Thursday, 7 August 2008

Wikipedia survey

I took part in an on-line survey that an academic is conducting on Wikipedia editors who edit medical articles. Those aren't exactly where I spend most of my time there, but I've made a few edits over the years, so I thought I'd give it a whirl ...

Q: What is your Wikipedia user name? Optional: please also include any demographic information you are comfortable sharing (e.g. age, sex, nationality).

A: I'm user Plumbago. I'm a 36 year old, white male, born and living in the United Kingdom. I am educated to doctoral level and working as a postdoc in oceanography.

Q: How much time per week do you spend contributing (e.g. editing articles, discussion pages, user talk pages, monitoring contributions) a) to Wikipedia in general b) to medical and health-related articles

A: It varies a lot, but I probably spend around 3-5 hours a week editing Wikipedia. I don't primarily edit medical articles, but I do try to focus on scientific articles, which sometimes include medical ones (my original background is as a biologist).

Q: Do you have any formal training in healthcare? If so, what? Do you have any informal training or experience (e.g. a patient with a condition, a drug rep, an avid reader)?

A: No training whatsoever. As noted above, I was originally trained as a biologist, so probably have a little more understanding of medical matters than the average member of the public.

Q: Why do you contribute to Wikipedia? Why do you contribute to medical articles in general?

A: Originally, just because I spotted errors/omissions. Latterly, I've become sold on the concept of creating something valuable like the Wikipedia. While it has its flaws (and there are many of them), for general knowledge about a topic, it's really very good in most places.

Q: Why do you contribute to the specific medical articles you have?

A: Possibly by accident! My main focus has been on oceanographic/ecological/geoscience articles, but periodically I find myself following links to related science articles, some of which are medical. If I spot anything I can correct there (which may just be style points), I'll do it.

Q: Do you tend to collaborate with any particular editors? If so, how do those relationships shape your editorial activity?

A: There are a number of editors with whom I have loose collaborative relationships. We edit the same articles and will occasionally ask one another for assistance. But bar a few isolated instances of closer collaboration, most of the time I essentially work solo. My field, oceanography, is not well organised on Wikipedia, so there are no teams for me to work more interactively with. That said, even if there were, I'd probably be reluctant to join such activities because my time-commitment to the project isn't as strong as many other editors.

Q: Does the editorial process behind medical articles differ from the editorial process of other Wikipedia articles? If so, how?

A: I don't believe that I can answer this question directly because of my limited experience of medical articles. Speaking more generally about science articles, I find that the relatively good availability of high quality sources (that is, the scientific literature) makes editing science articles much more satisfying than in other domains, where there may be less consensus on what qualifies as a good source. Determining which information is worth including or removing from an article is much easier in this sort of framework. Essentially, scientists have this body of knowledge to draw on which they know if of a particular quality. This is less true for other domains (e.g. art, politics, religion, culture).

Q: In your opinion, what factors are most closely associated with the development of a quality article? Which factors most detract from article quality?

A: From experience, targeted article improvement drives can be very successful. However, they can be difficult to organise and tend to focus on major articles. Away from these, it generally appears to be the efforts of individual dedicated editors that shapes article quality. While it's difficult to generalise, single (or few) editor articles tend to have more consistency in style, but the collaborative aspect of Wikipedia is, fundamentally, its greatest strength.

As regards detractions in quality, one important factor is whether an article remains of interest to an expert or interested editor. I've seen many good articles go to the dogs just because an editor(s) has left it to do other things. And articles can be weakened not just by vandalism, but also by good-intentioned edits by sporadic editors. Adding an extra piece of information to an article as a one-off often improves an article, but if 10 or 20 editors do the same thing an article can quickly become a stylistic mess. Only part of an article's strength is derived from its information content - a large part is derived from the organisation of this information.

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