Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A wikipedia strategy for the Royal Society of New Zealand

Over the last 48 hours I’ve had a very unsatisfactory conversation with the individual(s) behind the @royalsocietynz twitter account regarding wikipedia. Rather than talk about what went wrong, I’d like to suggest a simple strategy that builds the Society’s causes in the long term.
First up, our resources: we have three wikipedia pages strongly related the Society, Royal Society of New Zealand, Rutherford Medal (Royal Society of New Zealand) and Hector Memorial Medal; we have a twitter account that appears to be widely followed; we have some employee of RSNZ with no apparent wikipedia skills wanting to use wikipedia to advance the public-facing causes of the Society, which are:
“to foster in the New Zealand community a culture that supports science, technology, and the humanities, including (without limitation)—the promotion of public awareness, knowledge, and understanding of science, technology, and the humanities; and the advancement of science and technology education: to encourage, promote, and recognise excellence in science, technology, and the humanities”
The first thing to notice is that promoting the Society is not a cause of the Society, so no effort should be expending polishing the Royal Society of New Zealand article (which would also breach wikipedia’s conflict of interest guidelines). The second thing to notice is that the two medal pages contain long lists of recipients, people whose contributions to science and the humanities in New Zealand are widely recognised by the Society itself.
This, to me, suggests a strategy: leverage @royalsocietynz’s followers to improve the coverage of New Zealand science and humanities on wikipedia:
  1. Once a week for a month or two, @royalsocietynz tweets about a medal recipient with a link to their wikipedia biography. In the initial phase recipients are picked with reasonably comprehensive wikipedia pages (possibly taking steps to improve the gender and racial demographic of those covered to meet inclusion targets). By the end of this part followers of @royalsocietynz have been exposed to wikipedia biographies of New Zealand people.
  2. In the second part, @royalsocietynz still tweets links to the wikipedia pages of recipients, but picks ‘stubs’ (wikipedia pages with little or almost no actual content). Tweets could look like ‘Hector Medal recipient XXX’s biography is looking bare. Anyone have secondary sources on them?’ In this part followers of @royalsocietynz are exposed to wikipedia biographies and the fact that secondary sources are needed to improve them. Hopefully a proportion of @royalsocietynz’s followers have access to the secondary sources and enough crowdsourcing / generic computer confidence to jump in and improve the article.
  3. In the third part, @royalsocietynz picks recipients who don’t yet have a wikipedia biography at all. Rather than linking to wikipedia, @royalsocietynz links to an obituary or other biography (ideally two or three) to get us started.
  4. In the fourth part @royalsocietynz finds other New Zealand related lists and get the by-now highly trained editors to work through them in the same fashion.
This strategy has a number of pitfalls for the unwary, including:
  • Wikipedia biographies of living people (BLPs) are strictly policed (primarily due to libel laws); the solution is to try new and experimental things out on the biographies of people who are safely dead.
  • Copyright laws prevent cut and pasting content into wikipedia; the solution is to encourage people to rewrite material from a source into an encyclopedic style instead.
  • Recentism is a serious flaw in wikipedia (if the Society is 150 years old, each of those decades should be approximately equally represented; coverage of recent political machinations or triumphs should not outweigh entire decades); the solution is to identify sources for pre-digital events and promote their use.
  • Systematic bias is an on-going problem in wikipedia, just as it is elsewhere; a solution in this case might be to set goals for coverage of women, Māori and/or non-science academics; another solution might be for the Society to trawl it's records and archives lists of  minorities to publish digitally.

Conflict of interest statement: I’m a high-active editor on wikipedia and am a significant contributor to all many of the wikipedia articles linked to from this post.