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Advancing academia with Wikipedia

University libraries are integrating the massive online encyclopedia into their operations to share their unique resources, improve teaching and learning, and raise their profile.


Wikipedia has generally been dismissed or distrusted by academia. But now in its 18th year, the non-profit, open-access online encyclopedia has grown exponentially to become one of the leading providers of online content, making it difficult for academic institutions to ignore.

One of the first Canadian universities to start engaging with Wikipedia is the University of Victoria. In 2015, it welcomed its first honorary Wikipedian, distinguished semiotics scholar Christian Vandendorpe. In 2017, UVic renewed the two-year position by bringing on board Constance Crompton, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities.

One priority tasked to the UVic resident Wikipedian has been to add information to Wikipedia on UVic Libraries’ transgender activism archive. One of the largest such collections in the world, it includes extensive documents, rare publications and memorabilia across 15 languages going back more than 120 years.

“Wikipedia has an imbalance in the kinds of topics covered and the amount of space dedicated to social activists,” says Lisa Goddard, an associate university librarian at UVic. “This is an opportunity to use our university expertise to fill some of those gaps…and bring greater representation to different perspectives.”

Free and multilingual, Wikipedia and its related sites attract 17 billion visitors per month. The English site contains almost six million articles on every topic under the sun, and almost 600 are added daily. French Wikipedia, meanwhile, is the fifth-largest language edition, with just over two million articles. Wikipedia’s extensive, SEO-friendly content and hundreds of thousands of volunteer editors explain why Wikipedia dominates most search engine results.

At the same time, Wikipedia’s processes for reviewing and accepting new content have become much more stringent. It has detailed policies to ensure content is clear, accurate, verifiable and neutral. It also has a rigorous editorial control process in which content is reviewed by its general community of editors, chosen editorial panels and automated bots.

Wikipedians in residence (WIR) have been around since at least 2010, with the first one hired by the British Museum in the U.K. Since then, other museums as well as universities, archives, libraries, art galleries and health organizations, have followed suit with a total of 165 WIRs hired worldwide. According to the Wikimedia Foundation (which hosts all official Wikipedia sites), right now 65 WIRs are actively working — and registered — with the foundation.

Organizations that hire a WIR don’t enter into a formal agreement with Wikipedia, so they can shape the position’s status — paid or volunteer, full-time or part-time — and scope of work as they see fit. However, Wikimedia offers free recruitment, training and content creation support to institutions seeking WIRs. According to the organization, these services fall in line with its goal to encourage cultural and educational institutions to share their resources freely on Wikimedia sites.

“Universities tend to be conservative — they want to share their knowledge with the public, but they’re a bit afraid of the Wiki world,” says Benoit Rochon, president of Wikimedia Canada. “However, more and more are realizing the benefits of using Wikipedia to bring their institutions a little further into the world.”

Jesse Carliner, the communications and user services librarian at the University of Toronto, sees a major opportunity for U of T Libraries to leverage Wikipedia to help achieve its operational goals. Last fall, he led the libraries’ effort to recruit a WIR. The objectives for the part-time, six-month position were to improve access to the libraries’ digitized rare books, web archives and art; enhance U of T Libraries’ Wikipedia presence; and promote U of T community members’ participation in Wikipedia projects.

In October 2018, Alex Jung was hired to fill the position. A U of T political science PhD student and democratizing technology advocate, Mr. Jung has been editing Wikipedia since he was in high school. One of Mr. Jung’s main projects is adding information to Wikipedia about the libraries’ special collection on the discovery and early development of insulin. He is carefully reviewing Wikipedia articles on insulin and addressing gaps or errors.

“This collection is a very rich and interesting source of information, but right now, when people want to look something up [about insulin] Wikipedia tends to come up first, not our collection website. I think it’s meaningful and important to share it with the broader public,” Mr. Jung says.

Mr. Jung is also documenting how he is adding content to Wikipedia to create a resource for others at the libraries. As well, he’s organizing “edit-a-thons”: group events that involve improving a specific content area on the site. The most recent one, on February 7, focused on enhancing the presence of Canadian female scientists to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Other universities in Canada are using Wikipedia in different ways. At York University, digital humanities librarian Stacy Allison-Cassin is co-leading an effort to use Wikipedia to raise the profile of Indigenous knowledge. At McGill University, liaison librarian Michael David Miller has focused on enhancing LGBTQ+ content on several Wikimedia sites.

As well, multiple universities, including Université de Montréal, Western University, Dalhousie University, the University of Guelph and the University of Prince Edward Island, have participated in Wikipedia’s annual #1Lib1Ref event, which challenges every librarian worldwide to make the site more reliable by adding one reference. Meanwhile, last month, Concordia University announced it’s also looking to hire a part-time WIR.

At the Université du Québec à Montréal, business librarian Jean-Michel Lapointe has been integrating French-language Wikipedia into his work in a number of ways. He trains faculty members in how to edit Wikipedia articles, and incorporate Wikipedia assignments into their courses. He has helped MBA students complete Wikipedia-related projects that have involved expanding articles on the use of artificial intelligence in business operations. He also created a Wikipedia page that highlights UQAM educational projects involving the online encyclopedia as a guide for faculty members wanting to pursue this option. Mr. Lapointe is currently participating in a series of panel discussions with other local university librarians about the role of Wikipedia in the higher education environment.

Expanding research and educational opportunities through Wikipedia is just one of Mr. Lapointe’s objectives. He also sees it as a responsibility for himself and other librarians at Quebec’s French-language universities to contribute to French-language content on Wikipedia in order to better represent the perspectives of Francophone Canadians on the platform. Wikipedia statistics from 2014 — the most current data available — indicate that 71 percent of French edits are made by users from France, and just six percent are made by users in Canada.

“Who is going to build knowledge about Quebec culture on Wikipedia if not us, people in academia?” Mr. Lapointe says. “If we want to be reflected on Wikipedia, we need to create that presence.”

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  1. Smallbones / February 27, 2019 at 19:53

    I’m not sure what “Wikipedia’s extensive, SEO-friendly content” refers to. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) generally refers to a type of PR or promotion by companies (or even by non-profits) intended to remove negative material from Google searches or promote positive internet material, or even to put promotional material on Wikipedia. Promotional material, advertising, marketing, and PR are prohibited on Wikipedia, so SEO is not welscome.

  2. Sharon Aschaiek / March 9, 2019 at 13:10

    Smallbones, SEO refers to the extent to which a website is rich in content, keywords and links, as well as new/updated content. A high concentration of these elements makes a website SEO-friendly, meaning that it will be more likely to be recognized by Google and other search engines, and ranked higher on search engine results. Wikipedia actually has a page explaining why the site is SEO-friendly.

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