Wikipedia:Wikipedia editing for research scientists

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If you are a professional research scientist, engineer, or mathematician, or a graduate student in those areas, 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.

Why?[edit]

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 a scientist 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 research scientist 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.

General considerations[edit]

If you intend to edit Wikipedia more than once or twice, and especially if you ever intend to create new articles, you should create your own username. To do so, click on "Log in / create account" at the upper right of any Wikipedia page. Your username does not need to be related to your real name, but it should not be offensive or misleading; see Wikipedia:Username policy. When you log in under your username before editing, other people will be able to see the contributions you've made, and will be able to leave messages for you (in your "my talk" page).

You need to leave your ego and credentials by the door. Unlike some other sites, Wikipedia does not permit any one editor to take control of an article and vet changes by others; instead, any disputes that arise 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 to happen and avoid getting into a fight when it does. If you disagree with someone's edits, the proper way to resolve the conflict is to discuss it on the article's discussion page. But telling these other editors "I have a Ph.D.!" isn't going to help; what you need to do to win a dispute over the content of an article is to back up your opinion with reliable sources, published material in journals, books, newspapers, etc., that says what you want the article to say.

Don't copy. As an academic you already know this, but copying other people's words without putting them into quotation marks and properly attributing them is wrong. So is closely paraphrasing others' words. So is copying or closely paraphrasing your own words, if they appear in a publication that you don't own the copyright of. Copying and pasting from other Wikipedia articles may be ok, but even in that case you should state where you've copied it from in the edit summary.

Sourcing, verifiability, and notability[edit]

Citations are crucial in Wikipedia writing. In other kinds of scientific 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 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.

Because of the emphasis on verifiability, Wikipedia articles tend to have a higher density of citations than scientific 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 of the article. 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. See Wikipedia:Scientific citation guidelines for more guidance on what does and doesn't need a source, and Wikipedia:Citing sources for details of how to format citations in Wikipedia.

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. See Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons. 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.

Survey 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 lecture notes and web pages as sources. 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:Identifying reliable sources (natural sciences).

There are templates such as {{citation}} that you can use to enter citation information in a BibTeX-like structured way and get it formatted consistently, but 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.

How to get started editing[edit]

You see that "edit" tab at the top right of an article page, near the search box? Click on it and you should get to a text editor. You can change almost any article (save for a few that have been "protected" for various reasons), but please only change them in positive ways. When you're done editing, put an appropriate description of what you've done in the "edit summary" box at the bottom of the screen, then use the "preview" button to make sure you haven't messed something up. Only after previewing should you use the "save page" button.

If you see a red link in an article, it means that it's a topic someone thought would be worthy of an article but that no article currently exists. If you're logged in with a Wikipedia user name (and that user name has existed for more than a couple of days), you should be able to click on the red link and start editing a new article. But it would probably be a good idea to start with smaller edits on existing articles before doing this.

Sometimes, when Wikipedia doesn't have an article on a topic, it will instead have a "redirect" from the topic name to a different article on a closely related topic. If you've typed one subject to Wikipedia's search function or Google search (or typing a URL manually) and found yourself on an article with a different title, look in the top left for a small line saying something like "(Redirected from ...)". If you want to replace a redirect by a separate article, the way to do it is to click on the blue link in the "redirected from" line, to get to the page where the redirect is defined. Editing from there allows you to replace a redirect by a real article.

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 scientific 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 scientific 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.

Stay connected[edit]

When you create or make significant changes to an article, you should put it on your watchlist either by clicking the "watch this page" checkbox above the save page button or by clicking the "watch" tab at the top of the page. When you view your watchlist it will show you the most recent changes to all of your watched articles, allowing you to collaborate with other editors on improving articles and also allowing you to detect and undo vandalism to the articles you've worked on.

Another way to stay connected to the greater Wikipedia community is through discipline-specific projects such as Wikipedia:WikiProject Chemistry, Wikipedia:WikiProject Computer Science, Wikipedia:WikiProject Mathematics, Wikipedia:WikiProject Physics, or 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, see the science section of the Wikiproject directory.

See also[edit]

A short presentation on Wikipedia editing for academics

Further reading[edit]