Guilty. It was me…and a bunch of other Wikipedia (WP) editors and administrators. What gives me the right to change a description of an article defining the American Water Works Association? Sure, I have been a member of AWWA for 42 years and a national officer, but shouldn’t staff at AWWA be the only ones who tell the Wiki world who their association is and what it does? The short answer is no, definitely not. Ah, now you have stumbled onto one of the core principles of WP. Or, as we say in the Wiki world, one of the five pillars, which states “Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute.”
Hold on a second. A sixth grader in Bashkortostan (look it up) has the same editing rights on the AWWA page as David LaFrance, the Executive Director? Yes. Once you become fully immersed in the world of WP and you understand the checks and balances, I think you will agree that this is wise.
Here are the five pillars:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
- Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
- Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute.
- Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner.
- Wikipedia does not have firm rules.
The purpose of this essay is not to explain all of the rules and customs of WP. Fortunately, there is a WP page that explains Wikipedia, and it is a great place to start if you want to learn more. I have also run across a couple of good descriptions of how to edit WP articles that are outside of the Wiki world. (Wired, Geek to Live)
I published my first peer-reviewed article in a professional journal in 1978. It had five tables, six graphs and 42 references, and it was based on my PhD dissertation research that took place over three years. I come from the tradition that peer review is the gold standard. If a paper is properly referenced and supported by data/information that can be verified by others, then it is worthy of submission to the peer-review process. Peer reviewers are experts in the field chosen by the journal editors to vet what someone is claiming in his or her article. Once, an article passes all of these hurdles it should be trusted, right? Not always.
Most of the time, peer review successfully approves papers that add to our knowledge base and, hopefully, advance scientific disciplines. Unfortunately, we know that there are some spectacular and highly publicized problems with the peer review process. Be careful if you do a Google search. The top return (accessed August 12, 2012) for a search of “peer review problems” is a web site that promotes the “science” of intelligent design. The second return is, what appears to me to be, a balanced article laying out the issue…yeah, it’s a WP page.
Viewing an article in WP about “peer review problems” is a perfect example of what I use WP for—learning the basics about a new topic. First of all, WP articles very often end up at the top of a Google search. If you followed my link above, you would have landed on the WP page for Bashkortostan that you also would have found as the top return on a Google search. Now, I know that just because it is the top of a Google search, does not mean that it is the epitome of truth or popularity. There are ways to game Google algorithms including paying folks to get your website to the top. But no one, including Wikipedia, can game the system so that almost everything they publish is near the top of a Google search. WP articles are used and referenced by millions of people, which are two of the reasons for their top ratings.
I am not an unrepentant apologist for WP. It has its flaws. But it is also incredibly useful. Dear reader, won’t you admit that you have looked at a WP page to learn something about which you had absolutely no freaking idea? On the other hand, I would never, ever, under any circumstances reference a WP page in a professional article in a peer-reviewed journal. Have I used peer-reviewed references in a WP article as part of my research that was later published. Once again, I am guilty as charged. Why not? I do not use a WP article as the only source of information about a topic that is completely foreign to me. It is a starting point and, usually, a darned good one.
So, why did I get started on my journey as a WP editor? I am interested in the history of drinking water especially the aspect of drinking water history that shows how we have improved the quality of water consumed by the public and conquered epidemic waterborne disease. While doing research on a book that explores the first continuous use of chlorine for drinking water disinfection in the U.S., I was struck by the observation that WP had little or no information on this topic. While waiting for several publishers to decide if they would publish my book, I started on my career as a WP editor. It took a month for me to learn the rules as a registered contributor with a username. There are a lot of important rules even though the fifth pillar states that there are no “firm rules.”
There are also a lot of people who ensure that editors do not go off the rails. Thousands of administrators troll WP articles to ensure that the five pillars of WP are honored. Besides using their eyeballs and experience with WP article creation, they use BOTs to search for the most egregious problems—like vandalism. One administrator admitted to me that about 20 percent of WP posts are vandalism. Usually, these BOTs catch the sixth graders who think it is funny to type their dog’s name or nonsense letters in the middle of a serious article. Vandalism that I have come across usually gets caught within a minute of its posting. Not bad.
There are also editors and administrators that “watch” pages that they have a commitment to maintaining as truthful and balanced. I am one of those editors. If anyone makes changes to the “George W. Fuller” page, I get an email with a link showing me what changes were made. If I have good reason (with backup) to erase the new addition, I can do so, but I usually explain my reasons on the comment page for that topic—called “Talk.” Anyone can dispute my change including the person who originally made the edit I am disputing. If a disagreement breaks out into an edit war, an administrator steps in to resolve the problem. If I abuse my ability to edit WP pages, I can have my editing privileges suspended or revoked.
Why do I care what is on WP about George W. Fuller? Because, I created it. Fuller was an important figure in drinking water history and there was no page describing his accomplishments. Also, no biography has ever been published about Fuller. The only sources we have are a few scattered articles that are difficult to access. Does everyone who has received the George Warren Fuller Award from AWWA really know who he was? Similarly, I created pages for John L. Leal and George C. Whipple. All three played pivotal roles in the first addition of chlorine to drinking water for public health protection. I also created a WP page for Allen Hazen because, well, he needed to be there and few of my colleagues know much about his life. The more I talk to my friends in the drinking water community, the more I find a strong desire to understand where we came from, how we got here and who had the courage to do it first.
To be clear, I do not “own” the page about George W. Fuller. I am just one of 35,000,000 users on WP. But, I do have some specialized knowledge that helped me create the article. Has anyone been checking my work? Absolutely. There are a number of administrators who watch over WP pages in the general field of water. They have fixed a few problems on the pages I created, mostly related to format. Truthfully, to be able to create and edit a WP page, you have to understand the lingo, which is akin to learning a simple computer programming language. It is not difficult, but you have to invest the time to learn it.
How am I doing? I guess ok. No administrator has jumped all over me for an egregious error. A few weeks ago, one of the administrators posted this note on my Talk page: “You’re doing some d**n good work here…” That was nice.
So, why should you, the reader, care about what is on WP especially in the field of drinking water? You should care because you have unique expertise that can improve what millions of school children view as an important source of information. If something on WP is wrong, learn the lingo and fix it. Don’t complain that you can’t trust Wikipedia. Establish a foundation of factual and balanced edits and be bold.