Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Wikipedia: Why should female academic qualitative researchers care?

I have been slow to come to the Wikipedia party.  I knew people who edited.  I had heard other academics complain, “never use Wikipedia as a reference in a professional paper!”  I used it regularly myself.   I realized it wasn’t perfect, and I took the information with a grain of salt, glancing over the references to see where the stuff came from.  Sometimes I quoted Wikipedia because I wanted to reference the information most people had access to at any given time.  But by and large, Wikipedia was backgrounded for me. 

That was until recently, when, thanks to my Library colleague, Sara Marks, I began to pay attention.  For over a decade, Sara has been editing Wikipedia, leading wikihackathons, and attending Wikimania, the international conference of Wikipedians.  She is deeply into it. 

So, when I went to her recently and said I would like to see if I could use Wikipedia editing as a practical means of using the information my advanced qualitative research class would glean from writing papers on methodological topics…her eyes begin to glow with a strange light.  It could be done, she promised me.  I should have realized she was choking back a smile, pleased to think she might be adding more Wikipedians to the institution. 

In anticipation of getting started planning a project, I began, on my own, to dip into Wikipedia and see what was already available on my topic.  The article on qualitative research was one of the first places I visited.  

It’s not a very inviting place.  There is a banner across the top warning the reader that the article has multiple problems—related to writing and references.  The topic seems to be “owned” by sociology, as it is linked to that project.  Based on some of the text near the beginning, I had the feeling it might have been written by a student of Robert Bicklin (of Bogden and Bicklin fame!)  At least, I thought, there is lots to do here.  Definitely room for growth as an editor. 

Interesting, but I wasn’t getting close to my key concerns which I would express like this:

  • Why does anyone care about Wikipedia?  Why is it such a phenomenon?
  • Why should I, as an academic, care about Wikipedia?  [Many academics hate it with a passion, so why am I hanging around here looking at it?]
  • Why should I, as a qualitative researcher, care about Wikipedia?  [If the generic article possesses warnings, what is the state of the other articles related to this topic?]
  • Why should I, as a teacher, care about Wikipedia? [Do I want students to struggle with poorly formed text and mis-information?  Is that learning?  Shouldn’t they be given the right information and the best models?]
  • Why should I, as a woman, care about Wikipedia? [I was already aware that there was a dearth of women represented on Wikipedia, but poking around I found that only 10% of the editors are female.]

Here are some reasons that I have come up with to answer my questions:

Wikipedia is one of the top Internet sites in the world.  It has more unique visitors visit it every day than multiple of the world’s top newspapers and other communication sites.  It is developing repositories of information in languages from across the world. 

Wikipedia is a unique experiment in community knowledge creation, primarily driven by volunteers.  The information on Wikipedia is getting better and better.  It grows, changes, and is revised with great rapidity (in certain areas).  Some disciplines or organizations are taking on the task of vetting the information in their area of expertise.  As this happens, Wikipedia takes on a greater and greater role as a central source of information. 

Wikipedia is widely accessible, unlike many kinds of journals or books in specific disciplinary areas.  For many people in different corners of the world, Wikipedia may be a primary text.  If qualitative researchers want to make their topics known to the world, they probably need to care about the kind and quality of information that is represented about qualitative research in Wikipedia.  As with many things technological, however, I would bet that Wikipedia has not yet caused the hearts of too many qualitative researchers to beat faster. 

As I searched for resources about how to teach with Wikipedia, I realized that it was a phenomenal tool.  Higher education classrooms around the globe have begun to make Wikipedia editing a component of a dynamic class.  I was excited to see that I would not be alone if I undertook this effort.  Moreover, there were good resources available to help me hone my skills. 

This last week, Michelle Obama was featured on a documentary about the ways girls are losing out in the educational arena.  To be blunt, millions of girls around the world are not even enrolled in school.  If they were in school, maybe they would be asked to turn to Wikipedia to find information—where women are under-represented, and few women are participating in the development of what has become a universal text.  That’s not good.  Wikipedia clearly needs women’s participation.  I find it thrilling to think that I could be developing texts that could become part of the curricula for these unknown girls and women who may be about to begin their education. 

I realize that it might be a slow path, but I think I see Wikipedia in the future of this female, academic, qualitative researcher.  Tune in for more…

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