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Being a scientist in the age of Wikipedia

18 May, 2011

Science on WikipediaA recent Nature poll revealed the importance researchers place on their online personas. Darren Logan considers what these results mean, why some scientists blog and why his platform of choice is Wikipedia.

How, why and how often do scientists use online media platforms? This is something I have been considering recently in light of a recent poll conducted by Nature.

Consider blogs, for example. Twenty-four per cent of respondents to the poll said they have written at least one, and the attraction of scientific blogs is obvious. They provide an accessible platform for rapid engagement and discourse wider than almost any other available to scientists (unless your name happens to be Brian Cox). But for every PZ Myers or Grrlscientist who receives millions of visitors, there are thousands of bloggers with a significantly smaller audience. What motivates scientists to invest their precious time writing for a modest number of readers? 

Self-aggrandisement is one possibility (a remarkable 21 per cent of respondents admit to Googling themselves on a daily basis, suggesting that science has its fair share of narcissistic personalities). However, I’ve also read many blogs in which often anonymous writers share and discuss scientific content that interests them in the expectation that it might inform others — even if they are few in number. This is a worthy pursuit that does not yet achieve the recognition it deserve. Though we are some way from considering science blogging on a par with publishing papers, it is encouraging to learn that Myers’ highly influential blog was considered a “positive” by his tenure referees.

I share Myers’ enthusiasm for communicating science online and can boast of a global audience that dwarfs even his. However, this is no way testament to my personal popularity because my platform of choice is Wikipedia, the popular free online encyclopaedia.

It is clear the scientific community values Wikipedia – over 70 per cent of scientists in Nature’s poll acknowledged using Wikipedia at least once a week and over a quarter visits the site daily. But here’s the rub: only 17 per cent contributed scientific content in the last year.

The reasons for this disparity between Wikipedia consumers and contributors in the academic community are complex; and it is something that the Wikipedia community is trying to address in an effort to improve its scientific content. It is imperative they succeed because this and future generations will not learn about science from textbooks, library visits or handwritten acetates on an overhead projector (remember them?). They will learn through keywords, hyperlinks and search engines – all paths that lead to Wikipedia.

I request that the public fund my research through their tax and charitable contributions; in return I consider it my responsibility to provide them with accurate, up-to-date and free access to the scientific progress they pay for. For me, contributing to Wikipedia is the most effective way to achieve this. I encourage you to give it a try.

Darren Logan

Darren Logan is a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and a member of the UK Wikimedia Foundation.

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