Setting Wikipedia Straight: A New Role for Philanthropy?

Wikipedia is free and wide open, so anyone one can contribute or edit. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work out so well, depending on the subject. The Simons Foundation recently tried its hand at nudging science content in the right direction. 

Money and power tend to grab the spotlight in our coverage, so we don't often write about philanthropy's role as a force to bring people together, convening, if you will. But foundations love this stuff, seeing themselves as independent, neutral conduits to gather varied parties. 

One recent example of this, by science research powerhouse the Simons Foundation, resulted in a project that I can’t recall seeing a funder take on before—fixing Wikipedia entries. 

Earlier this summer, while the American Physical Society (APS) meeting was happening in Columbus, Ohio, the foundation took the opportunity to wrangle together a bunch of the attendees for a Wikipedia "edit-a-thon." The funder recruited a prominent Wikipedia editor to facilitate, and three savvy physicists to lead, in exchange for covering their meeting registration fees. Nacho bar and beer were also supplied.

The edit-a-thon taught the group how to work on Wikipedia, started on some entries, and ultimately led to the editing of 51 physics-related pages. 

As the Simons website explains, the motivation for the event was that while Wikipedia is well known for its eager and stringent community of editors, sometimes tricky science pages are left either light on content, or riddled with incorrect content, because they require special knowledge. 

And while the average physicist or even physics student won’t be bothered with a Wikipedia page, the site has become an almost universal resource for the layperson to learn about things. These days, good Wikipedia content has tremendous communications and education power. 

Multiple communities that recognize this power have come to use edit-a-thons as a way to make a wider improvement where the site might be lacking. 

The best example of this has been in response to Wikipedia’s often male-skewed content. It’s an acknowledged problem that the vast majority of the site's editors are men. So various universities and nonprofits have led edit-a-thons to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of women in the arts and science. Others have sought to improve the representation of minorities in the arts.

Judging from the success of just a half-day session hosted by Simons, you can see the real potential for foundations to fill these gaps in Wikipedia’s coverage, even just in science communication. After all, who is better equipped to spontaneously motivate a bunch of this work than foundations? They have broad connections and the funds to throw around.  

Another big problem with science entries is that they sometimes are too complex for amateur audiences. Perhaps Simons could include in its next rally some communications pros to help make pages more accessible. Or a foundation-sponsored edit-a-thon could take on the representation of women and minorities in STEM, and substantively change what the average person learns when casually looking something up. That's definitely worth the cost of the nachos.