Monday, 8 October 2012

Wikipedia Editing


I've come to rely on wikipedia (hereafter called wiki) for a lot of my research into the human biology that I'm learning. Far from the days where the information it contained was put there by vandals or non-expert editors, wiki now enjoys a large audience of passionate editors who can and will get into heated edit wars over the smallest fact in an article. It is now, arguably, the foremost source of knowledge on the internet (I was going to say information, but really Google has to claim that crown). I like wolfram alpha, but it doesn't really offer much more and it doesn't have the glorious blue links that take you on a 3 hour long journey of discovery like wiki does. I am still laughed at in my university classes when I say that I heard something on wiki, but I have no doubt that the time will come when wiki is a valued source of general scientific knowledge in the next few years. Plus, you know that even if they don't admit it, almost everyone uses it.

But there are just those times when it doesn't have exactly what you're looking for. Take the example I'm currently struggling with -- I want to find a good, labelled diagram of the mouth with an elevated tongue. Simple, you'd think. The wiki entry for 'human mouth' is our first stop. Of course here the main picture of interest is the Gray's anatomy drawing -- an all too common sight on human biology pages. While these are generally very well labelled in bone/muscle related articles (pictures like this one are just on another plane of helpfullness), when the topic is anywhere bordering on niche they quickly defer back to the unlabelled form, which doesn't even represent an attempt to cover bases. Without a picture the article is not of much help, but even the text doesn't help very much. It covers only the basics of the biology, and barely any anatomy. Who searches up the wiki entry for the mouth wanting to find out how to use it? This is, as they call it, a stub.

What do we do when wiki fails us? If you're anything like me then you reel for a moment, to think that you're going to have to go back to that search results list and have to sift through any number of useless wikianswers results to find a reputable second source. Having been in and out of several pages (some of them copies of the wiki entry, of course) you finally find the exact thing you're after. You write it down, and move on to the next question, right? That, my friends, is the crux of this post: the fact that we just move on. How many of us have laboriously clambered over the exact same obstacles, only to leave them on the road for the next hapless person to come across? I could very easily edit the wiki entry on the human mouth to make it much more knowledgeable and helpful, and it wouldn't take very much of my time. Certainly less time than it's taken to write this blog post. But the thing is that I don't even remember that it needed working on. Once I leave the page to search elsewwhere, it vanishes into nothingness in my vacuous head. And this is a problem for our beloved friend, the great wiki.

This editing crunch, so to speak, has not escaped the notice of active editors on wiki. This great piece by wiki user Timeshifter shows the dramatic drop off in editor numbers, compared with how many more articles there are. There simply aren't the incentives to stick around and share what you learn after you have to trawl through the 'unclean' web. I have the knowledge (not meaning to sound arrogant) to make the human mouth page much more useful. I could even label that gray's anatomy picture. But will I? Will anyone?

Do you edit wiki articles when you find them lacking? Do you not, but then get annoyed when they don't serve your needs (like me)? Leave a comment! Leave a comment if you can think of any ways this can be solved, too. Perhaps an API, much like the ubiquitous facebook 'like', that would send the text you highlight to a 'database' for the wiki page you designate so that it can be reviewed later by someone editing it?


EDIT: Ok, the drawing on that page isn't a Gray's anatomy drawing, but it sure looks like it.

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