Science and Wikipedia
Harvard’s amazing Berkman Center for Internet and Society had their tenth anniversary celebration last week. During one of the talks, the founder of the Berkman Centre, Charles Nesson, asked the
following question about the relationship between Universities and Wikipedia:
Wikipedia is the instantiation of the building of the knowledge commons. Why didn’t it come out of a university?
I think it’s an important question. It bothers me a lot that Wikipedia didn’t come out of a University. Academics make a big song and dance about their role in advancing human knowledge, yet they’ve played only a bit part in developing one of the most important tools for the advancement of human knowledge built in my lifetime.
Anyway, here’s my response to the question, excerpted from a draft of the first chapter of my book:
Given that Wikipedia’s stated vision is to give “every single person in the world free access to the sum of all human knowledge”, you might guess it was started by scientists eager to collect all of human knowledge into a single source. In fact, in the early days very few professional scientists were involved. To contribute would arouse suspicions from your colleagues that you were wasting time that could be spent on more “useful” things, like teaching, or writing papers and grants. Even today, contributing to Wikipedia is regarded as a low-value activity by most professional scientists.
Some scientists reading this will object that contributing to Wikipedia isn’t really science. And that’s certainly true if you take a narrow view of what science is, if you believe it’s about doing research in the ivory tower, and publishing in specialized scientific journals. However, if you take a broader view of what science is, if you believe that it’s about discovering how the world works, and sharing that understanding with the rest of humanity, then the lack of early scientific support for Wikipedia looks like an opportunity lost.
[…] It’s not that scientists disapprove of Wikipedia; indeed, many find it an incredibly valuable resource, not as the final word on a topic, but rather as a starting point and reference work. It’s that within the culture of science there are no incentives to contribute to Wikipedia, and so contributing is a low-status and therefore low-priority activity.
It’s important to appreciate how astonishing this state of affairs is. Wikipedia is one of the most important intellectual innovations of our time. It or its descendants may one day rank alongside innovations such as the Great Library of Alexandria or the US Library of Congress. Yet scientists, supposedly the fount of innovation in our society, not only played virtually no role in setting up Wikipedia, contribution was actually actively discouraged within the scientific community. The early stages of development were instead due to an ad hoc group of people, most from outside science; founder Jimmy Wales had a background in finance and as a web developer for an “erotic search engine”, not science. Nowadays, Wikipedia’s success has to a limited extent legitimized contribution within the scientific community, but the lack of early involvement by scientists is still remarkable.
I don’t see a complete solution to this problem, or how to prevent a repeat as more tools of the same order of importance as Wikipedia are created. A partial solution is to build credible tools for measuring contributions outside the conventional journal-citation system, contributions that are presently considered unconventional.