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.


  1. Michael

    Well written. In total hindight it’s not that surprising. First of all academics are terrible at developing “products” and while Wikipedia is a resource, it is also a product, one that addresses a certain market need. That requires thinking that most academics just don’t have or are unwilling to consider.

    In addition, Wikipedia breaks the notion of what most academics, esp scientists, might consider a “peer”. That’s a big barrier, which IMO is slowly being overcome.

    Now personally, given who reads Wikipedia, I don’t believe that it should be an expert resource, but be more general with pointers to expert sources.

  2. Small point:

    wasting time that could be spent on more “useful” things, like teaching, or writing papers and grants

    Most scientists sneer at teaching, too.

  3. Hi Deepak,

    I completely agree. The attitudes you mention (aversion to “products”, attitudes towards non-peers) are either going to need to change, or academia’s self-proclaimed role as the fount of innovation is going to get less and less credible.

  4. Bill – That’s true of many (though far from all) scientists at big research Universities. Doesn’t seem to be so true at many smaller Universities, though. I know plenty of scientists who treat teaching as their first priority, and research as a second.

  5. Perhaps one of the reasons it didn’t come out of the ivory tower is that, in general, academics are not fans “stamp collecting”? I mean, I think the type of “creative” worshiped by the soap castlers is not the kind valued in academia.

  6. Dave, I’m not sure I follow your comment. Are you saying that Wikipedia is “just” stamp collecting, and therefore not worth academics’ time?

    (I don’t know what a soap castler is, and neither, apparently, does Google.)

  7. Michael,

    This may be off-topic, but research scientists *did* invent and build the Web, via CERN. The web is the key enabling technology for Wikipedia. I think of that in some sense as the “hardware” and wikipedia as the “software”. To continue the analogy, many different pieces of software can be run on the one piece of hardware.

    I’m not too distressed that one piece of software – Wikipedia – didn’t come out of academia. I’m damn happy that the innovation it represents will transform academia, which likes all power structures has a bad tendency to ossify if not knocked around occasionally.



  8. Hi

    The truth is innovation -by definition- happens where it is least expected. Yes, scientists missed the Wikipedia phenomenon. But scientists and academics created the internet and the world wide web, while industry sputtered and “didn’t get it” for about two decades.

    I recommend “High stakes, no prisoners” by Charles Ferguson, it tells this story well. It is remarkable that most scientists know the story, but haven’t really internalized it.



  9. Andrew and Gordon,

    Tim Berners-Lee was a programmer at CERN, not one of the physicists. And he encountered major hostility in trying to create it; it certainly was not something CERN was keen to do. Only a few years later did CERN conveniently remember their “role” in creating the web.

    So the web seems is an example of a single individual in an academic environment overcoming considerable odds to do something innovative.

    In the case of Wikipedia, it’s a social construct of a large group of people, not a single person. In such an inherently social situation, where network effects are important, the systematic suppression of innovation is considerably more worrying.

  10. Typical academics are very concerned with getting credit for their ideas.

    This is certainly understandable, as ideas are their main currency.

    An academic can get some credit by writing a good review paper, which is a lot like a good wikipedia entry. But without having ownership of that entry — without being able to put it on a C.V. — there’s no credit.

    I’ve heard of efforts to build an “expert authored” wiki — I think it’s called…. knol? Don’t know if it’s going anywhere.

    But I agree that having some sort of credit associated with contributing to a wiki would attract more academics.

    The other discouraging thing, to academics, is wikipedia’s prohibition against original research. This means the person most capable of writing an entry about a newly developing topic is not allowed to do so. If this were allowed, and authors got credit, wikipedia would look pretty different (for better or worse) — and I imagine many more academics would be involved.

  11. “Are you saying that Wikipedia is “just” stamp collecting, and therefore not worth academics’ time?”

    I think most academics would view it this way, yes. Which isn’t to say, like you claim, that it isn’t a superb innovation.

    Oh: Ivory is a brand of soap.

  12. > he encountered major hostility in trying to create it

    Michael, do you have a reference/link/isbn for those of us whose interest has been picqued by organisational resistance to innovation?


  13. Ken – It’s in Tim Berners-Lee’s book “Weaving the Web”. There’s a particular paragraph in the book that I have in mind, where he talks about the problems that he encountered. I don’t have immediate access, unfortunately.

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