Is Wikipedia anti-intellectual? Compare athletes to academics and the answer is yes.

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Is he worthy of a Wikipedia page?

Recently some of my students have been writing biographies of scientists for Wikipedia. They wrote one for a research scientist who made a discovery so major she was on the phone with reporters for a week. The discovery was that amoebas can carry bacteria around inside them and farm them later for food, something that also ties to the way harmful bacteria can hide in amoebas and infect us later. It is not her only major work, but I digress. My students also wrote a couple of entries for professors at other universities also. I had planned to ask for more articles on scientists because they are useful and writing them is a good teaching tool. But this is an area particularly fraught, so I may not. Indeed, I wonder if I should abandon Wikipedia writing for students entirely. I spend so much of my time unteaching stuff others put on my student’s work.

I have encouraged my students to write biographies for several reasons. First, Wikipedia is where people turn for a clear introduction to a person when they are looking for something to say when introducing a person. I have been introduced more than once with my Wikipedia entry read verbatim to the audience. That was before someone else deleted nearly all of it. Such is the fate of pieces on Wikipedia. Biographies are particularly tough because neither me nor anyone close to me can touch that entry. I would be so tempted to just say forget Wikipedia. But it is all we have. So why are the trolls destroying useful articles on academics? I do not know the answer to this.

Besides being useful for people looking up visiting speakers, potential mentors, and the like, Wikipedia biographies are useful to the students that write them. It lets them look carefully at a person and see what they have discovered, how the different discoveries link together, and how the person’s education contributed to their future work. It lets them also see what societies the person belongs to, what Wikipedia groups include that person, and generally get insight into the human fabric of scholarship. I hope it makes them think that they too can follow the academic path.

But, the critic would argue, Wikipedia must have standards. Are these people truly worthy? Yes, it must have standards and who can say what or who is worthy? The standards should be about accuracy and about a neutral tone. Like Islam, Wikipedia has five pillars. It is an encyclopedia, written from a neutral point of view, free content that can be redistributed, with editors that are respectful and civil, and it has no firm rules.

Obviously, this is not a piece written on the Wikipedia platform, because I do not have a neutral tone on this. I feel passionately that in the best world, Wikipedia would cover all scientists, whether they be women who for family reasons to not make it to higher degrees, or the very most illustrious. If my students add people who do not have Wikipedia pages, that is something good if they do it in the right way.

Many of the comments on the pages editors want to delete are about how many citations a paper has, or what the H factor of a scientist is. These editors are counting papers, not celebrating ideas.

I am proud to say that a rather illustrious and important organization of which I am a member, the National Academy of Sciences, strongly criticizes the use of H for anything. Let us instead talk about ideas, new techniques, and the power of science in discovery. But, you might say, I don’t understand those papers or those ideas and all I can do is figure out an H and this is easy, so you must have an H of what? 8? 16? 50? to make it in my opinion. OK, if you don’t understand the ideas, what makes you think you can decide what is worth deleting? Why? What do you gain? I am baffled.

Maybe by now you are considering this to be a rant, and it is somewhat. So let’s turn to something else, sports. Apparently just about anyone is deemed worthy in this area. Just choosing the surname of Debra A. Brock, what athletes do we get? I’ll just talk about living ones and only a sampling of them. You get Bryan Brock who was a football quarterback for three seasons in the Arena Football League. Not deleted. You get Calvin Brock who was a boxer forced to retire after an injury at age 32. Not deleted. You get Dave Brock who was a coach for University of Delaware. Not deleted.  You get  Lou Brock, baseball, and his son Lou Brock Jr, a football player. Neither deleted. You get two Pete Brocks, and a Peter Brock and it goes on. None deleted, though for some the editors beg for more information.

So all these athletes are just fine, but when it comes to academics, suddenly there is a lot of soul searching as to who really makes the grade. I don’t get it. You might say my student should not have written about Brock because he was too close to her. However this criticism does not stand with the other academics I suggested that they have no ties to.

I suppose I will be told I should get on the forums of Wikipedia and argue my case with all these judges of H factors. I really don’t have time for this, but I am very disappointed to see this anti-intellectualism in Wikipedia. It clearly is not the electrons or the hard drive space that these entries take up. What is it? Pure American anti-intellectualism rearing its head in yet another arena?

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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5 Responses to Is Wikipedia anti-intellectual? Compare athletes to academics and the answer is yes.

  1. dhillis2013 says:

    Yes, Wikipedia is highly biased in its coverage. It is also not at all what it advertises itself to be: an open encyclopedia that can be edited be edited by anyone with expertise. Scientists, and knowledgeable individuals in general, find Wikipedia very frustrating, because bad information is very difficult to correct (and keep it corrected). The people who spend a lot of time on Wikipedia almost all have some axe to grind, so there are actually very few “neutral” pages, in my experience. I don’t think it is fixable.

    • I’m not quitting on it yet though, because it is what people turn to. If students write for it, t they are more likely to understand how to evaluate the content. More hierarchy might help. More scientists getting involved would also help. I’m guessing there are a ton of people putting every sport trivia in there. So why or why are they so intent on deleting good entries on academics?

  2. Meghan Duffy says:

    I agree with you that it is a wonderful learning opportunity for scientists, but also can be immensely frustrating. This was my experience: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/using-wikipedia-in-the-classroom-a-cautionary-tale/

  3. Jon Reeves says:

    I would submit that your article is anti-sport. The Brocks you list include an Olympic athlete, a baseball player so renowned his number was retired, a first-round NFL draft pick who played for 12 years, and a head coach (not just a coach) for a team in the top tier of college sports. These people have reached the top of their field, despite your dismissive “retired at 32.” To equate them to, as I understand it, a recent post-doc with one arguably notable discovery whose career is basically just starting is at least as biased in the opposite direction. And I’m not a particularly sports-minded person myself.

    It may not seem that way, but the bar for inclusion of athletes is also pretty high; it’s just that there are a lot more of them than there are scientists. Partly as a result, the rules for including athletes are much more codified and unambiguous.

    As has been pointed out, there’s probably a better chance of the scientist’s discoveries meeting Wikipedia’s inclusion guidelines than the scientist themselves.

  4. Pingback: Friday links: a missing voice, Am Nat vs. the OED, RIP Raymond Smulyan, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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