Wikimedia as a public engagement tool for the arts and humanities

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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

"One of the most rewarding aspects can be in helping shape the public image of their field, say contributors. For many subjects – including scholarly topics – it is very often Wikipedia pages that are the top hits on Google, and for scholars who want their field represented accurately or interestingly, contributing to Wikipedia can help." - The Guardian, 29 March 2011

"Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don't believe there's much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history." - William Cronon, President of the American Historical Association, February 2012


With the growing emphasis on public engagement, researchers 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, encourage interaction and participation, or to co-organise events that directly engage the public.


What is Wikimedia?

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.


"Through user-generated efforts, Wikipedia is comprehensive, current, and far and away the most trustworthy Web resource of its kind. It is not the bottom layer of authority, nor the top, but in fact the highest layer without formal vetting. In this unique role, it therefore serves as an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web." - Casper Grathwohl, Oxford University Press, 7 January 2011

  • 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.
  • 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
Henry VIII of England 438,855 Postmodernism 127,116
Habeas Corpus 123,500 John Locke 179,382
The Great Gatsby 163,208 World War I 516,579
Salvador Dali 163,313 Romeo and Juliet 158,350

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


A common question is, “How does Wikipedia determine what is or isn’t true?” In fact, Wikipedia itself does not try to determine truth, but depends on the existing institutions of research and scholarship. Like any encyclopedia, Wikipedia is tertiary literature. It cannot publish raw data or original research. Its content aims to be factual rather than promotional, and has to be verifiable in reliable published sources (for academic topics, this usually means peer-reviewed journals). It is an original work, not in the knowledge it imparts, but in how it makes that knowledge accessible to the widest possible audience.

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 researchers, 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 researchers or their work 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 researchers considering contributing in their area of expertise.

Musicology for the masses

A discussion on the American Musicological Society email list in 2006 led to some members improving relevant Wikipedia articles. Music historian Christian McGuire invited colleagues to "take up the task to find those articles on Wikipedia, in which we have expertise, and ensure that the primary source and bibliographic information is 'correct' and that the article itself reflects the content of those sources."

As a result, Grove Music Online (a reputable, expert-authored reference) had a tenfold increase in its referrals from Wikipedia. People were consulting Wikipedia for an overview, then following links to Grove and other reliable sources for further information. As this example shows, Wikipedia does not compete with scholarly sources but brings them to wider public attention.

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 researchers, 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.

//Need a short case study of content donation//

Other considerations

Are my contributions credited?

Although the authors of a Wikipedia article are not credited directly on the page, clicking on “View history” reveals a list of all edits, however minor, with links to each relevant author’s profile. This allows what is called microattribution: individual sentences and even words can be credited to specific authors. Each user has a public record of contributions, so it is easy to demonstrate the improvements you have made across Wikipedia or to specific articles.

Will my contributions be deleted?

As with any other publisher, expert contributions might be reworded and copy-edited. If a Wikipedia article is well-referenced, complete and neutral, removing content without good reason is considered vandalism. It is a good idea, but not essential, to monitor the article and respond to queries from other editors on its Discussion page.

Can I write about my own research or employer?

There have been high-profile cases of individuals or corporations trying to “game” Wikipedia for self-promotion. This often backfires, creating negative publicity. As a result, the site’s regular contributors are wary of newcomers who edit in a promotional or self-serving way. It is possible to edit an article about your employing institution, but this needs to be done with great care. Transparency is central to how the Wikimedia projects work. If you could be interpreted as having a conflict of interest, declare so on the relevant discussion page. It is useful, but not necessary, to have an established Wikipedian mentor: they can both smooth over relations with other users and advise whether your activities might conflict with the site’s policies. You can also consider contributing Open educational resources to Wikiversity which operates in a different fashion.

Can I maintain privacy?

Unlike many other social web sites, the Wikimedia projects require only an email address when creating an account: it is left up to the user whether or not to share any further details such as real name or location. A user profile can list qualifications, publications and areas of interest but equally it could be left blank. It is usually possible to be open about potential conflicts of interest (see above) by naming your employer and general area of expertise, without sharing details that would identify you as an individual.

It is possible to contribute without logging in, but it is preferable for a number of reasons to register an account. Without an account, your edits will be logged with your computer’s internet address, which can be traced to a physical location. Making all your edits under a named account is also a way to build up a record of constructive edits, and hence a positive reputation with other contributors. It also makes it much easier to interact with other users, including asking them for help.

Further reading

Grathwohl, C (2011) "Wikipedia Comes of Age" The Chronicle of Higher Education

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

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

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

McGuire, C (2006) "Wikipedia thoughts from AMS" U-Jive (blog) Retrieved 26 November 2011

JISC Digital Media advice sheet on Wikimedia Commons (forthcoming)


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
Philip Pothen, the Arts and Humanities Research Council
Darren Logan, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Staff at the Medical Research Council, London

(Other editors please add yourself here)

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