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Students take on role of Wikipedia editors

by Greg St. Martin

This spring, marine biology major Laura Goetz sought to learn as much as she could about Antarctic fish to pre­pare for her upcoming co-​​op in Antarc­tica, but she noticed that there weren’t many acces­sible web resources on the topic.

Thanks to an assign­ment in her “Advanced Writing in the Dis­ci­plines” course, how­ever, Goetz was able to do some­thing about that: she cre­ated a Wikipedia page. “These are really inter­esting fish and everyone should have a chance to learn more about them,” she wrote in an email from Palmer Sta­tion in Antarc­tica, where she and two other stu­dents are now working along­side North­eastern pro­fessor William Detrich.

Goetz’s work to create a Wikipedia page on Antarctic fish was part of a larger effort over the past year to enlist thou­sands of stu­dents from North­eastern and other col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to improve Wikipedia’s cov­erage of the sci­ences. Fifty-​​four stu­dents in advanced writing courses taught this spring by Cecelia Mus­selman, asso­ciate teaching pro­fessor in Eng­lish, con­tributed to the Wikipedia Edu­ca­tion Foun­da­tion’s “Year of Sci­ence” pro­gram.

Col­lec­tively, Musselman’s stu­dents wrote or improved upon 141 Wikipedia arti­cles. During the spring semester, Kostia Bergman, asso­ciate pro­fessor of biology, also learned about this oppor­tu­nity from Mus­selman and exper­i­mented with it as part of his Summer I biology course.

It’s a beau­tiful tool for teaching crit­ical thinking,” Mus­selman said of Wikipedia, “and then the work stu­dents are doing is becoming avail­able to whole world. It’s very moti­vating but also ter­ri­fying to know that you’re con­tributing to some­thing that so many people will see.”

Year of Sci­ence” was the Wikipedia Edu­ca­tion Foundation’s first major push to improve Wikipedia’s sci­ence con­tent. But Mus­selman and other North­eastern edu­ca­tors have been studying and using Wikipedia for class assign­ments for sev­eral years. Mus­selman, Joseph Reagle, Ryan Cordell, and other pro­fes­sors have worked closely with Amanda Rust, dig­ital human­i­ties librarian and assis­tant director of the library’s Dig­ital Schol­ar­ship Group, on these projects—many of which have focused on Boston’s his­tory and uti­lized resources in Northeastern’s Archives and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions.

Through class assign­ments and edit-​​a-​​thons held by Uni­ver­sity Libraries, stu­dents have cre­ated or improved arti­cles on people and topics including Muriel Snowden, co-​​founder of the Freedom House in Boston’s Rox­bury neigh­bor­hood, and the Boston Society of Vul­cans, a community-​​based non­profit orga­ni­za­tion of black and Latino firefighters.

North­eastern fac­ulty and staff involved in these efforts said stu­dents ben­efit from these assign­ments in a range of ways: they develop better writing skills and a strong under­standing of the topics they’re researching, they gain a stronger grasp on how Wikipedia can be used as a resource, and they ben­efit from the col­lab­o­ra­tive process around cre­ating and editing these pages.

Stu­dents often don’t even know they can edit Wikipedia pages and see the his­tory and dis­cus­sion,” Reagle said. “It’s an impor­tant lesson about how knowl­edge is con­structed.” For his part, Reagle wrote the 2010 book Good Faith Col­lab­o­ra­tion: The Cul­ture of Wikipedia, one of the early books on Wikipedia, and stu­dents in his “Online Com­mu­ni­ties” course have been con­tributing to Wikipedia for the past few years.

Goetz, S’18, for her part, said that the Wikipedia class assign­ment has fit per­fectly with her co-​​op. The project she’s working on focuses on deter­mining the effects of cli­mate change on the embry­olog­ical devel­op­ment of Antarctic fish, and the work involves raising embryos of two fish species and sam­pling them at var­ious stages of devel­op­ment for analysis back in Detrich’s lab in Mass­a­chu­setts at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center.

Goetz goes out on trips to catch fish for pre­pro­duc­tion and then pho­tographs the embryos as they develop. She said the knowl­edge she gained about fish mor­phology for her Wikipedia project has helped her iden­tify species of fish they’re catching and deter­mine whether or not to keep them.

Goetz recalled that as far back as middle school, teachers “drilled into us that Wikipedia is not an accept­able source of infor­ma­tion,” not even good enough to use to col­lect back­ground infor­ma­tion on a sub­ject. But she said her opinion has changed. “The editing process between mul­tiple writers and the rating system for each article does place quite a bit of atten­tion on each article,” she wrote. “Plus the addi­tion of flags on arti­cles helps readers who don’t know much about Wikipedia gain aware­ness of the amount of trust they can place on each article.”

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