Help:Wikipedia editing for researchers, scholars, and academics

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

If you are a professional researcher, engineer, mathematician, scholar, graduate student, or other academic, you are very likely already familiar with writing survey articles and survey sections of research articles. Writing a Wikipedia article is almost the same, but there are a few differences that it might be helpful to know about before you start.


You already have other avenues for publishing your writing professionally, and plenty of demands on your time. Why should you take the extra time to write for Wikipedia as well?

  • Public service. Part of being an academic is communicating to the public, and Wikipedia is a great way of writing about research in a way that can be found and read by the public.
  • Give and take. As a researcher you are benefiting from a vast collection of survey articles written by the Wikipedia community. Why not reciprocate and help improve the existing articles by sharing your knowledge?
  • Righting wrongs. You've probably already found some important topics that you know about from your research that are missing from Wikipedia, or worse, described incorrectly. Who better than someone who knows about these topics professionally to repair the damage?
  • Practice. To write well on Wikipedia, you have to pay more attention to matters of readability than you might when writing for your peers. Practicing your writing ability in this way is likely to cause your professional writing to improve.
  • Broaden your knowledge. When you write about a topic, you learn about it yourself; you may well find the topics you write about useful later in your own research. Also, when you carefully survey a topic, you are likely to find out about what is not known as well as what is known, and this could help you find future research projects.
  • It looks good on your vita. Actually, I don't think any tenure committee is going to care about your Wikipedia contributions (but see). And in most cases the fact that you've contributed to an article is invisible to most readers, so it's also not going to do much for making you more famous. But recently the NSF has started to take "broader impacts" more seriously on grant applications, and if you can make a convincing case that your Wikipedia editing activity is significant enough to count as a broader impact then that will probably improve your chances of getting funding. And getting more funding really does look good on your vita.
  • Your advisor asked you to. This may or may not be a good reason, depending on what your advisor asked you to edit. Articles about a general subject area that you're starting to learn about in your own research, as a way of making a public contribution while helping you learn: good. Articles about your advisor (example) or his/her own research: not so good.

Do not go into Wikipedia for the purpose of boosting its coverage of you as a person or of your research publications. It can be OK to cite your own writings in certain situations, but only sparingly, and it is almost never OK to create or edit an article about yourself. If you develop a reputation as a self-promoter, you are likely to get yourself blocked as an editor and your contributions undone or deleted. For more on this topic, see Wikipedia:Conflict of interest.

How to get started editing[edit]

If you intend to edit Wikipedia more than once or twice, and especially if you ever intend to create new articles, there are good reasons to create an account

There are two ways to edit. If you generally write using a WYSIWYG word processor, such as Microsoft Word, you may be more comfortable with the new Visual Editor. If you prefer a WYSIWYM editor such as LaTeX, or know html markup, you may prefer to use wiki markup. Click the "Edit" tab, top right; if you are not logged in to an account, a popup will offer the choice. If you have logged in, you can set your editing mode at Special:Preferences.

For markup, there is a quick cheatsheet of common markup. There are also extensive tutorials on editing.

Social connections[edit]

Peter Murray-Rust, academic and Wikipedia editor, giving a talk at the 2014 Wikimania Conference.[1]

As in academia, newcomers may expect help from established members of the community. You can ask for help at the Wikipedia:Teahouse and a variety of other places. You can even find an experienced Wikipedia editor to act as your Wikipedia-editing supervisor while you learn the basics.

Many cities have face-to-face Wikipedia meetups and Edit-a-thons. There is a global annual academic conference called Wikimania.

One way to stay connected to the greater Wikipedia community is through discipline-specific Wikiprojects. Larger projects include Wikipedia:WikiProject Chemistry, Wikipedia:WikiProject Computer Science, Wikipedia:WikiProject Mathematics, Wikipedia:WikiProject Medicine, Wikipedia:WikiProject Physics, and more specialized projects such as Wikipedia:WikiProject Academic Journals.

The discussion pages for these projects are a good place to ask about the details of formatting articles for that discipline, for finding other editors to help fix problems you've found, and to find out about articles in need of work. For longer lists of projects that might be relevant to your interests, browse the Wikiproject directory, or search.

If you register a username, you can make it easier for fellow editors who need your expertise to find you, by adding your userpage to expertise categories, such as Category:Wikipedian anthropologists.

When you create or make significant changes to an article, you may want to put it on your watchlist.


Don't copyvio. As an academic you will probably find little new in Wikipedia's concept of plagarism. Wikipedia's other rules around copying are often grounded in the need for a Wikipedia-compatible copyright. Copying and pasting from other Wikipedia articles may be ok (but you should state where you've copied it from in the edit summary). Copying or closely paraphrasing your own words, if they appear in a publication that you don't own the copyright of, may not be allowed.

Copying (with accreditation) from open access articles licensed under CC-BY and CC-BY-SA is allowed, even if they are not your own work. See, for instance, the Commons:User:Open Access Media Importer Bot. However, licenses prohibiting commercial use or derivative works are not compatible with Wikipedia (Wikipedia is used commercially, and is itself a derivative work). Attributed short quotes of copyright materials may be fair use. Copyright assistance is available to editors.

Sourcing, verifiability, and notability[edit]

Citations are crucial in Wikipedia writing. In other kinds of academic writing, citations are used mainly to give proper credit for the origin of an idea. In Wikipedia, citations can be used for this purpose, but more often they serve two other purposes:

  • Verifiability. A reader with some level of lay knowledge (e.g., scientific literacy) but without your specialized training should be able to tell whether what you wrote is true by comparing it against the sources you cite.
  • Notability. The main grounds for inclusion of a topic in Wikipedia are that the topic is the subject of multiple published works that are independent of each other. By providing published sources about the topic, you can convince other Wikipedia editors that it's an important enough topic to include in the encyclopedia, and forestall them from trying to delete your content.

Wikipedia articles therefore tend to have a higher citation density than research articles and survey articles. In a research article, much of the content is likely to be original and unsourced, and even in a survey article, you would probably feel free to make up small unsourced derivations that are more than a trivial calculation but that are not important enough to write up as separate research articles. Don't do this in Wikipedia.

Everything in Wikipedia should have a source, an external publication that says the same thing as what you've written. In very short articles, you may be able to get away with leaving all the sources for a separate reference section at the end; for longer articles, the text of the article should have inline footnotes that refer to the list of references at the end.

Ideally, every paragraph of a Wikipedia article (outside of the initial summary paragraph) should have at least one footnote or other source, and in many cases every sentence will have its own source. The general citation guidelines and scientific citation guidelines give more guidance on what does and doesn't need a source.

Living people[edit]

See Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons

For articles about living people, the rules for citing are much stricter: articles without citations and controversial unsourced statements within an article are both subject to deletion. The threshold for how significant an academic should be to warrant having a Wikipedia article about them is, very roughly, at the level one would expect of a full professor at a major research university; see Wikipedia:Notability (academics) for more detailed guidance.

Choosing sources[edit]

Survey/review articles and textbooks usually make the best sources. Journal articles, research monographs, and edited volumes are also pretty good sources, but it is not safe to rely on a single journal article on a controversial topic (because the author may be on one side). Articles in newspapers and magazines about scientific results can also be good sources, but are better for establishing notability than for verifiability (the popular press often gets the science wrong). Try to avoid using self-published lecture notes and web pages as sources (but do use them in Further reading and External links).

If you have a choice between citing something to a textbook and to the original research paper it was published in, cite both: the research paper is an important part of the history of the subject, but the textbook will be better at convincing other editors that the subject is important, better at making the subject verifiable, and probably better at helping novices learn more about the subject. For more on selecting sources, see Wikipedia:Reliable sources, and for an inductive approach, Wikipedia:Reliable source examples. Specific guides for scientific and medical topics are also available.

Citation formatting[edit]

See also Wikipedia:Citing sources

Wikipedia is not as fussy about citation formats as an academic journal. Any functional format can be used. The main thing is just to make sure that everything has a source, and that the citation to the source is complete enough that others can figure out what it is.

You can take one of the two short "Referencing" tutorials. In summary, when using Visual Editor, citation information is entered by pressing the "Cite" button; in wiki markup, citation information is put between <ref>...</ref> tags.

It is rarely necessary to type in the full citation information. Entering only a doi or URL to the publication will usually be enough to let Visual Editor or a robot complete your citation. Failing that, another human editor can tidy your citations, as long as they are comprehensible.

In wiki markup, citation templates hold citation information in a BibTeX-like structured way. If Zotero is your reference manager, you can change a setting and drag-and-drop citations directly from Zotero into Wikipedia, no typing required. If you use Bibdesk, you can install the Wikipedia BibDesk Export Template. There is also a tool to make a markup citation from a doi or some URLs, which can be used in any browser.

Peer review[edit]

If you disagree with someone's edits, the proper way to resolve the conflict is to discuss it on the article's discussion page. Wikipedia stringently adheres to the "evidence, not eminence" principle, so you will need to leave your ego and credentials by the door. Telling other editors that you have a Ph.D. in the subject isn't going to help. To win a dispute over the content of an article, you need to back up your opinion with reliable sources, published material in journals, books, theses, newspapers, etc., that says what you want the article to say.

Unlike some other sites, Wikipedia does not permit any one editor to take control of an article and vet changes by others. Instead, disputes over the content of an article are handled by consensus of all the editors who are interested in the subject (and by some complicated bureaucracy if that fails). So in particular, some of the changes you make are likely to be undone by other people, who may well know less than you about the subject. You need to be prepared for this, and avoid getting into a fight when it happens.

The peer review on Wikipedia can be harsh. Your edits may be reverted by automated tools designed to rapidly remove large volumes of vandalism. The editors using these tools may not be willing to take the time to fix problems in your edit, as they ideally ought to do. Seek more constructive review from other editors. Remember that removed content can be put back with almost no effort (but avoid edit warring). Study of editor trends shows that, sadly, a lot of good would-be contributors disengage rather than discuss when their contributions are rejected.

Wikipedia has a fair number of editors with high-functioning autism and Asperger's. A bit of knowledge and intelligent accommodation can avoid and resolve communications difficulties.

Style and formatting[edit]

The general style of Wikipedia articles is laid out in Wikipedia:Manual of Style. Here are some issues that are a little different from other kinds of academic writing.

  • Articles are broken into sections (marked by putting the section title on a line by itself, with doubled equal signs on both sides of it) and sometimes subsections (tripled equal signs). The first section does not have a title and should provide a useful summary of the whole article for someone who doesn't read any more than just that one section. Everything that's in the first section should be described in more detail in a later section. That is, the first section is closer to being an abstract than it is to being an introduction. There should be a "References" section at the end, containing the references from the article (usually using the {{reflist}} template to incorporate references made inline earlier).
  • The first sentence of an article should provide some context and provide a very brief definition of the article's subject. The title of the article should appear within that sentence, in boldface (surround it by tripled single-quote characters). A standard formula for a first sentence is "In [field name], subject is..."
  • Titles of articles and titles of sections use as much lowercase as possible: only the first word of the title, and proper names within the title, should be capitalized. The same is true for references to other concepts within the text of an article: write "minimum spanning tree", not "Minimum Spanning Tree", and "Wagner's theorem", not "Wagner's Theorem".
  • Articles should be as non-technical as possible. That doesn't mean making things incorrect or leaving out important technical details. What it does mean is avoiding technical language when it is not necessary, providing brief nontechnical definitions for the technical terms you do use, spelling out phrases rather than using acronyms, and providing plenty of context. Start slow and put the more technical parts off to as late as possible within the article. See Wikipedia:Make technical articles understandable.
  • Wikipedia makes extensive use of "wikilinks", those blue links in an article that lead to some other related article. To make a wikilink, surround the term you want to link with doubled square brackets. A reasonable criterion for when to wikilink is: is this something that a reader of this article might want to learn more about? Something between one wikilink per paragraph and one or two wikilinks per sentence is a good idea. But don't link the basic words that everyone already understands, and don't link the same phrase more than once in close succession: we don't want the articles to be a sea of blue. Wikilinks are not a good substitute for having enough context within the actual text of an article: you'd think that, if someone doesn't understand a linked phrase, they'll go to the link to find out about it, but what happens more often is that they just give up. So it may be a good idea, when you wikilink a phrase, to also include a short description of the meaning of the phrase next to it.
  • The first person plural ("we") is very popular in academic writing. It's not popular here. Fortunately it's almost always possible to reword your writing to avoid it. Second person is discouraged. Singular "they" is acceptable as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, though.
  • Examples are good, but don't work them out step-by-step in the manner of a textbook — see WP:NOTHOWTO.
  • Every article has a list of "Categories" at the bottom. If you create a new article, it should have categories too. Find articles on as closely related topics as you can find, and copy the category formatting from them.
  • Mathematical formula formatting is, frankly, a big weak point of Wikipedia, and one that it would take a long time to explain in detail. Fortunately, it's already been done elsewhere: see Wikipedia:Manual of Style (mathematics).
  • Don't feel compelled to include proofs of every mathematical statement. Wikipedia relies on sources a lot more than it relies on proofs. Some proofs can be included, but only when they are useful for helping readers understand the subject rather than merely to verify that it's true.
  • For articles about algorithms, pseudocode is better than code. And if an article has one (code or pseudocode) implementation, that's enough; don't add a second one in your favorite other language.

See also[edit]

A short presentation on Wikipedia editing for academics

Further reading[edit]

  • Logan, Darren W.; Sandal, Massimo; Gardner, Paul P.; Manske, Magnus; Bateman, Alex (2010), "Ten simple rules for editing Wikipedia", PLoS Computational Biology, 6 (9), e1000941, doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000941.
  • Corbyn, Zoe (March 29, 2011), "Wikipedia wants more contributions from academics", The Guardian.
  • Masukume, G.; Kipersztok, L.; Das, D.; Shafee, T.; Laurent, M.; Heilman, J. (November 2016), "Medical journals and Wikipedia: a global health matter", The Lancet Global Health, 4 (11): e791, doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(16)30254-6, PMID 27765289
  • Azzam, Amin; Bresler, David; Leon, Armando; Maggio, Lauren; Whitaker, Evans; Heilman, James; Orlowitz, Jake; Swisher, Valerie; Rasberry, Lane; Otoide, Kingsley; Trotter, Fred; Ross, Will; McCue, Jack D. (2016), "Why Medical Schools Should Embrace Wikipedia" (PDF), Academic Medicine: 1, doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000001381
  • Bond, Alexander L. (2011), "Why ornithologists should embrace and contribute to Wikipedia", Ibis, 153 (3): 640, doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.2011.01135.x
  • ^ His blog post on the conference