With a dulled piece of chalk, a professor scratches a harrowing message across the blackboard for the hundredth time: “Wikipedia is not a credible source.”
Almost by default, students know to separate academia from Wikipedia. Yet, Wikipedia is the first place you go to when you need a comprehensive list of “Hey Arnold!” episodes, the discography for a new musical artist you’ve discovered or just to read the plot summary for a movie you never made the effort to watch.
On Nov. 15 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., the Shields Library Instruction Lab will hold a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon workshop. The edit-a-thon aims to teach students how to edit Wikipedia and use library resources to create credible pages.
“You don’t have to be an expert in a subject to be a Wikipedia editor,” said Phoebe Ayers, a librarian at the Physical Sciences & Engineering Library on campus. “You just need interest and a willingness to research.”
Ayers will lead the workshop. She’s been editing Wikipedia for 10 years, and currently is a member of Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
According to alexa.com’s list of top sites on the web, Wikipedia ranks as the sixth-most-visited website.
“I use it for science homework and looking up television shows,” said Marielle Palatino, a third-year biological chemistry major.
Palatino said she visits Wikipedia every day. She uses it for both research and personal interests. However, Palatino admitted she just doesn’t care enough to contribute or edit a page.
This is not unusual, as it seems a certain level of enthusiasm or skill is required to get involved. On the discussion page for an article about pencils, Wikipedia editor Fritz Jorn attached a photograph of two pencils resting on the edge of a protractor. The caption reads:
“I noticed that Americans tend to sharpen pencils a lot sharper than Europeans. Looking into this I found typical sharpeners here in Europe with a 23° point, or even 30° in case of softer color pencils.”
Fortunately, Ayers said this level of pedantic discussion isn’t necessary to edit Wikipedia. An editor can do anything from fixing a sentence and adding facts to creating new pages.
“Everyone is welcome. New editors, experienced editors, everyone in between,” Ayers said.
Ayers said Wikipedia doesn’t have any hard rules — just guidelines and policies. Editors do their best to ensure pages are factual, properly cited and written from a neutral perspective.
Likewise, the workshop will be relatively informal. It will begin with a short lecture, familiarizing new editors with the website’s features and guidelines. Afterward, editors are set loose to edit and create articles as they please. Ayers will be available to answer any questions and provide guidance to those who need it.
Ayers said students have a unique opportunity to improve the encyclopedia’s content.
“This is the first time there’s been a project like this based out of the university library,” Ayers said.
She is well aware that students should never directly cite a Wikipedia page. However, the sources at the bottom of a page are often credible enough for an essay.
“[Students] can take what’s in the library — high quality resources — and make sure those are used in the articles,” Ayers said.
She believes people should do what they can to better a website they use daily. According to Ayers, her goal is for students to realize that editing Wikipedia can be fun and a great opportunity to learn something new.
“I have a couple articles I’d like to write,” said Jarrod Rowe, a second-year English major.
Rowe said the information for some musicians’ and poets’ pages seem to be insufficient.
“I would like to take part in making that information … available to people who are interested in it,” Rowe said.
Rowe is a musician and songwriter, and his previous experience led him to consider editing a page. Ayers also said that working on pages you don’t know anything about is also a great way to start learning new things.
“There’s lots to be done that doesn’t require knowing about a subject,” Ayers said. “You just have to be committed to doing enough research.”
If the idea of research isn’t appealing, Ayers said there are still plenty of things an editor can do to improve a page.
Wikipedia is a nonprofit organization, relying entirely on the contributions of its users. For those who want to start giving back, Ayers’ workshop will show that it’s easy to get started. She said students are welcome to the workshop at any time and only have to stay as long as they want.