Wikipedia and writing

Academics have a complicated relationship with Wikipedia. There’s a somewhat reluctant acknowledgement that Wikipedia is an enormously used resource, but as the graphical abstract accompanying this recent J Chem Ed article1 shows, WE ARE NOT TOO HAPPY ABOUT IT. Others have embraced the fact that Wikipedia is a well-used resource, and used this to frame writing assignments as part of chemistry coursework.2-4  There is also some very elegant work on teasing out understanding of students’ perceptions of Wikipedia for organic chemistry coursework.5

Graphical abstract of M. D. Mandler, Journal of Chemical Education, 2017, 94, 271-272.
Graphical abstract of M. D. Mandler, Journal of Chemical Education, 2017, 94, 271-272.

Inspired by a meeting with our University’s Wikimedian in Residence I decided to try my hand at creating a Wikipedia article. The topic of the article was about a little-known chemist who hadn’t been written about before, and I’d say is unknown generally. I found her name listed on the Women in Red page, which is outside the scope of this post, save to say: go look at that page.

Writing the article was interesting, and some implications from a teaching perspective are listed:

  1. If there isn’t a Wikipedia article, writing a summary overview is quite a lot of work.

One of the great things about Wikipedia is of course that it offers a nice summary of the thing you are interested in, which then prompts you to go and look up other stuff which you can then pretend to have found originally. But what if there isn’t a Wikipedia article? Where do you start? Of course Googling and getting some information is part of this, but there is a step before, or at least coincident with this, which involves scoping out the content of what you want to summarise. This will involve reading enough so that you can begin this overview plan, and then searching to find information about the plan. In chemistry, the order of searching will likely go Google > Google Scholar > Databases like Web of Science etc > Google Books… Because of my context, I also got stuck into the RSC’s Historical Collection (a terribly under-promoted amazing resource). In any case, there is some good work to do here on developing information literacy (which in a formal education setting would probably need to be structured).

  1. #citethescheise

I was encouraged in writing to cite my work well, linking to original and verifiable sources. I am long enough in the game to know this, and may be known to advise novice academic writers to “referencify” their work for journals; the academic genre is one where we expect lots of superscript numbers to make a text look like it is well informed. Wikipedia has a very particular style where essentially every fact needs a citation. This is something I did reasonably well, but was very pleasantly surprised to see that someone else looked quite closely at these (new articles are reviewed by people who make amendments/changes). I know this because in my case I cited a modern J Mat Chem paper which offered an example of where the original contribution of my chemist had been cited about century later in 2016 (notability is a requirement in Wikipedia so I had this in mind). This reference had been checked, with the relevant line from it added to the citation. It was reassuring to know that someone took the time to consider the references in this amount of detail.

From a teaching point of view, we try in lab report and theses to encourage students to verify claims or opinion with data or literature. This seems like very good training for that. The point was also made to me that it teaches students to explore the veracity of what they read on Wikipedia, by considering the sources quoted.

  1. Learning to write

Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia (duh) and as such it has a particular style. I actually found it very difficult to write initially and went through quite a few drafts on Word with a view to keeping my piece pretty clinical and free of personal opinion.  Asking students to write Wikipedia articles will undoubtedly improve their writing of that style; I’m not too sure yet how beneficial that is; I feel the greater benefits are in information searching and citing, and in scoping out a narrative. But that is probably a personal bias. Edit: fair point made in this tweet:

  1. Writing to learn

Whatever about developing writing skills, I certainly learned a lot about my subject as well as much more context about the particular topic. Quite a lot of what I read didn’t make it into the final article (as it might have, for example if I were writing an essay). But as we know from preparing lecture notes, preparing a succinct summary of something means that you have to know a lot more than the summary you are presenting.

Why Wikipedia?

In challenging the arguments about Wikipedia such as those indicated in the graphical abstract above, I do like the idea of students getting to know and understand how the site works by interacting with it. Wikipedia usage is here to stay and I do think there is a strong argument around using it in academic writing and information literacy assignments. One very nice outcome is that something real and tangibly useful is being created, and there is a sense of contributing. Writing for something that is going to go live to the world means that it isn’t “just another exercise”. And Wikipedia articles always come to the top of Google searches (mine was there less than an hour after publishing).

Search view at 16:12 (left) after publishing, and at 16:43 (right)
Search view at 16:12 (left) after publishing, and at 16:43 (right).

I’m interested now in looking at Wikipedia writing, certainly in informal learning scenarios. A particular interest is going to be exploring how it develops information literacy skills and how we structure this with students.

My page, I’m sure you are dying to know is:

Lots of useful points about Wikipedia here – see Did You Know)

With thanks to Ewan McAndrew and Anne-Marie Scott.


  1. M. D. Mandler, Journal of Chemical Education, 2017, 94, 271-272.
  2. C. L. Moy, J. R. Locke, B. P. Coppola and A. J. McNeil, Journal of Chemical Education, 2010, 87, 1159-1162.
  3. E. Martineau and L. Boisvert, Journal of Chemical Education, 2011, 88, 769-771.
  4. M. A. Walker and Y. Li, Journal of Chemical Education, 2016, 93, 509-515.
  5. G. V. Shultz and Y. Li, Journal of Chemical Education, 2016, 93, 413-422.