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How Hosting an Edit-A-Thon Made Me Trust Wikipedia

The academic community has been wary of Wikipedia since it first came on the scene. Teachers have spent a decade warning their students not trust the online encyclopedia, concerned that because anyone can edit it, it might not be reliable. I’ll admit I first approached Wikipedia with caution, using it for quick reference but steering clear when conducting any serious research. But on Monday, at the first ever ocean edit-a-thon – sponsored by the Waitt Institute, Smithsonian Ocean Portal, and Wikimedia Foundation – my distrust dissolved.

While I still think the site should serve primarily as a jumping-off point for research projects, Monday’s event in honor of World Oceans Day, brought together an excellent group of ocean scientists and enthusiastic editors who together improved the encyclopedia’s ocean-related information.

Wikipedia wields tremendous influence in shaping public perception of the ocean science and conservation. That is good reason (as I wrote here previously) “Why Ocean Conservationists Should Care Pay More Attention to Wikipedia.”

The edit-a-thon kicked off with experts from Wikimedia DC explaining the details of how to edit,the requirement of verifiability, and the fierce monitoring of conflicts of interest. Once I had a deeper understanding of the process I gained a newfound respect for the level of vetting and quality control the community insists upon.

And then we jumped in the deep end. I don’t consider myself a particularly tech-savvy person, and at first I found the Wikipedia backend a bit daunting. Thankfully the volunteers from Wikimedia DC provided one-on-one guidance that enabled us to avoid the pitfalls that sometimes result in an edit’s reversal.

Once we got a handle on process, we were all surprised by how excited we were to roll up our sleeves and began adding to and creating articles. At one point, I heard a squeal and looked up to see Dr. Nancy Knowlton, a Chair at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, looking giddy with glee after she updated the ocean acidification article with the latest science. And I found myself throwing my hands up in victory after creating an article for ocean zoning.

By the end of the day, we had made substantial progress in adding depth to Wikipedia’s ocean-related topics. We created new article pages for ocean zoning and environmental DNA. We expanded and improved articles relating to ocean acidification, aquaculture, and overfishing. We added links to all of the Waitt Institute’s factsheets and other sources in order to provide users with easy access to additional information.

It was so gratifying to think that the next people who search for these subjects would find our contributions and might find them useful; to think that some term papers might use the more up-to-date and diverse sources that we insert; to think that some questions people came to Wikipedia with would be better answered.

Observing and participating in this process made me trust Wikipedia much more as a resource. Should Wikipedia serve as your only destination when seeking out information on a particular topic? Nope. It’s important to click through to the original references, external links, and academic literature. But after seeing the devotion to accuracy that’s inherent in the Wikipedia community, I now admire and trust its offerings.

Wikipedia is a process, not a product. I signed up to receive email alerts when anyone edits the pages I contributed to, and in just the last few days other editors have already made significant additions, further enriching this resource. Wikipedia is ever-evolving and improving. And it’s up to each of us, the passionate, the experts, to contribute to that process. I, for one, look forward to continuing to contribute to building the wealth of knowledge contained in the world’s largest encyclopedia well into the future. I hope you’ll join me.