In a senior seminar on language acquisition, a group of seven students successfully edited two Wikipedia articles and achieved Good Article status. A Good Article meets a basic set of criteria that indicate the material is well written, neutral, and appropriately sourced. It is not a particularly high bar, but is an external assessment of quality. Good Articles receive their designation from the Wikipedia community and are marked by a small green button in the title bar. Psychology currently has 44 entries that qualify as Good Articles (from a total of 8,380 entries). My students wrote two of them.
I had used Wikipedia in a previous seminar class, so I had some familiarity with the process. With the support of both the APS Wikipedia Initiative and the Wikipedia Education Program, I set the goal of reaching Good Article status before the end of term. In this brief summary, I’ll describe how we achieved this goal as well as some of the bumps along the road. Given the very public nature of Wikipedia, it is easy for any reader to follow my students’ process on my user page (user:Marentette) and the talk pages of these articles.
I began by searching for stubs related to the content of the course. Stubs are existing short articles that need expansion. It can be challenging for students to start an entirely new page, take on the improvement of an existing extensive article, or revise one for which there has been a long history or much controversy. From the stubs, students selected two entries: Joint Attention and Vocabulary Development. Students then spent weeks doing traditional library research, reading about their topic and planning a revised outline for their article. They began their writing in sandboxes, less public spaces that can be used to try out alterations to an article. About 8 weeks into the course, once they had a strong framework for their article and all the basic material present, they moved their revisions to the live page. This was done with the help of an online course ambassador — an editor assigned to my course because I registered with the Wikipedia Education Program. The technical support and advice of our ambassador was critical to the success of this project.
Once the revisions were live, students submitted to the “Did You Know?” process. “Did You Know?” is an acknowledgement of substantive recent work done on a page. A hook, accompanied by a link to an article that has increased at least five-fold in size within the last week, is published on the Wikipedia home page (only for 8 hours at a time because there is a substantial queue). This process brings lots of fresh eyes to the page (e.g., from less than 100 views per day to approximately 5,000 views the day it showed up on “Did You Know?”). Those eyes meant that students were now writing for the public!
The most challenging part of this assignment for students was the timing. The length of an academic term is fixed, and Wikipedia editors don’t necessarily function in that timeframe. The increased traffic is important for students planning to submit their article for Good Article status. More people looking at their pages meant better chances that someone might get involved with the article’s development.
The second greatest challenge was developing a familiarity with Wikipedia standards including three key practices: (1) adopting a neutral point of view (NPOV), (2) ensuring that sources were both cited and verifiable (VERIFY), and (3) the exclusion of original research (NOR). It was a great (and frustrating) experience to work through what we thought these meant and what our various Wikipedia editors and contributors thought these meant. Here’s a clue: In Wikiland, it doesn’t matter what you think these should mean. You won’t achieve Good Article status if you don’t understand what Wikipedia editors say these mean!
Our biggest disagreement with Wikipedia guidelines involved what constituted original research. The term “original research” is used in Wikipedia to refer to material — such as facts, allegations, and ideas — for which “no reliable, published sources exist.” I didn’t foresee this would be a problem. My students did not enter the course with preexisting positions on vocabulary development or joint attention, nor were they collecting their own data. Surprisingly, the NOR policy reared its head in two ways: a dispute about what counted as primary or secondary sources, and whether or not students could cite several sources as support of information conveyed in a single sentence.
Very early on we were informed on our talk pages that the great sources my students were gathering would not be appropriate for Wikipedia since they were primary sources. Wiki editors had a strong preference for handbooks or textbooks rather than journal articles. Even if students were using the articles for their peer-reviewed literature reviews, they were encouraged to cite handbooks (often chapters written by the same authors as the peer-reviewed articles). I disagree that a peer-reviewed journal article counts as original research in that sense. (It is not a diary, for example.) Most of the science articles we were given as examples did use journal articles in the way we were using them. Regardless of my opinion, whether or not our sources were acceptable was decided by community consensus. I’ll admit that was a bit of a comeuppance for this university professor!
As for the second challenge, by reading widely and summarizing their reading, our students were perceived as “synthesizing published material to advance a new position.” This arose because they often cited more than one source for information presented in one sentence. We resolved this by separating out each claim and only citing one source for it.
This experience raises a key point for instructors: You must consider whether your writing goals and the standards of Wikipedia are compatible. You may want your students to adopt and argue for a position. You may want your students to synthesize the research they read. These skills are not valued on Wikipedia and your students will have their work removed if they use them. Once we adjusted our attitudes and took the time to understand the feedback we received during the Good Article review process, we were quickly able to address the concerns. After all, we were newbies in a well-established community.
This process was both frustrating and fulfilling for the students. They learned that every word counted in Wikipedia; that simple and concise was better, but that “writing clearly and explaining concepts in plain language is not easy.” They were surprised to realize the degree to which they use “eloquent fluff” to reach suggested word or page limits. They commented on how writing for Wikipedia forced them to use their information literacy skills. They needed to evaluate and defend the credibility of their sources, to look for secondary sources, and to be sure to consider a variety of positions.
The students also realized they were a valuable asset to Wikipedia. Their thinking and writing skills as well as their access to an extensive academic library were not broadly shared. As knowledge translators, they could also provide a service to the general public by clearly communicating basic concepts about language acquisition. They wondered who their readers might be: parents? teachers? students in developing countries?
One thing that the students uniformly loved about this project was the possibility of other people seeing and recognizing their work. I cannot convey how delighted my students were to see that green button!