Wikis and Geology

Wikipedia Logo
Yesterday evening at Apparent Dip Thermochronic commented on an EOS article by Mark Moldwin et al., Wikipedia’s Role in Science Education and Outreach, about the importance of geoscientists reviewing and correcting Wikipedia articles in their areas of expertise in light of the predilection of many web-native students to turn to Wikipedia as a primary (and too commonly, a sole) source when researching geologic topics. At Highly Allochthonous Chris Rowan chimed in on the topic, too. To understand my reaction you should read these articles first. I’ll wait.

My initial reaction is that I’m glad all three of these pieces took a pragmatic approach to the situation and encouraged scientists to use Wikipedia in a positive manner – that is, to update and correct scientific articles because of the positive effect that this will have on scientific literacy among the general populace. With this notion I most wholeheartedly agree.

However, all three articles echo the widely held sentiment that it’s a shame that today’s students are using Wikipedia and other Internet sources instead of traditional printed sources for research. I tend to agree that Wikipedia is less than optimal as a primary reference in many cases and certainly don’t have any pity for students who use it as a sole source. But my inclination is not to blame students for their impulse to search online. In fact, I feel that students should have every right to expect to be able to use the internet to search for accurate scientific information. The shortcoming in this approach is not, IMHO, on the part of the web-native students, but on the part of publishers and scientists who fail to make reliable information readily available in an online format. Mind you, I’m not excusing students who fail to seek multiple, peer-reviewed, and primary sources or fail to critically assess what they find online (or in print) – shoddy work is shoddy work regardless of the format of the source material. Nevertheless, the web was designed for sharing scientific information. Why aren’t we, as scientists, taking better advantage of that?

Ironically, the very EOS article that sparked this particular discussion is illustrative of the point. Chances are that unless you are a subscriber to EOS you were not able to read the article linked above, because the primary source is locked behind a paywall on the AGU website. One could, of course, go to a library and find a paper copy of it, but is it really worth the effort? (Did you?) What’s that you say, your library doesn’t subscribe to EOS? What if the library is closed? Will you remember to go back there tomorrow? You’d probably read it right now, while it’s interesting to you, if you could just follow the link, but the barrier that AGU has erected to the general public (and many scientists) is probably sufficient to prevent most people from reading that article. Was that the intent of the authors? I doubt it.

And the same access restrictions apply to the of the bulk of the scientific literature – the primary sources we want our students to be critically evaluating – especially in geology. Is it any wonder that geology departments are being closed at some shortsighted universities because we have such a challenging time recruiting majors, when we scientists, however unintentionally, do so much to restrict access to the discoveries of our field of study?

So what can we do about it? Well, editing Wikipedia articles to improve their coverage and accuracy is certainly a great start. Peer review is critical to the scientific method and, interestingly, it is inherent in the wiki style of publishing. True, anonymous editing makes Wikipedia articles susceptible to the vagaries of decidedly non-scientific “peers”, but this can be overcome, to an extent, by restricting edits to those who take responsibility for their contributions by putting their name and reputation on the line. This sort of responsible authorship has worked very successfully for scientific wikis such as OpenWetWare.

GeoWiki Logo
I have begun a project to use the same wiki software run by Wikipedia to begin a geology-focused wiki, GeoWiki. My motivation for creating this resource began with my search for a way to create a free and open textbook. I have begun by using GeoWiki as the centerpiece for my Geomorphology class this semester. My thinking is that by seeding the wiki with articles from Wikipedia (why reinvent the wheel?) and having my students work to augment, modify, clean up, and organize the articles in at least one topic area we can demonstrate the potential of this sort of an effort to the community of geoscientists. It is my fervent hope that other geoscientists (this means you!) will see the value of such a resource and will contribute their time and effort as they become aware of the project. I have chosen licensing terms with the intent that material developed for Geowiki can be exported back into Wikipedia, as well. If you are interested in learning more about this effort or want to contribute, just send me an e-mail and I’ll establish an account for you.

This effort will likely be one of the things that I present about at GSA Topical Session T140: Geosciences and Web 2.0 – Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Web Video.