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Academics, in New Move, Begin to Work With Wikipedia

Washington—The call to action was all over the Association for Psychological Science’s annual meeting here this past weekend. “Attention APS Members. Take Charge of Your Science,” fliers shouted. Promotional ads in the conference programs urged the society’s 25,000 members to join the APS Wikipedia Initiative and “make sure Wikipedia—the world’s No. 1 online encyclopedia—represents psychology fully and accurately.” And the Wikimedia Foundation, which backs the encyclopedia, was holding editing demonstrations in the middle of the conference exhibit hall.

Academics have held the online, user-written reference work in some disdain, said Mahzarin R. Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard University, “but now I’m hearing nothing but enthusiasm, and I really think this is going to work.” Ms. Banaji, the association’s president, has put the prestige of a leading scholarly group—and her own name—behind the project, which involves a new interface custom-designed to make encyclopedia entries easier to write and edit, a nascent social network that links scholars who share interests, and tutorials for professors on ways to make writing for Wikipedia part of course assignments.

Anthony G. Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who was watching the editing demonstration, said he has asked seven students in his “Implicit and Unconscious Cognition” course to work on Wikipedia articles as part of the coursework. “This is repair work,” he said. “There is so much in Wikipedia that is inadequate.” Or plain inaccurate, said Alan G. Kraut, the association’s executive director.

But getting academics to fix it is a tall order, Ms. Banaji admitted. “I know my colleagues won’t really want to write Wikipedia articles. It just won’t be seen as important, because it isn’t going on their CV,” she said.

Yet she became convinced that working on Wikipedia was a priority after becoming entranced by Wikipedia’s “featured article of the day,” a detailed, finely sourced article selected and sent out daily by the editors. “I enjoyed reading them, and they became part of my daily conversation,” she recalls. “So then I went and looked at some of the psychology articles, and it was bad. They were really old, out-of-date stuff.” But Wikipedia gets 13 million visitors a day, so these inaccuracies, she realized, were the public face of psychology, far more than any professional journal. Of 5,500 psychology articles in the online reference, only nine have been rated as good by Wikipedia’s peer-assessment process, according to the psychology association.

So the question became how to motivate scholars to do something about that situation. Motivation, Ms. Banaji said, is something psychologists should know a little about. “I thought if I put my office behind a plea, that would ease the stigma a little. But still, asking academics to edit Wikipedia is a little like telling them to eat their vegetables because its good for them. We needed something more.”

She and Mr. Kraut felt that the something more was teaching. “Everyone in academe teaches. And the course provides an amazing moment, when you work with advanced undergraduates or grad students on writing assignments. What if we make working on Wikipedia part of those assignments?” (At about the same time—and Ms. Banaji said this was a complete coincidence—the Wikimedia Foundation began pushing the encyclopedia as a teaching tool, telling professors it could help students learn how to critically evaluate sources if it was used in writing tasks.)

She contacted Robert E. Kraut, a psychologist and specialist in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University (and brother of the psychology group’s executive director). Mr. Kraut and one of his graduate students, Rosta Farzan, designed the new portal. It matches volunteer writers with others who share interests in particular topics, gives professors sample syllabi for assignments, and adds software that makes it easier to insert more-sophisticated content.

“I think graduate students and professors are going to do this,” said the other Mr. Kraut, the one who directs the association. “We’re saying APS wants it, and that’s going to lessen some of the Wikipedia sting.”

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