Wikipedia, who’s really editing our favourite source?
05 February, 2021
by Fiona Watson, Library and Archives Manager.
I recently realized that the Royal College of Psychiatrist’s Wikipedia page needed a minor update. Now, as everyone knows, anyone can edit Wikipedia, so why that sinking feeling of dread?
Making an edit on Wikipedia is very easy but getting that edit to survive its first few days is not. What many people don’t realise about Wikipedia is how dedicated the people who edit it are. This is very understandable. Imagine you go to the trouble
of writing and referencing a several thousand-word article on a topic you are passionate about and someone comes along and adds their own poorly-researched opinion. This is why experienced authors and editors have a watchlist of articles they have
been involved in. If you then edit one of those articles they will see a notification and check that your addition is worth keeping.
If the edit is something that they aren’t sure about they will rely either on the credibility of your references, or on how experienced an editor you are. If they can see you edit regularly and have been involved in good quality articles, they can feel sure that you know what you are talking about.
You can see how this would discourage the editing equivalent of day-trippers, not to mention vandals. On the plus side, the system rewards people who put in the time and produce good quality content. The editors also become content guardians.
A few years ago, I met a GP who was a prolific author and editor of medical articles on Wikipedia. At first, I was surprised and impressed to realise some of the editors behind the Wikipedia are doctors but it makes a lot of sense. Between the aphorism that ‘if you want something done as a busy person’ and the fact that nothing irritates an expert more than people getting things wrong about their specialist subject, it is no surprise that Wikipedia is so extensive and so useful.
Medical articles on Wikipedia have some additional help in staying accurate, Wiki Project Medicine is a ‘nonprofit corporation founded in December 2012 with the purpose of promoting development and distribution of health care content on Wikimedia projects’. About 35,000 articles are designated as within the scope of the project and there are around 150 editors who regularly work on those pages. Keeping information accurate has been particularly important during the COVID19 outbreak and editors have guarded Wikipedia’s entry on the virus particularly fiercely in order to minimise the spread of misinformation.
If you’re interested in comparing how effective Wikipedia’s approach to content management is in comparison with a notorious for profit organization, I recommend checking out this article.
Wiki Project Medicine also work towards making sure medical information is available in people’s language of choice and offline. Which can be hugely advantageous for medical practitioners working in the developing world without access to some of the very expensive commercial alternatives.
However, for anyone who has read this so far and thought they could still see some problems, you’re absolutely right!
For one thing 80% of Wikipedia edits are made by 20% of the population, primarily white men in Europe and North America. To explain a little further what Anasuya Sengupta is referring to there, 80% of the world’s population is part of what is called the Global South but only 20% of Wikipedia edits come out of those parts of the world. If editors are not from diverse social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, how can we expect the articles to reflect our world accurately and not just one group’s experience of it?
In regard to the gender gap, as of 2018 only 8.8% of contributors reported their gender as female and articles about women are less likely to be written. When they are include less detail. There are many schemes to try and combat this including: edit-a-thons, Women in Red, WikiProject women, WikiProject feminism, WikiProject gender studies, and the WikiProject countering systemic bias/gender gap task force.
In 2019 CBS reported on Steven Pruitt, calling him 'the man behind a third of what's on Wikipedia'. While I applaud his
dedication, this can be seen as a symptom of a serious problem. Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential people on the world. But while everyone is aware a book written by one man may potentially reflect his personal views and biases,
that is not what people expect when we consult Wikipedia.
Stephen Colbert has discussed Wikipedia multiple times on ‘The Colbert Report’ Who Edits the Wikipedia Editors? (truthdig.com) and in 2007 he coined the term Wikiality, for the version of reality that is created when our facts become what the Wikipedia editors agree on. On a later episode he introduced the term Wikilobbying, for when companies use Wikipedia to change how they are perceived, sometimes by paying people to edit articles that include them.
Which brings us back to the problems of editing the Wikipedia page for an organization you work for! I am off to hunt for references about the achievements of the RCPsych, which weren’t written by the RCPsych.