For the world to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), people must understand them. For information about this and almost all subjects, millions of people around the world turn to one key source: Wikipedia, essentially the online encyclopedia of the Information Age. The quality of what they find there depends on the expertise of the entries’ authors and editors.
Articles on the 17 SDGs and related topics are often the product of student projects of widely varying quality. These articles often lack the depth and accuracy that only experts can bring. Indeed, when it comes to information on issues tackling complex science and policy, there is a serious quality gap between the detailed, professional literature often hidden behind pay walls and the freely available material for public consumption on the internet’s most widely used pages.
Addressing the barriers to sharing the latest knowledge
The concept of an open-source, multi-authored encyclopedia that is self-correcting is ambitious. If the Wikipedia editors don’t have access to the latest “for subscribers only” literature, then the knowledge won’t find its way to the public, whose taxes have funded the generation of much of this knowledge. Indeed, the battle for open access to published material remains one of the biggest challenges to making knowledge available to humanity and Wikipedia is one of the major players challenging the establishment on this point.
However, improving knowledge sharing is also an issue within the mission of Wikipedia, the most-consulted Internet knowledge website, with its 13.6 billion visits per month, ranking fourth after Google, YouTube and Facebook. The release of the latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2021 offers an example of its extraordinary reach. The report received a peak of 10 000 daily views on the related Wikipedia page. When it comes to dissemination of global knowledge, Wikipedia and other major media channels will almost always dwarf that of the original, institutional sources. We should reward this high level of interest among the general public with greater accuracy.
“To stay on top of specific topics, Wikipedia editors, much like journalists, need to seek out experts.”
The SEI Wikipedia project
The SEI Wikipedia Project, funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development Foundation (Formas), is taking steps to address this need in conjunction with the wider project, Wiki loves Sustainable Development Goals. SEI has begun by focusing on three selected SDGs: water/sanitation/hygiene (SDG 6), climate action (SDG 13) and oceans (SDG 14).
So far, about 150 Wikipedia articles have been targeted based on daily view rates, the need for improvement and potential impact. We have measured their quality using a scoring index assessing key parameters: readability, illustrations, comprehensiveness, sourcing, formatting and neutrality, embedding in web of knowledge, logical flow, ordering of sections and appropriate level of detail.
We have contacted published experts who have helped us scrutinize existing articles and identify gaps. People have devoted their lives to become the world’s experts on these subjects, but only a small number have ventured to share their knowledge through Wikipedia. This is a missed opportunity. The daily view rate for some of these articles is much more than one would ever expect for the underpinning scientific publications.
Finding better ways to leverage the expertise of the world’s authorities
Every fact on Wikipedia must be substantiated with retrievable published sources such as journals, books, newspapers and websites. The process is challenging and dynamic. Wikipedia editors continuously monitor their pages and comment on additions made by colleagues. There is also an element of anonymity for objectivity (similar to the process of refereeing publications in scientific journals) that allows editors to use a code name.
Self-citation by experts is frowned upon. Many experts have become disillusioned with Wikipedia, especially if they have been accused of biasing articles towards their own work, or of having a conflict of interest. A fine balance needs to be achieved. To stay on top of specific topics, Wikipedia editors, much like journalists, need to seek out experts.
We have found that the experts most likely to help review Wikipedia articles are those who are newly retired with some free time, and those who have written textbooks in the recent past. “Cold-call” emails work when we can point out that their publications have already been cited in Wikipedia or encourage them to round up citations of their latest publications.
Call to action
We urge experts to go to our project landing page in Wikipedia. Think about improving Wikipedia articles that are in your area of expertise. Try including Wikipedia editing in your ongoing project as part of outreach and communication. If you don’t want to engage in Wikipedia editing yourself, you can instead mark up a Word document copy of the Wikipedia article and we will take on the editing for you. Get in touch. The world needs you and your expertise.