It only takes a look at the Science 2.0 entry on Wikipedia to know their system is flawed (1) - anyone can create an entry but in order to edit it, like what Science 2.0 is, you have to document for some stranger on Wikipedia that you know what you are talking about, even if you're one of few people who knows what the topic is about.

So to edit the Science 2.0 Wikipedia entry one of them asked me to re-document all the work I did at the USPTO to get Science 2.0 as a registered trademark but to create the Science 2.0 entry and get a lot wrong took basically nothing.   And links have to be online, so a computer scientist writing an article on Science 2.0 that was a lot of mumbo jumbo jargon has authority where all of my talks on Science 2.0 are unlinkable and therefore do not exist.

They recognize there has been a long-standing issue with both accuracy and getting exploited by marketing people (2) so in order to make Wikipedia less arbitrary they appointed heavy-handed moderators worse than you find at big media companies trying to control user-generated content - result, another layer of criticism.

But, to many in science and outside, popularity is the same as authority (thus, why so many science bloggers write about politics and culture instead of science) so Wikipedia isn't going away as long as they can get grants, do funding drives or perhaps build a business model that works.

Anne McNeil, assistant professor of chemistry and of macromolecular science and engineering at the University of Michigan, can fix science entries, but it is a tough process because it takes a long time - before she could even get a class of science students to undertake revising flawed Wikipedia entries she and another researcher, Jonas Locke, had to spend time learning its byzantine ways, including not getting banned for making mistakes that a temperamental 'authority' at Wikipedia might not like.

The upside is that the experience of editing Wikipedia teaches young scientists how to communicate clearly and maybe a little something about teamwork.   In the course, students were split into groups and submitted suggestions for chemistry topics that weren't adequately described in Wikipedia.   McNeil and Locke selected the final topics from the list,  giving priority to subjects for which there was little or no information on Wikipedia.

The students liked the project partly because their work would remain on Wikipedia after the course ended - or at least they assume, and there may be a hands-off for that project since McNeil was invited to make a presentation at the Wikimedia Foundation headquarters in San Francisco on her course, but for regular posts they can be edited the next day without any recourse.   

"The visibility appealed to them," McNeil said. "Instead of doing a class presentation, where only the class benefits, everybody was excited that other people would see the results of their hard work, and that seemed to motivate them to work even harder to make sure their entries were accurate, well-written and understandable."

Since first doing this in 2008, McNeil and other chemistry faculty have used Wikipedia in five other courses -  students now provide "peer review" each other while doing the outline and they even created a handbook that offers guidance in editing chemistry entries. 

Brian Coppola, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry, helped design and administer a survey to students that asked how the Wikipedia project compared with other classroom activities, such as lectures and problem sets, in achieving specific course learning goals. The results showed that the Wikipedia project contributed more than other activities to the goals of communicating science to a diverse and general audience, working collaboratively, and identifying appropriate references and other resources for building an argument.

McNeil plans to try the Wikipedia assignment in an undergraduate honors course, where instead of advanced concepts in chemistry, students will work on entries about famous chemists and chemical reactions named for scientists.

Indeed, Wikipedia can work when you bring this kind of firepower to each entry - it would also take 2,000 years to write since they are only now comfortable even letting undergrads in honors courses contribute and have some confidence in its accuracy.

We already have peer-reviewed journals for perfect accuracy, of course, and an open collaborative resource that at least isn't a running joke culturally regarding accuracy would be terrific - let's hope Wikipedia fixes its problems sooner rather than later.

Citation: Cheryl L. Moy, Jonas R. Locke, Brian P. Coppola and Anne J. McNeil, 'Improving Science Education and Understanding through Editing Wikipedia', J. Chem. Educ., Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/ed100367
 though because it is the American Chemical Society publishing this thing you won't be able to read it; pretty ironic since it is about boosting science education by using a volunteer online community but you have to pay a big media publisher to read it.  Thanks for caring, ACS!


(1) Why don't I link to it?  Because that is why they show up in Google first on so many topics, right or wrong.  Google isn't all that great either so they use a simple metric for showing up first, which is why Scientific American can show up ahead of us in a Science 2.0 search, even though they are very much Science 1.0.

(2) It didn't work.   Because I am not an expert in marketing exploiting Wikipedia, if you are a writer or scientist already in there and I add your blog, I will get flagged as a spammer because I have added people's blogs from here before.    A true spammer knows how to get around it quite easily.    So all Wiki has done is penalize legitimate users - or perhaps force them to become 'casual criminals'.