From the Executive Director

Don’t like Wikipedia? Change it

Using our combined knowledge to edit and update Wikipedia is a high-impact and immediate way to increase the presence of psychological science

By Steven Breckler, PhD

For better or for worse, Wikipedia has become a standard source of information on the web. Google a topic and chances are good that a Wikipedia entry will show up high on the list of results. Try it for yourself.  Google psychology and the first result will be to the Wikipedia entry for psychology. Google American Psychological Association and the sixth result will be to a Wikipedia entry (the first five results will be to APA web pages).

As scholars, we know that the material contained in Wikipedia entries is not always of the highest quality.  K-12 students are admonished not to rely on Wikipedia entries for their school work. Indeed, we all know better than to rely on Wikipedia entries as authoritative sources of information. Yet, there it is – so easy to find, so ubiquitous in Google searches, and so seemingly helpful when we are in a bind to learn something quickly.

In principle, Wikipedia entries should be helpful and reliable. All it takes is a community of people who have information and are willing to share it, edit it, correct it, and help evolve it towards something meaningful. It is all so open, accessible, and democratic.

The problem with Wikipedia is that too few of us bother to contribute. We can ignore it, and insist that its content is notoriously unreliable. But there it is, and it gets used.  It gets used a lot.  For the average googler, Wikipedia has replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica or the World Book as the first authoritative source of general information.  We ignore it at our own peril.

I was once one of them – those people who publicly decry the use of Wikipedia as a legitimate reference, but who secretly sneak peaks at what Wikipedia has to say. 

It was last month’s Science Leadership Conference that changed me.  As described elsewhere in this issue of Psychological Science Agenda, conference participants spent much of their time brainstorming ways of promoting psychology as a STEM discipline.  One of the suggestions was a Wiki Editing Project – the idea that we take ownership of the content found in Wikipedia, and correct it, when appropriate, to reflect our knowledge of what scientific psychology is really all about.

I really like this idea. It is simple and proactive. It takes full advantage of the philosophy of Wikipedia – if you have knowledge to impart, do it.

I got curious, and googled the term STEM fields. Sure enough, a Wikipedia entry was first on the list. And not surprising, psychology was not listed among the many examples of STEM fields (interestingly, psychophysics was listed, but not psychology). So I took the five minutes needed to update the entry.  Now psychology is listed among those fields in the Wikipedia entry.  And if anyone else tries to change that, I’ll get an email letting me know.  It was a small act, but very empowering.

I looked into this idea of taking charge of Wikipedia content.  It turns out that others have had the same idea.  The Wikimedia Foundation is running a pilot project – the Public Policy Initiative – to put college students to work improving the content of Wikipedia articles relating to public policy.

This is brilliant. Imagine if every college student in every college class in every college subject took responsibility to make just a single correction or entry to Wikipedia. It would not take long for the effects to be seen.

Perhaps similar projects are already underway. If you know of any, please take the time to let me know. The APA Science Directorate will be happy to spread the word.