Wikipedia as an Entomology Outreach Tool

(Notes for a presentation I gave at the 2018 Entomological Society of New Zealand conference in Whanganui.)

It all started when I wrote a piece for the local paper in 2015 on conservation funding for threatened species, lamenting how all the money goes to charismatic birds and not much to ugly insects and endangered leeches. Jesse Mulligan interviewed me on the radio, and wanted to know what he could do to help spotlight our more obscure threatened species, and Critter of the Week was born, a regular interview with DOC’s endangered species ambassador Nicola Toki. It’s been a great success, covering 120 critters to date – many of them insects, snails, fishes, shrubs, and other overlooked organisms.

My role has been behind the scenes, wearing my Wikipedian hat. Every week, when the critter is announced, I check to see if it has a good Wikipedia page – or indeed any page at all. With the help of other volunteer editors, I work on improving the article and adding photos. We maintain a list of all the species covered, with notes on which still need work. You can see the effect of the project by comparing the article for the New Zealand giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) before and after. Sadly, despite all this, Jesse Mulligan still calls me a Wikinerd. Sigh.

Critter of the Week is an example of how Wikipedia can be part of your science communication toolbox. Wikipedia is where people are getting their information, and anyone can edit it. it’s easy and quick to update it and correct mistakes or vandalism. There’s a whole spectrum of ways that scientists can work with Wikipedia and take advantage of its reach and impact.

  1. Lend your expertise, even indirectly on a Talk page. Every article has a Talk tab, and anyone can leave comments there, even if they don’t consider themselves a Wikipedia editor. Weevil researcher Chrissie Painting for example left some great suggestions on the giraffe weevil Talk page, noting inaccuracies and possible references for more information.
  2. Publish in open-access journals or make PDFs available in a repository. Everything in Wikipedia needs to be referenced, and so often when I’m trying to track down sources for an article I hit a paywall. It’s wonderful to find a repository or publications page that posts PDFs, even if it’s since been taken down and exists only in the Internet Archive. Open-access publications are 47% more likely to be referenced in Wikipedia.
  3. Lasiorhynchus barbicornis male and female
    Lasiorhynchus_barbicornis by Christina. J. Painting, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Donate images to Commons, and use Creative Commons licenses (not NC). That giraffe weevil illustration was taken from an open-access paper in PLoS, and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a repository for freely-usable images. This was possible because it was published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC-BY). Creative Commons, invented in 2001, is a great alternative to All Rights Reserved copyright if you want people to be able to freely use your work – here’s a book (released under a CC license!) if you want know more. There are hundreds of Wikipedia articles on New Zealand moths (like this one) because Landcare Research made its photo collection available under a CC-BY license. Some institutions don’t. Adding a “non-commercial” condition (CC-BY-NC) is too restrictive: Wikipedia is published under an open license so its content has to be usable by anyone for anything. Almost none of the thousands and thousands of photos in NatureWatch NZ for example can be used in Wikipedia, because NatureWatch’s default setting when you create an account is CC-BY-NC, and most users would never think to change it.
  5. The New Zealand Insect Cards edit-a-thon, banner by Emma Scheltema and photo by Leilani Walker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  6. Help your local editors. Wikipedia editors are all volunteers, often toiling anonymously. It’s nice to reach out, for example via the Wikiproject New Zealand noticeboard. You can offer to host an edit-a-thon, like the University of Auckland did. You could give editors freebies, like behind-the-scenes tours of your insect collections or the opportunity to help with a research project. And you can give them access to your expertise and your institutional library. Let them know their hard work is appreciated.
  7. Develop an institutional Wikipedia strategy, like you would for any other public comms or outreach. Effort put into Wikipedia pays off. This pūriri moth article, for example, is not very good, but it uses Landcare Research photos, and those photos are getting (as of April 2018) 560 unique views a month. Popular or timely Wikipedia articles (like “Kiwi”) can get thousands of views a day, far greater impact than newspaper stories or magazine articles. To help develop this strategy, you can host a Wikipedian in Residence, a short-term paid or volunteer position where an experienced editor teaches staff about Wikipedia, helps you move images to the Commons, and runs edit-a-thons and other events.
  8. And you can just edit Wikipedia yourself. Your advantage is you’re a subject expert, with all the literature at your fingertips. You still need to reference every sentence, as if you were writing a student essay – your authority doesn’t count here, and you can’t base an article on unpublished research. Like any other written medium, it has its own style and codes, so it’s worthwhile getting experience with small corrections and adding citations before you launch into new articles. Luckily there’s plenty on guidance and information available, in Wikipedia’s help pages, and even from other researchers. There are plenty of Wikipedians delighted to help a new editor: let them troubleshoot for you. Ask me if you get stuck.

If you want to get your research out there, and communicate with the largest number of people in the most efficient way, Wikipedia is a good tool to use. Institutions seem very keen to create information silos that proudly display their brand identity, but keeping these up to date can become a huge time suck, and they often just stagnate and die. Working with a community of editors and putting your effort into open resources is far more rewarding. Wikipedia is where people are already going, and you may as well meet them there.

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