Berkeley’s Wikipedian helps unlock scholarly silos

California institution is first university to hire its own online encyclopedia editor in residence

April 17, 2014

Source: Gil C/Shutterstock.com

Earlier this year, the University of California, Berkeley became the first higher education institution to hire a “Wikipedian in residence”.

Kevin Gorman, a 24-year-old Berkeley graduate, will help students to publish academic work on the user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia and on its sister sites.

Institutions such as the US National Archives and the British Museum already have Wikipedians to help ensure that their resources reach as many people as possible, and Mr Gorman feels the time has come for universities to help students and academics expose their scholarship to a wider audience.

“Most students are aware that their [coursework is] read by two people: the student themself and the person who is grading the paper,” Mr Gorman told Times Higher Education.

“But Wikipedia has significant gaps in coverage that students can help to fill, and by writing articles as part of their course, they might be writing for an audience of 200, or 2,000, or 200,000, instead of an audience of two.”

One of his tasks will be to work with students on two Berkeley courses offering credit for compiling Wikipedia articles. One module is on environmental science policy, and the other on the US prison system.

“One student will write the Wikipedia entry on climate resilience, which you would have expected to have been covered many years ago, but it just hasn’t,” Mr Gorman said.

“Some other students in a class I am working with wrote the first article about infectious disease in prison – a socially important topic that, because of demographic gaps in the people who edit Wikipedia articles, no one has bothered to do.”

Gaps in coverage, Mr Gorman said, often reflect the fact that the vast majority of Wikipedia’s approximately 80,000 active editors are male, from the global North, and middle- or upper-class.

“They are writing about what they are interested in,” he said, “so there are a lot of things that just don’t exist in Wikipedia.”

By helping students’ work to reach far more people, Mr Gorman said his role formed part of the university’s public service mission.

“One massive problem is that universities can create silos that hold knowledge within them,” he explained. “Academia should actively interact with the world outside it, and at Berkeley and many American universities we fail to do that pretty badly.”

He is not concerned, however, that encouraging the use of Wikipedia will push students away from traditional resources such as the university library.

“It’s true that a lot of undergrads don’t visit physical libraries, but as counter-intuitive as it sounds, we have found that making students do Wikipedia-based assignments is a great way to get students back into the library, looking for sources that they can’t find online,” he said.

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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