Wikipedia and the Academy


Today I’m going to ramble a bit about something which has bothered me for over a year. I have been continuously irked by how little emphasis is placed on academics curating knowledge for public use. Let’s begin.

I love Wikipedia. Of course, you probably already knew this fact. Afterall, I have shared Wikipedia pages to your Facebook wall 11+ times. I love the egalitarian nature of Wikipedia. I love that Wikipedia desires to be a free, reliable source that allows people access to the sum of human knowledge.1 In the world of skepticism that I live in, the Wikimedia Foundation is the only foundation that I donate to on a regular basis. Wikipedia is known to have many problems—a few of which are identified on their own wiki page,2 but in general I think of the presence of Wikipedia as a massive, net positive in my and many other’s lives.

Much of my education has entailed reading Wikipedia pages. Back in the day when I was taking Dr. Trifan’s Modern European History class I found myself reading hundreds of pages on historical figures. I continuously return to pages like the List of trigonometric identities or the page on the harmonic oscillator. When it comes to working on electrical circuits, Wikipedia saves the day so often (Darlington pair anyone?)! Wikipedia pages have offered me an introduction to pretty much every topic. I love the amount of clarification on a common concept that I can gain merely by reading a wiki page—for instance, the concept of “Silicon Valley“.

As a scientist, I spend a lot of my time reading scientific literature. I also spend a fair bit of time explaining concepts to students, lab mates, my audience at a presentation, etc. In the current academic climate, one major measure of my worth as a scientist is my publication history. I am rewarded more when I publish in high Impact Factor journals. Many times the articles people write in these journals will not be accessible by the general public (the people who fund the research) due to journal paywalls.3 Moreover, these articles generally skirt over background information/formalism, assuming the reader is already trained in that area. Much pain is endured by graduate students in order to move from their generalized undergraduate training to the very specific nature of modern research. Graduate students have years of literature to catch up on and understand. It is important to note: I am rewarded when I understand the old knowledge merely because that understanding allows me to create new knowledge.

Broadly, all of the spectroscopy I do, and that I hope to publish on, is under the scope of “four-wave mixing” (FWM). Thousands of papers have been published developing FWM techniques and using FWM to investigate everything from semiconductors to the proteins which facilitate photosynthesis. But the FWM article on Wikipedia is quite decrepit. Sure, it speaks truth, but there is an entire field of spectroscopy and science that is under the guise of FWM that is not really touched on in the article. Moreover, there is a massive amount of fundamental physics which should be considered in this article. My introduction to FWM would have been greatly aided if I had access to a much better version of the FWM Wikipedia page. This article ought to be heavily expanded, and it ought to be done by an academic like me. I haven’t severely edited this article yet merely because it would be a herculean task,4 but all of my research is a herculean task. How is this different?

Academics sometimes write ‘review’ articles which attempt to provide a concise overview of the primary literature as an introduction or reminder to their reader. In a toned-down way, this is exactly what a Wikipedia article is to me. But, in general, an academic is rewarded when they publish new work in closed journals and not when they carefully lay out fundamental work for non-experts. To put it succinctly, there are reward mechanisms in place to publish work in the traditional venues, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a reward structure in place to create broadly accessible content in a free encyclopedia—this isn’t something you see on the CV of a professor going up for tenure.

Scientists are rewarded for making new knowledge and not making past knowledge understandable by the masses. But, as the amount of published work balloons it becomes harder and harder to understand the work that has been done. What good is new knowledge if the old knowledge is inaccessible and not understandable by any but expert academics in some sub-sub-sub discipline?5

It ought to be the case that I am rewarded just as much for curating a slew of Wikipedia pages as I am for publishing a review article or piece of original research. The fact that I am not speaks droves about how the academy has prioritized the novel and sexy over actually furthering human understanding. The academy has defined worthwhile knowledge as flashy and not as solid, rigorous, accessible truth about the possibly mundane.

Soon I will write introduction chapters in my PhD thesis that have been written by others time-and-time again. These chapters will carefully build up the theory necessary to understand my novel work in non-linear spectroscopy and semiconductors. Under the standard model, these chapters will be bound into a few copies of my thesis which will then gather dust for the rest of their existence (two for me, one for my advisor’s bookshelf, one for the UW library, one for my mother, and maybe some others). No one but me will benefit from two months of my time constructing those pages. None of the knowledge will be new, it will merely be me mixing together N sources into one cohesive picture.

Shouldn’t there be an imperative for me to take some of the knowledge in my thesis and put it into Wikipedia pages? Is it best for humanity that the academy has equated “worthwhile” work with “novel” work? Shouldn’t we push for curation of old knowledge just as much as we push for creation of new knowledge?6


And now the footnotes:

  1. See for instance Wikipedia’s lofty language here
  3. I have many thoughts on “open-science.” We should talk of them sometime.
  4. I have made myriad of minor edits on pages ranging from biographies to mathematical theorems. In the case of Irving Langmuir‘s page, I fact checked a paragraph and ended up removing it due to sketchy citations. In many other cases, I have found problems with explanations, but at the time didn’t fix them due to a lack of time on my part. However, I have never spent hours of my time carefully constructing sections in a wikipedia page. I am largely a unilateral user.
  5. There are of course notable exceptions, MIT’s opencourseware is amazing—it attempts to open up course materials to everyone, my favorite is Mildred Dresselhaus’s solid state physics course.
  6. Yes, there exists things like textbooks, but these are meant to learn an entire subject and not meant to address individual topics in detail and entirety.