Should scientists write Wikipedia pages for their study species?


I’ve been working on Penstemon digitalis for a long time now. I first met the plant as a starting PhD student looking for a new system to make my own. I wanted something local (to Ithaca, NY), a plant that was dependent on pollinators with pre-dispersal seed predators (those are insects that lay eggs in the fruit and the young larvae eat the seeds). I wanted to study conflicting selection on floral traits by mutualists and antagonists, not what my dissertation ended up being about but that is a story for another day. In my search for a species to work with, I also wanted something with larger seeds than Lobelia siphilitica that I had just spent my masters cursing over and to be taller than Collinsia parviflora that I broke my back over during my undergrad.

Anyway, I had some criteria and questions and I settled on Penstemon digitalis, not knowing that I would still be here over a decade later pondering this seemingly simple plant. Now I know a lot about this species and I have even more questions than I began with. My own PhD student, now Dr Rosie, also knows a whole lot about this particular species and I’m sure our knowledge isn’t completely overlapping. You tend to pick up things in the field and back at the lab that don’t ever end up in papers. And we’re not the only scientists that have studied the ‘foxglove beardtongue’ by far. I have about 40 papers in my library that have used P. digitalis in their studies in some way. Many make it the star of the show but others use it in a community of plant species to address different questions. Sufficed to say there is a large body of knowledge on this humble plant and it is only one plant of many.

Here’s the Wikipedia page for Penstemon digitalis:

A collection of a few basic facts is what many people would find from searching for information on this species. It isn’t unusual. Search any of your favourite study organisms and you’ll probably find similarly sparse pages (especially if they are plants). Of course there are other pages out there as well but in general you won’t find the details that make there way into academic papers on any of these pages.

It has got me thinking whether we as scientists make our knowledge available to the public on forms such as Wikipedia. The idea has been in my mind for a while. Years ago I had a discussion with a colleague who thought it was unethical to write pages that cite your own work. That gave me pause and surprised me. If you don’t do it who will? The Penstemon digitalis page has basically remained the same since I began studying the plant and Penstemons are somewhat popular garden plants rather than an obscure weed.

The average person doesn’t have access to all the papers on my study species, let alone the patience to sort through them. We usually summarized the information for the study system in the methods (or introduction) depending on the paper but much of the information remains bound up in literature that isn’t easily accessed by non-academics.

There are a lot of cool stories to tell about these plants (oh, and I suppose animals too!). I could tell you about how P. digitalis has really cool scent variation within the flower with different parts smelling of different scents. I could also talk about the variation in purple stripes on the corolla that we see among plants, stripes that are black under UV and therefore should act as bold signs to the pollinators visiting them, but that so far we haven’t seen any preference for the main bumblebee visitor to flowers with or without stripes. The colour variation is somewhat of a mystery although I continue to quantify it in case we can figure out what is going on with this trait one day. I could tell you more stories about this one species then you’d probably care to hear. My papers tell some of those stories but the average person wanting to learn about their garden flowers would have no idea that these stories even existed.

So should we make more of an effort to share the stories of our species?

One worry I do have is that Wikipedia pages are written often like a collection of facts. Some observations of P. digitalis are facts while others are the ecology I observed at a particular time and place. I think a challenge to do any editing of pages is to convey the difference between the two. I observed natural selection on floral scent, which was a really exciting result, but it doesn’t mean there always is, even in the populations I work in. A scientist reading the original source paper wouldn’t assume that we were saying this is a truth but rather a result. But I think with some crafting of the text, we could improve the information readily available for the species we work with.

Perhaps people could grow to be more appreciative of the natural world around them if they knew more about it. I think the problem is especially true for plants. They are often thought of as inanimate objects instead of interactors in their own right.

I’m not sure Wikipedia is the best source to share information about species with the general public, but I do know it seems to be the first stop for many searching for information. What if the species pages told more than the bare minimum of facts found in a field guide?

The one question I keep circling back to is: If we don’t tell their stories, who will?

14 thoughts on “Should scientists write Wikipedia pages for their study species?

  1. I’m really surprised by the notion that writing a wikipedia about your own work would in any way be unethical, I’ve honestly never heard that. Does it come from the stigma of citing your own work in publications (which is not unethical, it’s just a tiny bit of shameless self-promotion and usually unavoidable given typical research programs)? Anyway, yes! Wikipedia is the first place most people go when starting out any investigation. Fleshing out the wikipedia page won’t win you any awards, but it’s a useful bit of broader impacts that are likely to be more widely read than anything else we write! The only conceivable reason not to do this that comes to mind is the opportunity cost: would the time spent doing this be better spent on other actions? That will be different for every person, but I suspect it could fit into most scientist’s list somewhere on the spectrum of worthy time investments.

  2. Yes, please write the Wikipedia page on things you know. Then click the box to watch the page so you can keep it accurate. Nowhere else even comes close to the public access of Wikipedia. This is why I’m so disappointed at their strange criteria for which academics are worthy, compared to sports figures, for example. We cannot give up on Wikipedia. It is all we have.

  3. Yes, absolutely, what Joan and David said – write the page! Only thing that stops me doing more of it is lack of time.

  4. I look forward to reading the hopefully soon to be vastly improved Penstemon digitalis Wikipedia page.  Maybe afterwards you could describe your editing experiences and  offer tips to your readers here?  Supposedly Wikipedia is getting much easier to use and is welcoming more diverse contributors than in the past. There’s a detailed recent post on this from Perry Hewitt of JSTOR  encouraging more contributions from academics to Wikipedia.  It even has a link to an edit-a-thon event last week at the New York Botanical Garden on “Plants and People” focused on creating and enhancing articles for Women in Science. I noted various links on the page for getting started for new Wikipedia authors.

    Regarding your self-effacing, self-citation concern, get over it!  Somewhere (RW Weekend Reads probably) I saw a study claiming that women cite themselves less often than men.

    I agree with you and Joan, Wikipedia has become the place for non-specialists to learn about a topic, and far better for those of us niche experts to chime in our special niches, rather than leave them bereft like your poor little Penstemon. Several years ago, I thought I’d write on my niche but was put off by the arcane Wikipedia learning curve. Be interesting to hear from any recent contributors if it’s really easier now.

  5. I’ve been editing Wikipedia articles in my area of interest (eukaryotic microbiology) for a number of years. Perhaps I can offer some clarification. It is perfectly acceptable to cite your own published work in an article, as long as the purpose is not self-promotion. See the Wikipedia policy page on attribution:

    Perhaps there is some confusion about Wikipedia’s “No Original Research” policy (WP:NOR for short). That policy simply states that there is no place in Wikipedia for “material—such as facts, allegations, and ideas—for which no reliable, published sources exist.” Work that you’ve published elsewhere does not fall into that category. Keep in mind that Wikipedia articles are intended for a general readership, so the content you add should not be too specialized and technical. Also, the content of scientific articles should reflect prevailing scientific opinion (to the extent that this is possible). There have been instances of researchers with eccentric and/or controversial views who’ve tried to promulgate their ideas by putting them on Wikipedia. This might be considered a kind of self-promotion, depending on the way it is done.

    So: please contribute! Wikipedia desperately needs more input from experts.

  6. Yes write it, like Jeff I too would write a page on some of my favourite aphids but never seem to have the time or been able to work out how to writ or edit a page. I once tried to start a stub about my great-great-great grandfather who was an early (and quite famous) civil engineer, but it never seemed to take as it were :-(

  7. What Joan said! A number of years ago I had an undergrad in my lab do a page for our species (with a bunch of help). Joan gave us some guidelines and it was a way better experience for the student than writing a paper that no one ever sees.

  8. I think using Wikipedia is a great place to start if you have no knowledge of the species. I use Wikipedia to figure out where i should start my research and then use the links that are on the page to get more in depth information. Thanks for the post and good luck with your research.

  9. I believe the Encyclopedia of Life is attempting to serve this purpose (although wikipedia is often the first information stop for almost anyone)

  10. @Anonymous Articles from Wikipedia are routinely incorporated into EOL (in the “comprehensive description” section for a given organism). So, adding good content to Wikipedia will improve EOL as well.

  11. @Chris Mebane re. the “arcane Wikipedia learning curve”: it has become a lot easier since the introduction of the VisualEditor, which functions like an ordinary word processor and includes a handy tool for automatically generating citations from the DOI, PMID or URL of an article or text. You still need to know a bit of Wikipedia markup code if you want to edit taxoboxes and templates, but it is all a lot easier than it used to be.

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