If you want impact, why aren’t you writing for Wikipedia?

Universities must ensure that academics who contribute to the vast online encyclopedia are given the credit they deserve, says Piotr Konieczny

March 19, 2021
Wikipedia website
Source: iStock

Why did you become an academic?

This question is often answered with idealistic references to making the world a better place by contributing to science’s grand endeavour. Yet as the digital era gathers pace, there is a growing dissonance between what we are doing and what we could be doing when it comes to educating the public.

That dissonance is particularly audible in academia’s peculiar attitude towards Wikipedia. In the early 2000s, it was understandable that many of us were sceptical of what we saw as an amateurish website whose primary purpose appeared to be to provide lazy students with poorly written content to plagiarise. However, several studies from the past decade have shown that the quality of this vast, free resource is comparable to that of traditional encyclopedias.

Moreover, academics themselves have gradually warmed to Wikipedia. Many use it themselves, and some require their students to contribute to it as part of their coursework. Yet the frequent calls for academics themselves to contribute entries – including by several professional associations – rarely translate into action. A quick survey of Wikipedia’s academic-focused discussion and coordination forums, known as WikiProjects (such as WikiProject Sociology or WikiProject Physics), reveals the sad truth: even the most active ones have an active membership of, at most, a dozen professional scholars. That is a fraction of what can be found on any mediocre listserv.

When I ask my colleagues why they don’t get involved with Wikipedia, I no longer hear the excuse that it could hurt their reputations. The typical answer, instead, is: “Wonderful idea, but I have no time. I need to write another paper/book”. But this sense of what ought to be prioritised is misguided. Wikipedia entries appear in the top results returned by virtually any respectable search engine. It has millions of readers. There is no greater direct contribution to disseminating human knowledge that an academic could make than to lend it their expertise. And yet even academics who recognise that fact do not alter their behaviour.

The reason, of course, is that they are given no credit for Wikipedia work by university management. In the deluge of emails about various university initiatives that I scan through every day, for instance, the word “Wikipedia” is curiously absent – and anecdotal evidence makes me reasonably certain that my experience is not exceptional. It just isn’t on managers’ horizon.

Nor are academics rewarded for reaching out to the general public in comparable ways, such as writing newspaper articles. Apart from teaching, professional credit – and the pay rises and promotions that come with it – still derives almost exclusively from publishing academic articles – despite their vastly lower impact on the public.

What is particularly strange is that contributing to an academic reference work generally receives as much credit as publishing a book chapter – unless the reference work is Wikipedia. It boggles my mind that if I write an article for the Traditional Publisher’s Encyclopedia of Specialised Knowledge, with its hard paywall, poor search engine optimisation and double-digit annual readership, I will receive career points and financial benefits from my university. Yet if I were to write the same article for Wikipedia, my official recognition would be zero.

And let us put aside the common misconception that contributors to Wikipedia entries are not identifiable. While their names are not displayed in the articles themselves, their identity is just one or two clicks away, via each article’s history tab. Two clicks prove, for example, that I am the main author of Wikipedia’s article on the sociology of leisure, which receives an average of 24 views each day and has been accessed about 50,000 times since its creation in 2015.

Contrariwise, dozens of clicks are needed to locate several paywalled articles I wrote for traditional encyclopedias. Yet it is the latter that have been considered for my performance review.

It is high time we moved the relationship between academia and the world’s premier reference work to the next level. For that to happen, university administrators need to do their part and actively encourage faculty to contribute to it, via positive promotion reviews and financial bonuses. But academics, too, need to embrace the opportunity – and recall why it was that they chose their career in the first place.

Piotr Konieczny is an associate professor in the department of media and social informatics at Hanyang University, South Korea.

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Reader's comments (4)

The problem is that Wikipedia is dominated by anonymous editors who impose its rules in various idiosyncratic ways that amount to trolling.
There is credit only for one thing-a 4* publication. Nothing else, nothing else matters apart from that for the wanna haves.
How I wrote a million Wikipedia articles This book will tell you how the author collected and managed the data, the way he prepared the articles, and the way he automated the process to finally achieved adding 1 million Wikipedia articles. https://amzn.to/3lJB7rO
What Steve Fuller said. If I write something, it has to be mine in my words and my style, not amended or edited by someone I don't know. It has to have my name on it. It's bad enough dealing with anonymous referees who sometimes seem to be deliberately obtuse and obstructive but once you have made your case and agreed any changes that is that and your article is done with. With Wikipedia it could be a never-ending battle. I have other duties to care about.