In May 2009, Chemistry, Atom, Periodic table, and Carbon each received over 100,000 page views. Our chemistry articles have a wide appeal, including students, scientists, material engineers, and just plain curious folk. WikiProject Chemistry covers nearly 4000 articles and nearly 150 participants. Here to tell us more about the project are Physchim62 and Walkerma.
1. WikiProject Chemistry has several daughter projects covering such aspects as chemical elements and chemicals. What sorts of articles does WikiProject Chemistry provide unique coverage of?
- Physchim62: The simple answer is that the scope of WikiProject Chemistry is "anything on Wikipedia to do with chemistry". That could go from very technical details concerning the MediaWiki software or the CSS to a whole class of articles such as the chemical compounds. The visible side – the talk page tags – are placed on articles which are obviously related to chemistry and not covered by a daughter project: Chemistry and atom are two examples, but we include pH, concentration, chemical reaction and several thousand more.
- WikiProject Chemistry basically works as a set of tools for editors, and by far the most important of those tools is the project talk page. When we identify issues which are starting to monopolise the talk page discussion, we split them off so that WT:CHEMISTRY remains a general meeting point. Both WP:ELEMENTS and WP:CHEMICALS form natural groups of articles which have similar editing needs (and which are particularly prominent, so attract many editors): it makes sense to discuss them on dedicated talk pages, and historically this meant separate daughter WikiProjects. We also have a special page for discussing the technical issues of drawing chemical structures, and other ad hoc structures (many of which are currently inactive, having served their original purpose).
- Walkerma: In one sense, it covers "everything except elements and chemicals". In practice the main article types unique to chemistry are concepts such as acid, chemical groups and families such as alkene, chemical principles and theories such as Avogadro's law, chemical reactions and processes like olefin metathesis and chemists such as Robert Burns Woodward.
2. Excluding articles covered by WP:ELEMENTS and WP:CHEMICALS, WikiProject Chemistry has only three Featured Articles: Aldol reaction, Atom, and Diamond, none of which were brought to FA status by the project's members. While featured articles are not the perfect measure of a project's success, what factors do you attribute to the lack of effort put forth by the project members towards building them?
- Walkerma: I think WP:Chemistry is a less cohesive group than WP:Chemicals or WP:Elements, and so we've only rarely had tight collaborations. I think our general style has been to focus on getting more articles up to a "decent" level, rather than spending a lot of time at WP:FAC; my sense is that we'd rather have 10 B-Class articles than one FA, as the best way to meet the needs of a typical user. I suspect this reflects the fact that chemistry is a very broad subject area with only a few active editors (most of whom work at the daughter projects too), so we have a lot of articles that need serious work! WP:Elements, on the other hand, has a very tight focus and limited number of articles, and they have done a great job of bringing many element articles up to the GA or FA level. We have a long way to go before we can consider that.
- Physchim62: My utter contempt for the featured article process is well known. I think that it's to the credit of the project that its members have spent their time improving encyclopedic content, rather than trying to submit themselves to the shifting sands of a minute group of users who have proclaimed themselves editors-in-chief of Wikipedia. It's not simply that "featured articles are not the perfect measure of a project's success": featured articles are not a valid indicator of anything at all, not even compliance with featured article criteria.
- The answer is almost in the question itself, at least in the three articles you cite. Aldol reaction was worked on by many members of WP:CHEMISTRY during the more than two years between its "promotion" to "featured-article status" and its appearance on the Main Page, simply because the original version was unacceptable, at least in the eyes of the editors who spent hundreds of hours bringing it up to scratch. Diamond is laughable as a featured article these days: I've just downgraded it to start class for WikiProject Chemistry. Atom is definitely a good article, but written from a physicist's point of view: it is not among the best articles that chemists have produced on Wikipedia.
- So, for the three articles you cite as "representing Wikipedia's very best work", I'm unhappy with at least two of them. You couldn't nominate all the substandard featured articles for featured article review, the whole system would collapse (an outcome I'd welcome with open arms, but which hasn't received much support elsewhere). The standard response is clear: Improve them! But no, there are plenty of other things to do that are actually more important.
3. Indeed, it seems that there are always little cracks that need to be filled. What can you tell us about the old Gold Book pilot test?
- Physchim62: Well, I should explain first! The Gold Book is a sort of dictionary for chemists. It contains accepted definitions for much of the jargon which is used, about 6000 terms in total, covering the whole of "chemical science". It is published by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), so it carries a certain institutional weight, although it is not the "last word" on any given definition.
- Back in 2007, we were approached by the group which maintains the Internet version of the Gold Book, who wanted to know if there were any way that they could help Wikipedia through their database. We were obviously delighted for the external recognition, and we set up the pilot project to see how things might work.
- We quickly realised the problem: many of the Gold Book entries are very specific, really just dictionary definitions. The job of finding the entries which would be useful and which could be expanded into encyclopedic articles for a general audience was simply too much. Or, to put it another way, it was just the normal process of improving Wikipedia and so didn't need a specific workgroup.
- Still, the exercise in itself was very useful for us. It led us to expand our system of citation templates for common sources of information (including the Gold Book), for example. It taught us to be less naïvely optimistic when dealing with external partners – even with the best intentions on both sides (as in this case), the partnership can still fall flat if it doesn't offer something to each party. On a personal note, it led me to create a whole new WikiProject devoted to units and systems of measurement, when I would never have believed that there was a need for such a project before. I think we can say that Wikipedia as a whole has profited from the experience, although not in the way that was originally intended.
- Walkerma: I think the exercise was very useful in identifying "low hanging fruit" - the cases where a Gold Book entry matched an article name, for example. But I found that when I came to add Gold Book content into a broader article, it sometimes took several hours of research and writing to provide the necessary context for just one definition, so comprehensive coverage of Gold Book terms looks to be a long way off.
- Physchim62: We also need(ed) to ask ourselves whether it was really such a big deal that Wikipedia doesn't have an article on Mesophase pitch-based carbon fibre (for example)! Comparison with the Gold Book is only one way of measuring the comprehensiveness of our chemistry coverage, there are plenty of others. I'd like to see Wikipedia having all the theory necessary for a bachelor's degree course in chemistry, which we don't at the moment but we do have the editors who could create it – many of them earn their livings precisely by teaching such courses!
4. What gaps in coverage exist that could be filled by such contributors?
- Walkerma: Despite it being a major area of chemistry, our coverage of physical chemistry is very spotty because we don't have many active members with that speciality; I think most of our active editors are inorganic or organic chemists. Chemistry is a subject where it can be hard for an expert in one area to write a good and thorough article on a subject outside their own field. Another weak area historically was biochemistry, but thankfully this coverage has been greatly improved with some excellent work by the closely related Molecular and Cellular Biology WikiProject.
- Physchim62: I was flattered to see you mention materials science in the introduction to this interview, as I think it's one of weakest areas! We had a very keen polymer scientist in the project a few years ago, who then became an admin and now spends his time doing "other useful work" for Wikipedia ;) A regular story, WP:CHEMISTRY seems to be quite a good training ground for admins!
- I think our particular trial by ordeal comes in early October each year, when the Nobel Prize for Chemistry is announced. We have the eyes of other Wikipedia editors upon us (as the award is a virtual certainty for WP:ITN), and also the eyes of many, many users who come to Wikipedia looking for an explanation of what on earth is so important about that particular discovery! While it is fairly easy to write a basic biography of the winner(s), it is very hard to describe their research if we are missing coverage.
- Walkerma: Physchim62's comments remind me of nanoscience and nanotechnology - areas of immense importance in chemistry at present, yet we have very few people at WP:Chemistry active in those fields. Analytical chemistry is also weak.
- Physchim62: I hope Walkerma doesn't have some top secret inside information from the Nobel Committee there; otherwise, WP:CHEMISTRY will have a busy few days in October!
5. As for contributors with no expertise in such areas, how can they help to improve chemistry articles?
- Walkerma: People who can write well are always appreciated, whatever the topic. Someone with a very basic understanding can often help in making the writing more accessible; working chemists (which nearly all of us are) tend to forget that not everyone in the world knows what an N-heterocyclic carbene is! So we need some generalists who can write well, to help in explaining the topic for a general audience.
- Physchim62: I'd go one further and say that what we really need is for people to use the resources. WP:CHEMISTRY does not – and cannot – operate in isolation from the rest of the encyclopedia. If nobody reads the articles, we'll never find out whats wrong with them! You could say that if nobody reads them, it doesn't matter if there's something wrong: but when even a fairly obscure article like Hantzsch pyrrole synthesis is viewed ten times a day, quality control is very important. Persistent carbene, which is the redirect target of Walkerma's example above, gets nearly forty hits a day and the most commonly used type of persistent carbene – Grubbs' catalyst (pictured above) – gets more than a hundred hits a day.
The Hantzsch pyrrole synthesis
. Most professional chemists will have already forgotten what it is: maybe that's why ten users every day (on average) visit the Wikipedia article, to remind themselves…
- I always get a little frightened when I look at our page view statistics, but they are only going to get higher as Wikipedia becomes more linked in to other semantic publishing initiatives such as RSC Prospect and Nature Chemistry. We can hardly complain when people actually want to use the content we're creating.
- So, please, read our articles! Be bold and edit them – if something looks wrong, it probably is wrong; at the very least, it's not sufficiently explained. Link to chemistry articles from other articles wherever there is relevance, and tell us if the article you would like to link to is still a redlink. If you're not sure, ask! All help is gratefully received.
6. Finally, do you think any chemistry-related articles would benefit from the implementation of flagged or sighted revisions?
- Physchim62: If I could think of any specific articles, I certainly wouldn't post the links here! Seriously, I think the effect of flagged or sighted revisions on WikiProject Chemistry would be somewhere from zero to slightly positive: it hasn't been a big deal in our discussions. Personally, I'm in favour of some sort of move in that direction, because I think it would benefit other areas of the encyclopedia; but our problems with bad edits in chemistry articles tend to be of a much longer timescale, and so would tend to pass these filters.
- WikiProject Chemicals does use an in-house, bot-based form of sighted revisions for a small number of infobox data, as I mentioned in a previous Signpost article, but we're still looking to see if that approach could be of interest to other projects. We'll be presenting a poster at Wikimania in August, so we'll see how the feedback goes. In any case, it is very different from the site-wide proposals which have been discussed for English Wikipedia.
- ^ Physchim62: Never underestimate the power of the Wikipedia Signpost! Even before this week's issue had come out, an editor had stumbled across the incomplete interview page (completely by accident), read my comments, and nominated diamond for featured article review, an outcome that I'm sure will please the process wonks. Nevertheless, there have been concerns about the quality of the article since at least December 2006: it has taken 2½ years to start the process to remove its beloved little star, and there will be another two weeks of WikiBureaucracy while the issue is decided! In the meantime, as on 4 June 2009, there are 529 featured articles (more than 20% of the total) with maintenance tags, a fairly clear sign that they don't currently meet the criteria. The are also an unknown number that are equally bad, if not worse, but that nobody's got round to tagging yet: some FAs get fewer than ten hits a month, so it is illusionary to suggest that all problems have been found.
In response to a comment made at the FA review, diamond is certainly a better article than it was two months ago, thanks to the efforts of several editors, but it would still be lucky to pass a good article nomination in its current state, let alone an FAC.
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