collaboration is key for chemists contributing to the online encyclopedia

by Matt Davenport
September 14, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 36

Jeannette E. Brown and John P. Sadowski at a Wikipedia edit-a-thon.
Credit: Matt Davenport/C&EN
Brown (left) and Sadowski work at the edit-a-thon in Boston. Attendees created or expanded more than a dozen Wikipedia articles.

Although many still browse Wikipedia with a skepticism stemming from the fact that anyone can edit its content, people routinely rely on the free online encyclopedia for information. Wikipedia was the seventh-most popular website on the Internet this summer, according to the Web data company Alexa Internet.

This is—at least in part—also because anyone can edit the website. Wikipedia represents more than just an encyclopedia. It comprises a community of editors and experts who collaborate to share reliable information freely with the public.

Several chemists who moonlight as Wikipedia editors and writers—also known as Wikipedians—came together last month at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston. They discussed how chemists can contribute to this community in sessions hosted by the Division of Chemical Information.

Learning to work with the Wikipedia community, which has its own rules and norms, often presents the greatest challenges to new editors. The speakers in Boston outlined resources available to newbies who want to learn the ways of Wikipedia, including education programs and group editing sessions called edit-a-thons—one of which was organized by the ACS Office of Public Affairs at the national meeting. Once editors have assimilated to the culture, they can contribute to Wikipedia’s chemistry content in countless ways.

Wikipedia’s core tenets are simple in theory, saidJohn P. Sadowski in his presentation before the edit-a-thon in Boston. Sadowski studies DNA nanotechnology and has made roughly 12,000 edits to Wikipedia.

One tenet simply states that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, while another reminds editors that, as an encyclopedia, the website’s content should be written from a neutral point of view. In other words, Wikipedia isn’t a platform for people to share their new thoughts or to advertise their work, Sadowski explained.

In practice, however, these broad rules can create challenges for newcomers, especially those accustomed to publishing their own original research.

Wikipedia links a wide range of subjects to chemistry, as evidenced by the most-edited chemistry-related pages, which overlap with pop culture and prominent social issues. SOURCE: Elsa Alvaro & Angel Yanguas-Gil
bar graph showing the most edited chemistry-related Wikipedia pages.
Wikipedia links a wide range of subjects to chemistry, as evidenced by the most-edited chemistry-related pages, which overlap with pop culture and prominent social issues. SOURCE: Elsa Alvaro & Angel Yanguas-Gil

C&EN found an example of this during the edit-a-thon while eavesdropping on a conversation between Sadowski and Jeannette E. Brown, an organic chemist and historian who wrote a book on the first African American women in chemistry.

Wikipedia is the perfect place for Brown to share her knowledge about these chemists’ lives and work. But she would have to avoid the perception that she was using Wikipedia to promote her book, otherwise editors could take issue with the content she posts, Sadowski said.

Industrial chemists face a similar dilemma. Any edits they make to articles about their employers could draw scrutiny under Wikipedia’s conflict-of-interest policy, Sadowski explained.

Obviously, Sadowski can’t provide hands-on help to everyone making their first contributions to Wikipedia. But he pointed out that many cities host edit-a-thons and meetups where people can talk with members of the Wikipedia community (visit to learn more).

And on college campuses, librarians can help bring students into the Wikipedian fold. More and more librarians are becoming versed in the operations of Wikipedia, said Ye Li, a chemistry librarian at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who helped organize a Wikipedia symposium in Boston.

“The academic community on campus needs a bridge to the online Wikipedia community,” she said, and librarians are certainly suited to provide that connection. Li became interested in contributing to the site when she heard a student of University of Michigan chemist Anne J. McNeil talk about a class project using Wikipedia several years ago at an ACS national meeting in San Francisco.

McNeil was teaching graduate-level organic chemistry to students from a variety of doctoral programs on campus. In an effort to get this diverse group excited about the subject, she challenged her students to create or edit Wikipedia pages on organic-chemistry-related topics from their field.

Not only did it work, but students learned about effectively communicating science without plagiarizing or violating copyright laws. They also quickly learned that they weren’t the only ones reading the pages.

“I didn’t realize there were so many people out there that would care about what they wrote,” McNeil said. “Now I joke with the students that this might be the most impactful work that they do in graduate school.”

Most of the interactions with existing editors have been positive, she added, but experts in the Wikipedia community have occasionally taken umbrage with a student editing their work. In the years since San Francisco, McNeil, Li, and their students have found that those problems can often be avoided by reaching out to the community beforehand and sharing information about the student projects.

Educators can also turn to the Wiki Education Foundation, an organization that runs independently of Wikipedia and staffs expert Wikipedia editors who can help teachers create and execute Wikipedia activities for students. Information is available on the foundation’s website, but spokesman Eryk Salvaggio told C&EN that interested instructors can reach out directly via e-mail, using the group’s address.

Infographic showing definitions of terms on a to-do list for the chemistry WikiProject.
Credit: Wikimedia/WikiProject Chemistry
New editors can contribute to Wikipedia in many ways, as shown in this list posted on the WikiProject Chemistry page. C&EN has clarified a few of the terms below.

Outside of organized editing events or university campuses, aspiring contributors can get started by browsing Wikipedia’s WikiProject pages.

These project pages are organized by small groups of editors trying to improve specific subsections of Wikipedia. Each project page has a talk section, or forum, where new editors can digitally introduce themselves before they tinker with any pages.

“If you just go to an article and delete everything, you’re likely to upset the people who worked hard on it,” said Martin A. Walker, a professor of chemistry at SUNY Potsdam, who helped Li organize the Boston symposium. A better approach is to first engage the community on the WikiProjects page to foster a spirit of collaboration from the get-go, he said. “And I’ve found the chemists there to be a friendly lot.”

The project pages also contain information about which Wikipedia entries the community thinks need the most work and how editors can improve them, from writing to copyediting to formatting (see “Much To Do” infographic).

But these entry lists are not exhaustive. More than 21,000 articles are connected to chemistry on Wikipedia, according to research conducted by Elsa Alvaro and Angel Yanguas-Gil of Northwestern University.

This broad definition includes topics that professional chemists could easily overlook, including famous chemists who aren’t famous for chemistry, such as Margaret Thatcher, and fictional characters fond of concocting potions or poisons.

These pages bridging chemistry and popular culture present terrific opportunities for chemists to interact with the public and enhance general chemical literacy, Alvaro said after a presentation in Boston.

“When a chemist takes a casual look at Wikipedia and they find something wrong, they can go ahead and fix it,” she said. Although that may not sound like it jibes with Walker’s advice, not every editing session needs to be premeditated.

One of Wikipedia’s editing guidelines is “Be bold,” or, as Walker puts it, “if something needs doing, do it.”

If a chemist sees an errant detail on Wikipedia, they can always fix it. According to Alvaro, “Even those tiny interactions are part of what make Wikipedia fantastic.”  


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