Using Wikipedia in the classroom: a cautionary tale (Updatedx2)

(Third and final update: If you read this post, please also read this follow up post, which includes summaries of ways to try to reduce the likelihood of running into the same problem.)

Last fall, one of my students contacted me to ask if she could do an “Honors Conversion” of the first-year seminar I was teaching on Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine. After learning what that meant (basically, just that the student has to do an extra assignment in order for the course to count towards the Honors Program), I decided that this could be a great opportunity to do a trial run of an idea I had considered in the past: having students edit Wikipedia as part of their coursework. The project ended up being much more of a learning experience for my student and myself, as I will describe below. But to cut to the chase: will I use Wikipedia in the classroom again? Right now, I’m not sure.

Using Wikipedia as an educational tool was really appealing to me. It seemed like it would improve student learning – students would be motivated by realizing what they were doing might be viewed by and help others. And it just seemed like a better use of everyone’s time to have the effort that goes into working on and editing student assignments result in something that could benefit lots of other people. I did some research on using Wikipedia in the classroom, and it seemed like it worked well.

I was still concerned about the mechanics of editing Wikipedia: how labor-intensive would it be for students to figure out how to create and/or edit a page? Would it be worth that time? Would I be able to help them if they ran into problems? How much of a hassle would that be? In the end, I signed up for my own Wikipedia account, and used it to do some very basic editing (related to my goal of increasing the representation of women ecologists on Wikipedia). I decided that the mechanics were manageable. Better yet, I was put in touch with a Wikipedian here at the University of Michigan who would be able to help with the mechanics. And it seemed like, if this assignment helped students get over the mechanical hurdles, it would enable them to continue to edit in the future, which would be a nice bonus of the assignment.

So, I decided to give it a shot.* I ran the idea by the student, who was really enthusiastic. She was, as I expected, excited that the end product would be something that would be available to everyone and that it might help others.

In the end, the specific assignment I gave her was to identify a Wikipedia page that was related to the course that didn’t exist at all or that could benefit from substantial editing. In my research, I had read that it’s best to avoid pages that have been recently edited, since editing those might upset others. And it seemed safest to avoid pages where people might have very strongly held opinions (e.g., vaccination). We approached the project in a few steps: first, she did research and choose some possible pages. Then, after looking over the pages she had in mind and discussing them with her, she settled on editing the page related to superspreaders. It seemed like a good choice: it was rated as being of high importance but only “C-class” in terms of quality, it was very short, and it hadn’t been edited recently (which I defined as within the past several months; its last edit had been in July 2013).


What the superspreader Wikipedia page looked like before being edited as part of a class assignment. It was quite short, with lots of room for improvement.

My student then went about doing research on the topic, reading several primary literature articles as well as additional sources. She then drafted her edits to the page, and she and I went back and forth a few times making sure things were accurate, clearly stated, and properly supported by references. She then contacted the wikipedian who gave her information on the mechanics of getting it posted. My student created a “sandbox” version of the post and then, finally, made the edits to the regular post. She sent me an email on a Friday afternoon saying it was up. She and I were really excited. The page looked great! (So good that I can’t adequately capture it with a screenshot, so you’ll have to click through to see.) She had made really substantial, careful edits that, in my opinion, vastly improved the quality of the page. I tweeted about how successful the project had been, posted it to Facebook, and, in general, was ready to tell anyone who would listen about how great the assignment was. At that point, I couldn’t believe anyone was still assigning traditional term papers. This seemed so much better!

Unfortunately, as you presumably expect given the title of this post, it didn’t end there. On Monday morning, I woke up to an email from my student saying that someone had undone all her edits. Obviously this was really disappointing to me and my student. My first thought was that surely it had been some error. Her edits had been so good! But then I continued reading her email and saw that she had tried to restore the edits, only to have them undone again. And then, when I logged into the “talk” page (where people who are editing a Wikipedia page can discuss things with one another), I could see that the person who was undoing the edits was being really hostile to my student. The discussion on the talk page was a pretty good example of the phenomenon described here (which is based on research on how men and women communicate online). To quote that article:

However, men tended to assert their opinions as “facts,” whereas women tended to phrase their informative messages as suggestions, offers, and other non-assertive acts. In other words, the gender difference was in their communication styles, not in the actual informativeness of their contributions.

-Susan Herring (quote from this article)

At this point, we would have been pretty lost without the Wikipedian. She gave us a little more information (e.g., explaining that, given that the person who was undoing the edits was also the person who had created the page, it might be an issue where he feels like he** “owns” the page). She also gave us options. The main things she suggested is that she could work with my student to go through line-by-line and explain why her edits are well-sourced, not synthesis (which Wikipedia doesn’t allow), and improve the article. But the other person may continue to undo them. Based on what has happened so far, I’m pretty sure he will. On the talk page, he is already making claims that the articles she cites do not support her statements, when they very clearly do. But, if she has made a good faith effort to explain her edits and he persists in undoing them, we could escalate it to report the other editor. In my opinion, this other editor is clearly violating two of Wikipedia’s guidelines/policies: he is acting like he owns the page and he is not being civil to the newcomer. But my impression is that my student is unlikely to “win” in this case – she is a new editor, and the other person has a profile page that looks like this:


(I found it kind of amazing that this person is on the welcoming committee, given his behavior to a new editor who made substantial, constructive edits to a page. But looking at this page and this page, it seems that he’s no longer on that committee.)

Seniority means a lot at Wikipedia. When discussing this with others, it sounds like, unless a senior Wikipedia editor steps in to help my student, the other editor is likely to be successful in keeping my students edits off the page. This is a really disappointing outcome. Plus, my student has needed to focus on all her other courses and finals, so hasn’t had time to do the line-by-line response yet.

Moreover, I feel somewhat responsible for putting my student in a situation in which she is being bullied. Obviously the main responsibility for the bullying lies with the other editor, but, if not for me assigning this project, she would not have been in an environment that has an editing culture that can sometimes be aggressive.

So, to come back to the question I started with: will I use Wikipedia in the classroom again? It was fun for me and the student to be working on something that would contribute to a site that is the first place many people turn for information. My student did a great job with the assignment and learned a lot from it. But having all her work undone and having her be bullied in the “talk” section obviously makes me much less keen on this sort of project (and makes her much less keen on editing for Wikipedia in the future). My impression is that this sort of bullying is not common, but it also sounds like it’s not rare. Right now, I’m not sure how to weigh all these different things. I’m glad that, thanks to my teaching schedule for the immediate future, it’s not something I’ll have to decide right away. And, in the meantime, I guess I’ll see how this plays out.

Have you edited Wikipedia or had your students edit it? If so, have you run into this sort of issue?


UPDATE, May 6: The response to this post has been pretty overwhelming. Thanks to all the wikipedia editors and others who’ve given feedback. It seems clear that a key thing that I should have done differently is ask my student to make her edits in pieces, rather than do a big overall edit. Two other things we probably should have done would have been to have the student identify herself as a student working on this as part of a course on the talk page, and for me to have registered the course, even though this was just a single student editing (see my first footnote below). As I said in the post, this has been much more of a learning experience than we expected!

UPDATE, May 7: Comments on this post are now closed, due to unusual circumstances specific to this post. Comments on all other posts remain open as usual.


Original footnotes:

* There is a way to register a class as involving Wikipedia editing. We didn’t do that for this semester, since it was just a single student editing a single page. I’m told that doing that might make the sort of hostile editing situation we ran into less likely.

** I don’t know for sure that this person is a man. But in seems likely, in part given that nine out of ten Wikipedia editors are men.

57 thoughts on “Using Wikipedia in the classroom: a cautionary tale (Updatedx2)

  1. Only once have I edited Wikipedia myself, and I confess I was naive about it. Years ago, while teaching an intro biostats class, I found that the Wikipedia page for the Mann-Whitney U test was seriously wrong. It said the test made no distributional assumptions, when in fact the test assumes that all groups have identical distributions differing only in location. (Strangely, the Wikipedia pages on other simple nonparametric tests were really detailed and rigorous) Afraid my students (and others) might stumble across the error, I edited the page. My edits were reverted within 24 hours. At this point I decided that I couldn’t be bothered to figure out the talk page system, so I just emailed the statistics editor with a link to the pdf of the paper in which the Mann-Whitney U test was derived. I was polite, but to the point, I basically just said “Here’s the original paper, the passages regarding distributional assumptions are on pp. XX-XX, please restore my edits.” To my surprise, my edits were restored immediately–and a link added to the pdf, which I hadn’t anticipated (I’d downloaded it from jstor and put it on my personal website purely for purposes of showing it to the editor). I was pleased, though I deleted the pdf from my website

    Checking the page now, I see it’s been further edited to make it more detailed.

    Not sure if any lessons from this anecdote would be helpful to you or others using Wikipedia for student projects. Probably not, since I’m sure my experience had a lot to do with who the editor was.

    • Interesting! How did you figure out who the statistics editor was? I guess I could try to figure out who the relevant editor for this page is (maybe someone from infectious diseases or medicine?)

  2. Re: the maleness of Wikipedia, and other problems they’ve run into (the number of editors has been declining for years, and Meg’s student is far from the only person to be discouraged by having their edits semi-automatically rejected), see this:

    All of which is too bad. I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source, of course, but as a starting point to get an overview of a topic it’s incredibly handy.

  3. Thanks for sharing! We are considering to offer similar projects, so I find it very interesting to read about the things that can go wrong.

    It’s obviously an n=1. Is anyone else here that has experience with Wikipedia assignments? I seem to remember that someone, maybe , was posting about that, but I didn’t find the post.

    • So far, from twitter, the responses are:
      1. Amy McEuen (@mceuen_amy) saying she had success with wikipedia
      2. John Wares (@wareslab) who runs a class wiki here with no problems:
      3. Bug Gwen (@bug_gwen) who said she had similar experiences with wikipedia as my student ran into, leading her to give up on editing wikipedia.
      4. Jung Choi (@jung_gt) who, like John Wares, runs his own wiki for his class to edit, getting >2K page views per month:

      So, 3 success stories out of 4 from twitter so far, but 2 of those were from people who run their own wiki, rather than using wikipedia (which seems like a pretty key distinction).

  4. I haven’t been active on wikipedia for years. but I’ll throw this out there anyway.

    I think part of the problem was the wholesale change of the content. Wikipedia pages tend to change slowly over time. The editor saw the complete removal of his work and got defensive. It sounds like he is in the wrong, but the defensive feeling is natural when something you’ve been on charge of gets completely replaced.

    As I was reading your article, I was wondering why you had her make all her changs offline. I know it’s the usual way of crafting writing projects, but it’s not the way things tend to happen on Wikipedia. I suspect you’ll get less grief from the entrenched wikipedians if you or your students update the pages as you go. If you start with the existing page and edit it (even if you end up replacing everything), anyone who feels ownership of the page may see that you started with their work and didn’t just throw it out.

    Another idea would be to have the student make small edits as they are going through pages looking for what to focus on. That would (A) give them practice, (B) give them a history, so that anyone watching the pages will be more likely to see them as a positive force, than an unknown and potentially negative force, and (C) give them a heads up of there are any cantankerous editors watching the pages.

    Before I sign off, I want to make it clear that I don’t support the editor defending his “turf”, and I think it’s unfortunate that this is a common thing. I think we need to do everything we can to get more people (especially women) editing pages. And I think that means adapting to the existing culture and then attempting to change it from within. Good luck!

    • This is a great suggestion. Thank you! She did create a sandbox version of the page first, which is what we’d been told to do. But I can see that it might have gone over better (or we’d have gotten advanced warning) if we’d started with some smaller changes and then gone from there.

      Actually, that could work well from a pedagogical standpoint, in terms of giving the students small chunks to work on over the course of the standpoint, with them getting continued feedback over the course of the semester.

      Thanks again for the suggestion!

      • There’s nothing wrong with rewriting an entire article from scratch because nobody “owns” the article. But despite the meritocratic trend of good edits being kept and bad edits being reverted, there is still a lot of politics behind the curtain of Wikipedia. Defending rewrites can be arduous, so ask other editors to help defend the quality of your work.

        Class assignments might be more difficult to judge if they are comprised of a larger number of smaller edits because other volunteers may play a significant role in the development of the material. It might not be as easy to credit a student for a good article rewrite if other editors did a lot of the hard work.

  5. Very interesting. Like Florian, I am sure many of us have thought about assigning a project like this and are now having second doubts.

    I notice on the talk page, there is a link to dispute resolution:

    But of course, none of that negates your core points about how it is a waste of time to go through this and a bad experience to be bullied. Of course I guess where that leads is teaching the possibility for conflict and how dispute resolution is part of real-world job skills. But that is a lot to ask of a 1st year undergrad in a science class.

    • And by the way, I resoundingly agree the improvements your student made are so strong there is no possible interpretation to be put on this other than the fragile ego of the original entry’s author.

    • The wikipedian here though it would be better to start with a line-by-line response. My student was going to try to work on that, but had to focus on her finals first. So, I’m going to give it a couple of weeks more to see how that goes (including whether my student is able to find the time to do the line-by-line response) and then see about a dispute resolution, if needed.

  6. For the past couple years, the Mycological Society of America (MSA) has been having student/postdoc applicants who are applying for conference travel funding from the Fungal Environmental Sampling and Informatics Network (an NSF RCN) create or update Wikipedia pages in order to be considered for an award. My impression is that this exercise has been quite positive for all involved. It certainly encouraged me to do my first substantial editing on Wikipedia, and none of the modifications made to my or to other applicant’s pages were reverted or subject to bullying, as far as I know. I also learned that Zotero is the only one of the major bibliography software programs that can export references in MediaWiki format. Very helpful for pages that cite a lot of primary literature.

    • This is a great idea for conference travel funding, and I’m glad to hear it’s been a positive experience.

  7. We’ve assigned revisions >30 pages for wikipedia and only had this problem twice. Once it was with someone who took issue with a major rewrite to a page they created without posting to the sandbox. In that case the author was upset with the faux pas, not the actual changes, and after the air was cleared all was ok. The other one was a very similar edit/evert/edit discussion on our edits to the “Frugivory” page – there was an group insisting the there be a section on humans who choose a “Fruititarian’ diet (see mention of it and the talk page here: and here:

    I agree that while totally inappropriate, learning how to deal with this kind of aggressive editing / bullying is actually quite valuable, even for students new to science (maybe especially for them). We now include a discussion of what to do in these cases on the day we introduce the assignment, and ask students to come to us so we can help them deal with it it comes up. Thanks for the Herring citation, I’m going to include that in our assignment materials.

    Brian already pointed out the resolution page, and I would definitely seek arbitration (very bottom of page). My feeling is wikipedians take very seriously their role as arbitrators of disputes when asked and are especially cognizant of the need to allow new editors to feel like they are part of the community.

    I don’t think you’re the slightest bit responsible, and would encourage you to keep including assignments like this that serve a broader community than a term paper that gets tossed at the end of the semester. Prepping the students in advance for the possibility of these kinds of interactions, and remembering that it’s the others who are the problem, not them, makes it easier for them to deal with them and laugh them off. As instructors we can step in when it gets to be too much by tell the editor they are being an a-hole and asking for arbitration.

    Great post.

    PS Definitely take advantage of the ambassador program if you can.

  8. In our core ecology course, grad students have the option of writing 1 or 2 of their papers as a Wikipedia article rather than in scientific review format, though posting is optional. One tool that has been useful is the Ecology Wikiproject ( WikiProjects are teams of editors that work on improving Wikipedia’s coverage of a given category. By going through them, you can identify missing or deficient topics, and also signal to to a group of interested editors to pay attention to what happens to your article, which helps if you need other senior editors to respond to bad actors.

  9. I have used wiki entries as a compulsory part of an undergraduate course in disease biology during the last four years. I think it works great!

    The way we do it is as follows:

    Students choose a topic, either a pathogen or a disease. They need to find 8-10 peer reviewed papers, the majority which should be open access articles. They meet with their mentor to find out whether the topic and literature is OK. Then they write the text and we circulate it back and forth 1-3 times until the mentor is satisfied.

    Each student goes through the sandbox tutorial, but usually they pick it up dead fast. A good thing is to write in the discussion page “we are students at XXX University and do this as a part of our education etc.” That helps explain who is doing the changes, and why.

    At the end the students give a presentation in front of the class and we also look at what changes that have been done, and whether there has been any feedback. All in all two weeks worth of course credits.

    The nice thing is that each student can write in his or her own language. I have mostly Swedish students, but the exchange students have written in English, Spanish, German and Chinese – you just need to find a mentor fluent in that language. This year two of the entries were listed as the best new wikis of the month. Cool stuff for the students!

    In most circumstances feedback is nice, and supportive. In a few cases parts of the texts have been reverted, but mainly it is grammatical fixes. In one case, the whole text was tossed out by a bot – but was also one of the weaker texts. Chinese was also tricky, partly because of the way internet is controlled.

    Thus, overall: I think Wikipedia is a great tool for engaging students to write and disseminate knowledge.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience! Having them identify them as students is a good idea. (I think that registering the course with wikipedia would do the same.) I’m glad the assignment is working well for you!

  10. Aren’t Sacred Heart Schools (see the RSCJ item on the profile page) generally or invariably for young women? That would make me think that you are dealing with a woman. I offer this as information, not fact, though I am (in fact) a man.

  11. Your experience was not an isolated incident. Wikipedia “editors” are becoming increasingly aggressive and defensive, and tolerate few edits. I tried making a minor contribution a few months ago, and was instantaneously pounced on by a self-appointed guardian of purity (also from the U.K. by coincidence).

    Editing Wikipedia has become the privilege of an inner circle. Unless you’re prepared to fight tooth & nail for your contributions, it’s a waste of time.

  12. Sad as it is, the bullying afterwards might be even better a learning experience than the editing. I guess the only way to make things better is to keep contributing, and spreading the word when you’re blocked by passive aggression. Thank you for doing this!

  13. Sounds like she got an excellent education not only in how to identify a need, but to perform extensive research, to write a valuable wikipedia entry, and then also got early experience with the all-important problem of politics, how to navigate them, and how to learn pride in her work instead of hinging satisfaction on the approval of others. Holistic educational bad-assness on your part! Props to both you and your student!

  14. I’ve been editing on Wikipedia since 2005 and this is nothing new. No better or worse than it’s ever been… and there are days where I just get so fed up with it I have to walk away. Unfortunately, I then find some page where something is just so horribly wrong that I’m back to editing and at times, fighting with people over the edits.

    The whole social dynamic combined with submission rules that by design elevate clueless, non-subject matter experts as having a higher value over people who have a real understanding of the content and the even the material that is being cited is the biggest flaw with the site. Often I’ve seen it just boil down to nothing more than who’s got the biggest D… er… edit count. Sigh. Is it any wonder women find the site a hostile place?

  15. I set up a page for a musician friend who had recently died. All information was first hand, but there were many links with bands he had played in and musicians he had played with and I sought approval from his family – who I know well.

    A few months later the page was edited, the grammar changed so that it was ambiguous and incorrect and paragraphing changed in a way that made no sense.

    Just like you I revised it and then found it immediately changed back. I entered into a dialogue with the editor who’d been messing with it – and he (had to be a he – very arrogant – and my references meant nothing as far as he was concerned.) He made it clear that if I touched the page again he would be immediately notified and would undo everything that I did. I decided that I wasn’t buying into his power trip and made it clear that I wasn’t going to engage further. So my friend’s page is still up full of errors and bad writing. Very frustrating and not the elegant memorial I had hoped – but I feel that arguing further just perpetuates the power trip and I can’t be bothered with it. A pity.

    Your example is actually much worse and my heart goes out to you both. What a waste of your time -all for some nonentity’s ego.

  16. Malke 2010 archived talk pages definitely indicate the user is a female. Can’t find any CV that matches the user’s listed details, though, which I find a little odd. (Also most academics tend to flaunt their publications.) That part I find a little suspect.

  17. If the information your student added to the page was of similar quality as the incredibly unfounded quote “men tended to assert their opinions as “facts,” whereas women tended to phrase their informative messages as suggestions, offers, and other non-assertive acts.” (which is in itself very funny because it proves itself wrong), then maybe they deserved being deleted.

    • Normally I would moderate out a comment along these lines, but since it’s directed at me, I’m allowing it through. But I will point out that I linked to the article from which that quote came, which is by a scholar who is an expert in this area.

  18. Hi, Meghan! I’m so sorry to hear your student ended up dealing with that aggression and feeling down about the good contributions she seems to have made. I think one of the more frustrating parts is that you both identified a really great article to edit—it was short with a lot of unrepresented scholarship. Some of the contributions may have qualified as “original research”, but I agree the article and Wikipedia would be better off with most of her changes.

    One thing I can attest to is that most instructors tell me this gets much easier as they go. As you so clearly noted in this wonderful post, teaching with Wikipedia has a steep learning curve. It takes a lot more of your time to figure out editing semantics and community norms the first time around. I imagine if you decide to do this assignment again, you will talk very openly with your students about the possible challenges coming their way and assure them that you (and other editors) will support them along the way. It can still be difficult for the students to face those confrontations, but a lot of that anxiety comes from them thinking their grade will be affected even if they followed all of the appropriate research and writing steps.

    I do hope your student walked away with a better understanding of how Wikipedia works and how information is created and distributed. I also hope you (and any other instructors reading this and teaching with Wikipedia) will consider working more formally with the Wiki Education Foundation (we support the Wikipedia Education Program in the US and Canada). Our training materials and Wikipedia Ambassadors are such a great resource for avoiding some of the pitfalls that are otherwise pretty distressing. I am also always interested in training any university faculty who may support you and your students, whether they work in the library, a teaching and learning center, writing center, etc. They can be a great resource, and it’s usually a good fit with their skills and interests! Please feel free (and encouraged) to send me an email! (

    • Jami – thank you for dropping by. And you provide some links to great resources that are very helpful to know about which I am sure will be greatly appreciated by many readers.

      At the same time I can’t help but feel like your comments miss a bit of the main point. When an honors college student who just finished a whole course in the topic and whose writing is supervised by one of the world’s leading experts in disease ecology (that would be Meg but she is too modest to say it) who carefully researched the best way to work on wikipedia have this kind of experience, and a dozen people who are college professors (most of them presumably in ecology which is not terrible but not one of the great current strengths of wikipedia either and certainly with room for improvement) comment on similar experiences, there is something bigger happening than just the need to train new contributors of wikipedia about the human nature they may be facing.

      Meg didn’t say this, but it is very hard for me to see the evidence in the comments without concluding that wikipedia has a culture/process/protocol that is very ineffective (I’m tempted to use a stronger word like broken but don’t want to be disrespectful). And I’m not saying this to be harsh. I actually genuinely care about wikipedia being great and regularly defend it as an extremely reliable resource in many areas (including to teachers and professors who say it shouldn’t be used in classrooms). But until people start talking about whether the current culture is working well (especially by those close to wikipedia, which I am not), it cannot possibly change.

    • Hi Jami,

      thanks for dropping by. While I’m sure Meg and others appreciate the advice you offer, I confess that I’m not convinced that the problem here is people failing to understand Wikipedia’s norms and practices. Frankly, if the learning curve is that steep, Wikipedia has a problem. Further, I think it’s clear from the post that managing student expectations isn’t the issue here. If what you have to tell students is “your well-researched edits will quite possibly languish forever on the Talk page or else be reversed if some editor doesn’t like them, even if you go to the trouble of trying to conform to Wikipedia’s increasingly elaborate written and unwritten rules”, well, the problem is with what Wikipedia expects, not with student misunderstanding of what Wikipedia expects. I note that Wikimedia Foundation’s own (former?) executive director Sue Gardner agrees, and so does Clay Shirky: So while your advice absolutely is welcome, what would also be welcome is some acknowledgement that Wikipedia also has some serious issues that need to be addressed, and that cannot be addressed by others simply learning about Wikipedia’s current written and unwritten rules. Acknowledging the importance of novices learning the ropes isn’t mutually exclusive with recognizing that “the ropes” could stand a fair bit of improvement.

    • Brian and Jeremy, I’ve worked with Jami as part of our course assignments and I think you’re not being quite fair to her – she wasn’t ignoring the problem, but rather offering to be part of the solution. Part of what she and the Wiki Education Foundation do is help train people to avoid or deal with issues like this.

      I also think we’ve fallen into the trap of “Some of our colleagues (e.g., Emilio, Meg) have had problems with editors, therefore there is obviously a cultural/protocol problem at Wikipedia”. Let’s get some evidence beyond anecdotes (including from those in the know like Gardener and Shirkey, great link BTW) before we generalize about just how pervasive the problem is. I’ve had problems – both quickly resolved – with 2/34 entires my students have worked on. Meg is 1/1. I looked for some studies on this topic but couldn’t find any, can anybody else track some down?

      Having said that, let’s not gloss over the fact that Wikipedia does have a culture-problem: the gender gap among editors is real and a serious issue and may be driven in part by what Meg’s student experienced ( But the problem of a-hole editors is not unique to wikipedia, and it has the advantage of being able to draw on a community of editors (one chimed in below) to help deal with these types. Jami will help point you to these people should the problem arise.

      I just reread and don’t mean to sound like a WP fanboy – we worry about this when we choose to include WP entries as a course assignment because we know this issue can come up. But I think your responses to Jami were a bit off target (and, with respect to you both, also a bit condescending. She knows way more about Wikipedia’s strengths, weaknesses, and the problems it faces than any of us here).

      • In no way am I saying the current Wikipedia culture is perfect. Yes, it’s hard for newbies to learn how to edit; there are so many rules and policies it’s impossible to know them all before you make your first edit. But, as Emilio said, that’s why we at the Wiki Education Foundation are here to help instructors design assignments so that students avoid common pitfalls.

        We’ve worked with more than 450 classes and 6,000 student editors in the U.S. and Canada over the last four years, and this experience has given us a really good understanding of what works with classroom assignments and what doesn’t. For example, our materials encourage students to do some minor edits to get comfortable editing, to move out of their sandboxes early and do most of the work on the main article namespace, and to describe what they’re planning to do on the talk page before they make edits.

        If the student in this case had done all of these, would she have avoided this situation? Maybe, and maybe not — but the student would have been better following Wikipedia norms, something experienced editors appreciate.

    • Hi Jami – thanks for stopping by again. And I appreciate your constructive attitude. I hear what you say about how one could fit into the culture better and learn more in advance. But I have to say that while the example cited in the OP could have done more they did quite a bit. They did not drop in from the sky. They asked and looked around a good bit first.

      I think one of the issues in this example is that what was up there was essentially a stub article. In this context, it is not intuitive to make lots of small edits. There was no disrespect or removal of material that was there. But whole paragraphs of new text of high value even if not perfectly conforming were edited. Was wikipedia better with or without the text? I think most would say with. In which case what was gained by chasing away the author and deleting the text? Whereas if somebody were to go edit a post on say, the Poisson distribution which is rich and well developed, I can understand the argument that only incremental changes should be offered up.

      In a place where there is a stub article, just exactly how high should the barrier to be to contribute? Do you really want to limit contribution to only hard core people who will devote dozens (or as one commentor suggested 100s of hours) before starting to edit. That is really limiting the pool. As I note in a comment below, maybe the answer depends on how progressed and well-developed the topic area is within wikipedia?

  19. This is part of why Wikipedia is worthless for anything other than trivia. If this takes place on articles you look at in detail, it takes place on the others too. The bottom line is that you can’t rely on anything Wikipedia claims.

    • Can you back this up with citations? The (few) studies done assessing this have found error rates similar to what you have in ‘authoritative’ sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica Studies have actually found the opposite (e.g.,

      I’m not suggesting Wikipedia entries don’t have mistakes in them, only that they don’t necessarily have any more mistakes than other sources, and that they can be quickly fixed if found.

  20. A wiki editor who is maybe subject in this page has caused me trouble. This person writes in a malicious, aggressive tone, and seems vindictive (for what, daring to make contributions to microbiology articles, maybe?) Its too bad, because before I joined wiki I read about the controversy of overly powerful and negative editors ruining the spirit of the platform and chasing volunteer contributors away. This editor is example of this. I reached out for mentorship and advice, but the editor responded only with further criticism. I see conversations such as the one raised in my instance as opportunities to grow this open knowledge project. I appreciate your creating this page, it makes me feel a little less alone.

  21. Wow, the editor Malke 2010 said “Dballouz does not appear interested in learning how to properly source and write an encyclopedic article. ” and “Thing is, on Wikipedia it isn’t really up to you to decide something like that.” among others!? SO rude! Ahhh, I wish I didnt look further into this, its so upsetting! I tend on the side of looking for an intervention (asking, what is wrong in Malke 2010’s life that is making him/her sad, and how to we fix it so he/she is nice to us again?)

  22. Hi Meg. I’m one of the admins on Wikipedia and I’d like to apologize to your student. Getting your changes reverted wholesale is very discouraging, and it’s not something you should encounter when you contribute. There were some minor problems with the changes (after all, encyclopedia writing is somewhat specialized and Wikipedia has evolved a lot of policy to guide it), but I think they definitely improved the article.

    Your post has attracted the attention of quite a few very experienced editors and admins, and the veteran user has been reminded, from multiple people, that his behavior in this case is not how we want new contributors to be treated.

    I hope that your student, and yourself, is still interested in editing this beautiful but flawed encyclopedia, and would be willing to come back and discuss and continue to improve the Super-spreader article. Already much of the content has been restored and hopefully it should be a much different environment now that there are more people involved instead of a single person who unfortunately didn’t make a good impression.

    Again, we’re sorry. Give us a second chance?

  23. I’ve also pondered the idea of using wikipedia in the classroom, and would definitely lean towards new articles or expanding stubs. Of course, this article *was* a stub – I don’t know how the editor in question could possibly refer to the old version as a “well-sourced, well-written Wikipedia article”, when it only had two references. But maybe another way of avoiding the possible conflict is giving the article creator a heads-up, perhaps even asking his or her permission. In one way, that goes against the wikipedia policy of no-one “owning” articles, but most wikipedia editors would be thrilled if someone left them a note saying, “I was looking at this article you started, and thinking about expanding it for a school project; would you be able to check my edits and give me some feedback?”

    I say all this as a long-time wikipedia editor who occasionally has reverted wholesale changes from new editors. But I try to avoid this as much as possible.

  24. Others have addressed, well, the unfortunate response experienced by your student (it’s not how we Wikipedians should welcome new editors, and I’m glad to see others are working on-Wiki to resolve the matter), but there’s something else which is relevant to students and academics who edit Wikipedia: ORCID.

    ORCID, the “Open Research Contributor ID”:

    is an identifier for contributors to academic papers, journals, and other such publications. It’s the equivalent, for such people, of an ISBN for a book, or a DOI for a paper. ORCID is an open data project, run by a not-for-profit foundation.

    People who have an ORCID and edit Wikipedia under their real name (it’s obviously not appropriate for those who edit pseudonymously) can add the ORCID to their user page using the {{Authority control}} template:

    and can add their Wikipedia contributions list (for example, mine is ), as a “work”, to their ORCID profile.

  25. Based on my (mostly positive, 8k edits) experiences, I would /not/ give students assignments that involved editing at wikipedia, particularly if the goal is to improve a single article. When I first showed up, I spent a couple of months reading policies and and endless stream of commentary on those policies, hanging out at the administration noticeboards (to see how the policies were actually implemented), and shadowing admins who appeared to have the respect of the community. Watching other newbies make their mistakes saved me from making (most of) those mistakes myself. With that knowledge under my belt, I could then decide where my expertise would be a good fit. I would recommend this approach to anyone who wanted to contribute, but it is time-intensive and probably not appropriate for a semster-long course.

    Without this kind of background, the reception good students receive will depend mostly on the luck of the draw, and if they run into resistance they aren’t going to know if they’ve violated some obscure community norm or if they’ve just annoyed a possessive editor. More important, they aren’t going to have the knowledge to know how to react, or where to go for help.

    Given a student with good writing skills, high empathy and the ability to grok piles of guidelines, and given a topic that’s sufficiently obscure and uncontroversial, and with a bit of luck, newbies can have very positive experiences.

    A few thoughts on how to improve the odds:

    1) Give the student an initial assignment to make a significant contribution: adding citations, copyediting, etc. These are low-risk edits, and if something blows up there’s no great harm done.

    2) Find an experienced editor in the area and ask them if they would be willing to take a new editor under their wing.

    3) Find the Wikipedia Teahouse (put WP:TEAHOUSE into the search bar) and read it religiously. That’s a newbie-friendly board, and probably the best place to ask general questions.

    4) Also have the student spend time reading (but not participating in) the “Articles for Creation”, “Articles for Deletion” and “Administrator Noticeboard/Incident” boards (WP:AFC, WP:AFD, WP:ANI): mostly negative examples, but in very high concentration.

    5) If the goal is to write a new article or expand a stub, keep in mind that this is at least as hard as learning to write for peer-reviewed publication, and that the learning process is being done very much in public. Just as you wouldn’t have a student try writing for publication without reading lots of great papers, you should have students find out what the “Good Articles” and “Featured Articles” are in your area and learn from those examples.

    Happy to continue the conversation offline or on-wiki,


    Garamond Lethe

    • Garamond, this is really great advice. Perhaps one of the keys to this being successful for our students is that we chose relatively uncontroversial topics – species descriptions, entries on biological field stations, entries on national parks in tropical countries. Just the kind of topics unlikely to court resistance.

  26. I think one needs to remember that the Wisdom of Crowds stems from the same route as lynch law – people with good intentions working, often, beyond their competence.

    Wikipedia is a pleasant pastime in learning how to collaborate with other people to produce a somewhat better entity than when we started. Decent articles are produced. But trash is also produced, and there are areas where bias is all too common.

    All projects from the classroom moving to Wikipedia should really involve otherwise there is a huge risk of the very thing you have reported.

  27. I’m coming at this from the perspective of a hardcore Wikipedian.

    I totally agree with the observation above that it is best to make substantial changes as many small alterations in succession rather than as one massive revision. New articles can be started in a “sandbox” situation (i.e. not as live edits) but a gigantic revision will show as such on the “recent changes” log and will invite a great deal of attention, perhaps ending in a revision.

    Many small changes, each with a short edit summary, are akin to “showing one’s work” when solving a math problem and are less likely to result in a total revision.

    Second, it is important to recognize that things like medicine, hard science, and math have many dedicated watchers. The reason that the information is good and getting better in such areas is because of this sort of scrutiny. It comes at the price of possibly making newcomers feel unwelcome when their good-intentioned changes are reverted.

    There is a culture to be learned, to be sure.

    Sorry your student had problems and I hope she doesn’t give up.


  28. It seems to me that Wikipedia needs to find the right balance between an inherently conservative culture (we have good enough material with a good enough editor base that we want to default to not screwing it up) or an open, growing culture (we strongly need new blood and new material such that we are willing to tolerate minor deviations – and those are all we’re talking about here; there were no biases, lack of sourced material etc – from norms) for the sake of growing. Wikipedia was clearly in the 2nd category in its early days. And there were problems of vandalism, etc. But it seems to me the pendulum has swung way too in the other direction and needs to move back.

    I do not think Wikipedia should be treat as a good enough, nearly done, conservative project. Its coverage in its coverage in ecology, just to take an example close to home to this blog, is mixed. It is clearly improving, but there are gaping holes. Whereas for math or stats or computers or geography I often consider Wikipedia to be an authoritative one-stop tool, ecology is nowhere close to that today. An infusion of new energy and blood in this area is more important than conserving what is there for probably some time to come.

    And of course there are many other areas needing improvement too.

    Perhaps Wikipedia would be well served to have a “conservatism dial” that could be changed across different topics as their temporal trajectories evolve?

    • Brian, you have some astute observations about Wikipedia. The culture we’re talking about here is certainly not unique to students’ experiences, and there are a lot of editors working hard to improve editor retention in general. Changing the culture is going to take a lot of people, and it sounds like you feel strongly about helping make that happen. I encourage you to join WikiProject Editor Retention (, as I believe they are always welcoming of new members!

  29. Do you think the ecological community should be keeping some watch over key articles in Wikipedia, to check neutrality / correctness?

    I realised during a course problems with the definition of the reproductive value,
    These have actually been highlighted in the discussion (and perhaps I should just have taken some time to edit it).

    Also, some unknown warrior for ratio-dependence recently inserted the same sentence in 5 articles of Wikipedia:
    “In the late 1980s, a credible, simple alternative to the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model (and its common prey dependent generalizations) emerged, the ratio dependent or Arditi-Ginzburg model. The two are the extremes of the spectrum of predator interference models. According to the authors of the alternative view, the data show that true interactions in nature are so far from the Lotka-Volterra extreme on the interference spectrum that the model can simply be discounted as wrong. They are much closer to the ratio dependent extreme, so if a simple model is needed one can use the Arditi-Ginzburg model as the first approximation.”
    Somehow neutrality is not the word that comes to mind…

    • “Also, some unknown warrior for ratio-dependence recently inserted the same sentence in 5 articles of Wikipedia:

      Oh dear, that’s kind of strange, and a bit worrisome, though in practice I wonder if it will have much effect. Undergrads mostly learn these topics from their coursework, and at that undergrad level ratio dependence rarely is taught (as far as I know). And at the grad student level, I’d hope that students can think for themselves and won’t be much influenced by one sentence they see on Wikipedia (indeed, I’d hope grad students mostly wouldn’t start with Wikipedia as an entry point into the literature).

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