Wikimedia as a public engagement tool for scientists

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The intention is to make this up as an eight-page brochure, to be distributed as a PDF and on paper. Text that appears in blockquote in this version will be in pull-quotes or highlight boxes in the printed version.

"I think we're the most efficient charity there is by a long shot in terms of the number of people we impact for a small amount of money." - Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, quoted by the BBC, 14 January 2011

“An encyclopaedia will be an overall attempt by the knowledgeable, the learned societies or anyone else, to represent the state-of-the-art in their field. An encyclopaedia will be a living document, as up to date as it can be, instantly accessible at any time. [...] A measure of a paper's standing may be conveyed by the number of links it is away from an encyclopaedia.” - Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, in Physics World June 1992, nine years before the creation of Wikipedia. Emphasis added.


With the growing emphasis on public engagement, scientists are increasingly seeking ways to promote public understanding, interaction with their research and broader discussion of their work. Wikipedia and its sister projects provide a way to reach the broadest possible public. Wikimedia UK, the national charity supporting those projects, can work with institutions and individuals to help them expose their work to a vast online audience, or to co-organise events that directly engage the public.


What is Wikimedia?

“Dear Wikipedia, I want to thank you and to compliment you on your service. I often use it, especially also for technical information in physics and astronomy. Just now I was impressed by the density of information in your article on QCD, the theory of the strong interaction, in particular, its history.” Jack Steinberger, 1988 Physics Nobel Laureate, 9 September 2010

The Wikimedia projects are a set of collaborative, volunteer-run web sites, hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation (a US charity) with the stated goal of bringing the sum of human knowledge to everyone on the planet. This goal is reflected in the fact that the projects are multilingual, operating in more than 280 languages.

Wikimedia’s text and media content is free as in “free speech” as well as in “free beer”: it can be copied, reused and adapted, subject to minimal licensing restrictions, which usually require that the source must be credited and any derivative works must be shared under the same terms. Full copyright (“all rights reserved”) or “educational use only” material cannot be accepted.

In addition to Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, there are eight other projects:

  • Wikimedia Commons, a free archive of digital media (images, audio and video clips)
  • Wikisource, a library of documents
  • Wiktionary, the free dictionary and thesaurus
  • Wikiversity, a platform for educational materials and courses
  • Wikibooks, like Wikipedia but for textbooks and manuals
  • Wikispecies, a directory of species
  • Wikinews, a news portal with stories written and reviewed by the community
  • Wikiquote, a collection of quotations

There are many other sites with “wiki” in their name but no connection to Wikimedia. A “wiki” is simply a web site that can be edited quickly by its own users. All the Wikimedia projects use the same freely available platform, MediaWiki, so the basic skills needed to contribute to any of them are the same. The Foundation and other Wikimedia organisations around the world are funded by donations, allowing the projects to stay online without adverts and without commercial influences on their content.


“Wikipedia is now the first port of call for people seeking information on subjects that include scientific topics. Like it or not, other scientists and the public are using it to get an overview of your specialist area. Wikipedia's user-friendly global reach offers an unprecedented opportunity for public engagement with science.” - Alex Bateman and Darren Logan, letter to Nature, 8 December 2010

  • Wikimedia is collectively the fifth most popular web property, reaching 477 million visitors per month in mid 2011, aiming for 1 billion per month by 2015. There are roughly 100,000 regular contributors, all unpaid volunteers.
  • As of November 2011, Wikipedia has a total of 20 million encyclopaedia articles (3.7 million in English). Wikimedia Commons has 11 million media files.
  • The main page of English Wikipedia gets about 5 million hits per day.
  • In a survey published by Nature in 2011, 72% of scientists said they consult Wikipedia at least once per week, and 26% do so daily.
  • Wikipedia articles are usually in the top few search engine hits for a term, if not the top hit. Searching for information on an organisation or public figure, some users prefer to go first to Wikipedia, which has a reputation for neutrality, rather than an official web site, which might be very promotional.
  • Its wide readership and immediacy mean that Wikipedia content sparks off many discussions and responses on forums, blogs and social networks. For example, about a third of the facts discussed on the popular forum “Today I Learned” ( are found in Wikipedia.
  • The other Wikimedia projects have varying levels of content, quality and public impact. Some have only a small fraction of the usage of Wikipedia or Commons, but are still very prominent compared to web sites in general. Being multilingual, they reach large audiences that other popular sites ignore.

The site gives daily and monthly access statistics for each individual article. Some examples are given below for the month of September 2011:

Article Views Article Views
Asperger Syndrome 426,803 Oxygen 164,842
Dependent and independent variables 220,831 Volcano 160,940
Speed of light 247,930 Lymphoma 226,934
Chromosome 103,269 Carl Sagan 141,791

These numbers show that, by writing for Wikipedia, one reaches an audience many times larger than almost any other form of publication.


The Wikimedia projects are a product of social, rather than technical, innovation. Getting to grips with them involves understanding how they function as communities. The guiding principle is known as Good Faith Collaboration: users are expected to resolve differences through civil, open discussion. When people are persistently disruptive, the community can undo their damage and block them. Unlike many online fora, Wikimedia sites do not tolerate personal attacks, including sexist, racist or homophobic humour.

In its early years, English Wikipedia was focused on creating a large quantity of articles. As the project has matured, the emphasis has shifted to quality rather than quantity. Articles can be reviewed for completeness, verifiability and neutrality and promoted to “Good Article”, then to “Featured Article”. This involves a process of public review by uninvolved users: authors cannot unilaterally declare their work to be professional quality. This is a kind of peer review process, albeit not necessarily expert peer review. Reviewers are, however, expected to check an article’s references and ensure that they have been accurately and fairly summarised.

When an article is new or has had a major expansion, it may qualify for the “Did You Know?” process, in which a fact from the article is featured on the Wikipedia’s front page. Featured Articles (FAs) are “professional, outstanding, and thorough”. They can get more attention than other articles, both via the Featured Content index and by being selected to appear on the front page as “Today’s Featured Article”.

Public engagement possibilities

Events for the public

Wikimedia UK has pioneered a format for a half-day or evening event in which a subject expert can involve the public in using Wikipedia to actively learn about their area. This engages the public not just in dialogue with the expert, but in making a small contribution to writing about it for a wider audience.

  • A subject expert gives an initial presentation about their own experience researching or learning the topic. This might include explaining how the subject is researched, debunking popular misconceptions, and highlighting surprising discoveries. This could even be done in a quiz format, like the popular TV show QI.
  • A Wikimedia trainer explains the distinctive features of Wikimedia and gives an overview of the existing articles on the subject.
  • The audience try out the basic steps of wiki editing, starting with their own user profiles, before making their first edit in the encyclopaedia proper.
  • The audience are offered sources that will help them improve articles in the relevant area, which might include online text or paper sources. These might be openly licensed text that they can paste into or copyrighted text which they have to summarise or paraphrase.
  • The audience each make some individual contribution. Wikipedia trainers and subject experts are on hand to answer questions.
  • At the end of the session, the audience feed back what they have worked on and anything surprising they have learnt from the day. * Wikipedia trainers make sure the audience are welcomed on-wiki as well as in the room.
  • The audience go away with both an increased knowledge of the subject and the skills to write about it for Wikipedia.

Experts contributing directly

Improving Wikipedia articles is a way to ensure the public are better informed about your area. A literature review (from a thesis, for example) can be an ideal starting point, being a well-referenced, neutral and complete overview of a specific area. Wikipedia text needs to be accessible to a broad lay audience with no background in the subject, as with any mass media. Wikimedia UK provides workplace training events to help experts - including scientists, teachers, and librarians - to get to grips with Wikimedia projects and become effective contributors.

Wikipedia has to give each source its proper weight rather than exaggerating the significance of research. It can only have articles about scientists or about pieces of research when they are notable enough to have been written about extensively in third-party publications. Writing about one’s own work or one’s employer is possible, but you should be open about potential conflicts of interest (see below). Logan et al.’s “Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia” article (see Further reading) is essential reading for scientists considering contributing in their area of expertise.

Cancer Research UK

In late 2010 and early 2011, the charity Cancer Research UK called in Wikimedia UK trainers to help some of its researchers and science communicators improve articles related to Cancer. CRUK has since formed a Wikipedia club that meets regularly. The resulting press attention included an editorial and double-page article in The Times.

Sharing images and other content

The most developed Wikipedia articles - such as Star, Protein or Australia - are richly illustrated with photographs, diagrams and sometimes moving images. Wikimedia projects can only use content for which the copyright has expired or which the owner has licenced under Creative Commons. For scientists, sharing these files is one easy way to gain exposure for their work. Articles that reach Good Article or Featured Article status have to be illustrated by appropriate photographs, diagrams or other media. Hence the inclusion of a good quality image can help an article reach much greater exposure.

If a paper is published in an open access journal then the licensing already allows Wikimedia to copy figures, crediting the author. Wikimedia UK can help you draw this to the attention of the relevant Wikipedia editors. Sharing the file yourself can be as easy as going to, selecting the “upload image” wizard, and following step-by-step instructions, which include making clear the author and copyright holder of the file. Each file has an associated box clearly crediting the donor.

[Illustration of image credit]

Remember that Wikimedia deals in more than just media files and encyclopedia articles.

  • Out-of-copyright primary text, such as the correspondence of a historical figure, can be shared through Wikisource.
  • Scans of documents can be shared with Wikimedia Commons.
  • Materials with an explicit educational purpose can be put on Wikiversity.

A World-famous Frog This image of a live frog levitating in a strong magnetic field was shared by Lijnis Nelemans in 2005. At the time of writing, it appears on more than sixty pages across the Wikimedia projects, illustrating concepts such as Diamagnetism, The Ig Nobel Prize, and Frogs in Popular Culture.

Driving public interest in peer-reviewed research

Darren Logan, a scientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, worked with the Wikipedia community to write an overview article on Major Urinary Proteins and take it through the review processes to Featured Article. As a result of being “Today’s Featured Article” on 2 August 2010, the article received 37,000 hits in four days. Its many footnotes included links to papers published by Logan and colleagues in peer-reviewed journals. Some of these were in open access journals including PLoS One and Biomed Central. The open licences for these papers meant that figures could be copied into the Wikipedia article. It also meant that Wikipedia’s general audience could follow the links and read the original papers themselves.

Other considerations

Further reading

Logan DW, Sandal M, Gardner PP, Manske M, Bateman A (2010) “Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia.” PLoS Comput Biol 6(9): e1000941. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000941

Poulter ML, Peel M (2011) “Physics on Wikipedia” Physics World September 2011

Logan, D (18 May 2011) “Being a scientist in the age of Wikipedia” Wellcome Trust Blog,

Wikipedia contributors. "Wikipedia: Five pillars" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 Nov 2011

Wikipedia contributors. "Wikipedia: No original research" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 Nov 2011

JISC Digital Media advice sheet on Wikimedia Commons (forthcoming)

Jack Steinberger quotation taken from


Main author: Dr. Martin Poulter, Wikimedia UK.

This document benefited from discussions with and input from:
Dave Jarman, Research & Enterprise Development, the University of Bristol
Sam Knight, Wikimedia Outreach Ambassador (2011), the University of Bristol
Staff from the Centre for Public Engagement, the University of Bristol
Darren Logan, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Staff at the Medical Research Council, London and Swindon
Philip Pothen, the Arts and Humanities Research Council
(Other editors please add yourself here)

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