Eye On DNA But Not On Wikipedia

Eye On DNA But Not On Wikipedia

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted May 13, 2007 in DNA in General

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Fellow DNA Network member, Thomas Goetz has started a ruckus over why Wikipedia sucks on science. He posted part of his rant over at Wired Science, which then got picked up by Techcrunch and Techmeme. Not only do I agree with Thomas that science entries at Wikipedia are often too technical and unreliable, I have other reasons for never linking to Wikipedia myself.

  1. The information is biased. Because many of Wikipedians hide behind pseudonyms, we have no idea whether they have a hidden agenda..
  2. Edits are futile. If you’ve ever tried to add to or edit an entry at Wikipedia, you may find that within minutes of your edit, another more “senior” member of the Wikipedia community has swooped in and undone all your work. Who knows if your opponent knows more than you or not. The fact that they’re patrolling the entry you’re interested in editing means that they have more time than you to defend their turf. You can try to argue your point, but I’ve read enough stories to know that the process is time consuming, tedious, and often for nought.
  3. The Wikipedia community is exclusionary. I have observed links from worthy websites deleted simply because they’re deemed to be self-promotional. I don’t believe self-promotion is a crime. Every organization does it if they believe their message is valuable enough to trumpet.
  4. Wikipedians are defensive and always on the attack. If you’ve read any of the comments Thomas has received on the posts I mentioned above, you’ll see that Wikipedians are hardly the most cultured or erudite of society. I’m sure there are some who are, but the ones that are the most vocal and the ones I assume are the most active, SCARE ME.
  5. natalie angier canonWikipedia isn’t the only source of information. In fact, I’d argue that many other sites are better than Wikipedia. I just can’t see the average person feeling all jazzed up over science after a visit to the boring Wikipedia pages. But visit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA From The Beginning, watch their video interviews, animated features, and other fancy features, and know that there are far better ways to teach people about science. I think Natalie Angier, author of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, would agree.

If you ever have a question about science or genetics, use Google but skip the first few search results, which almost always include a Wikipedia entry. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you’ll find.

What do you think of Wikipedia?

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Comment by Veo Claramente

Hi Helen, this is a great site!
I haven’t used wikipedia much, but I have found it less than intuitive and hard to use.

Happy writing!

Thanks, Veo! Sometimes I go to Wikipedia just to check out their links list on whatever topic I’m interested in, but that’s about the extent of it. The links are often not very useful either. Bummer.

Comment by laura Subscribed to comments via email

I use Wikipedia, like how I used to use the World Book Encyclopedia, when I was in elementary school (you know, before they allowed computers in schools)- OK before the 6th grade… Just for the very basics of information.

Most of the time, it isn’t terribly helpful to me, but occasionally I pick up on a keyword, or phrase that I didn’t actually think about. And so for that, it can be a little bit helpful (at least to me)…but I am not so scientific.

lol Be quiet before they figure out how old we are. ;) Although I do believe I had computer class in 8th grade.

Comment by Steven Murphy MD Subscribed to comments via email

Wow! Did not know about that other link at Cold Spring. I am guilty of the ‘ol wikipedia link. I always had found it useful. but I guess it’s just because I speak the language of genetics and medicine. Next time I will think twice….

Over at Genetics and Health, I had a list of good beginner’s genetics websites. I think it’s time to go through that list and see if there are any to add.

Comment by lokey

i dont think wikipedia’s strength is as a teaching tool per se, unlike the websites you reference above. Where it becomes useful in science is as a reference tool for keywords and jargon, and a means of identifying disagreement within the scientific body. I find looking through the version history very revealing when determining whether a topic has reached a settled definition, or is still hotly debated. And it should certainly never be used as a final citation, but as an intermediary step in the search chain.

lokey, Thanks for the comment. You make an interesting point that I think only people who’ve spent a considerable amount of time examining Wikipedia would understand. The average user who happen upon any highly ranked Wikipedia entry will most likely take things at face value – for better or worse.


[...] answer for Eye on DNA May 13, 2007 Posted by ncurse in Wikipedia, Wiki, Web 2.0. trackback Hsien-Hsien Lei knows perfectly how much I admire and respect her work (first at Genetics and Health, now at Eye on DNA), but this [...]


[...] a post by Thomas Goetz, a fellow DNA Network member, and author of Epidemix.org has got a lot of people writing about why, or why not Wikipedia sucks on [...]

Comment by Remi

On the culture of Wikipedia:
You claim people give you crap and undo edits…
That is called “biting” people. They shouldn’t do it. It’s not policy, but it is a guideline, I think. It also doesn’t serve to help the community.

I may bite others sometimes too, but I really try not to, and feel bad when I think I might have.

I’m rather active on Wikipedia. I mostly cruise the afd (articles for deletion) pages and save articles that I think are of value. I am much more active on Wikiversity.

If people give you crap on there, you need to bite them back. But you need to be civil and polite about it. Some people seem to enjoy giving others crap. They get a power trip out of it. They create sections like “Wikiversity police” …

One wikipedian I know had bragged that ” about 25 percent of all Wikipedians seem to instantly hate me”… as if it is unintentional and as if it was not something to do with the way that person was acting, but that something was wrong with those 25 percent of Wikipedians. The secret is not to react to the biters or get your feelings hurt. There are many more quality people than jerks though, who really want to set information free.

Don’t let others give you crap on Wikipedia.

And if you really believe in an edit, and you really feel you are right, defend it whilst being civil.


lol @ “You claim”

I say that a lot too…or “they claim.” I guess we two are skeptics.

You’re right, I should not let people give me crap and I usually don’t. But when it’s something I can take or leave, I try to keep my blood pressure from boiling over by turning my back. Perhaps I just don’t believe in the overall mission of Wikipedia as much as I should. If I truly believed it was the best way to save the world with information, I’d be totally into it. As it is, I don’t believe any source should have a monopoly and from the view of the masses, Wikipedia can almost be called an information monopoly.

Comment by Kristina

I do not like Wikipedia and steer my students away from it (somewhat in vein, as the alternate sources they find are even worse sometimes). I have a very hard time convincing students about why Wikipedia is not a valid source—and to get them walking into the library.

Kristina, Coming from a classics professor that says a lot. The key is for everyone to be analytical and critical of what they read no matter where it comes from. In the end, every single piece of information is biased in some way, including (or especially?) Wikipedia.

Comment by alicia Subscribed to comments via email

I tend to use Wikipedia as a jumping off point only. If I find something interesting and potentially useful, I’ll research it further on another site as well as check out the links the Wikipedia article offers.

Alicia, Good for you! That’s exactly what we all should be doing no matter which site/resource we use first. Explains why you’re a successful writer. :)

Comment by alicia Subscribed to comments via email

Ha, thanks.

Your mention of wondering if students use “Wikipedia in the same way just as I used to with the encyclopedia. Rewording ad infinitum,” is something I’ve often wondered, too. We could obviously rely on encyclopedias more than today’s students can rely on Wikipedia, and it’s depressing to think so much incorrect information is circulating (that is, the information that is actually incorrect – I don’t mean all of the Wikipedia info, of course). Today’s students use the Internet because it’s quick and easily accessible, and many of them are probably too boy/girl crazy (or something of the sort, haha) to really do the research to find out if the info is accurate or not. Many of them take it and run with it because it’s there.


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Comment by Steven Murphy MD Subscribed to comments via email

Wow! What alot of content. Personally I have edited and written content. I found the edits from others were constructive. Perhaps that’s because I helped write the personalized medicine entry and this happens to be my niche. Clearly a lot of people have had some issues with this “biting”. I think to truly understand someone you need to step into their shoes. At Wikipedia there is a “religious” like experience by participating for some. Clearly these people operate under different norms and mores… Maybe we all need to grab a drink and talk it over? :)

“At Wikipedia there is a “religious” like experience by participating for some.”

Now you’re really freaking me out, Steve!

Comment by Barry Starr Subscribed to comments via email

I tend to use Wikipedia as a starting point as well. In my work answering people’s genetics questions at our Understanding Genetics website, I find the entries useful in finding technical terms that can help me do the next google search for subjects I am not that familiar with. Because of how Wikipedia is built, I tend to look for corroborating data on what is written there anyway.

Wikipedia tends to be written in a very technical way that is more conducive to writing reports for school as opposed to learning about a topic on your own. Of course, there is a place for that as well! But find sites like the DNA Learning center, our site or GSLC to learn more about genetics in a non-technical way.

“Wikipedia tends to be written in a very technical way that is more conducive to writing reports for school….”

That’s funny because I am 99% certain that students are copying some of my entries for their homework. Wonder how many use Wikipedia in the same way just as I used to with the encyclopedia. Rewording ad infinitum.

Comment by Paul

I find that some things in Wikipedia can be useful, such as place histories, general information. I have written a few articles myself, which have more or less stayed intact. I have also had some of my work get undone. Like many others, I don’t have enough time to defend against somebody who may or may not know what they are talking about. It is hard enough to find time to do all the other things in my life.

I agree with the statements about math and science. I often find those articles befuddling and short on explanations, and I am an engineer!

Paul, Nice to see you here! :) People who contribute to wikis amaze me. I would find it hard not to let my ego get in the way when someone comes along and edits my work. Bad enough that editors do it, but total strangers? No thanks….

Comment by John Stephenson Subscribed to comments via email

You’d be very welcome on the expert-friendly Citizendium wiki; the ‘biology workgroup‘ is particularly well-developed for a site that’s only been launched for a few months. Oh, and we could do with people who know something about Chinese culture.

Comment by Hsien

Thanks for the invite, John. I’ll pop over for a look as soon as I can. I might not be the best resource for Chinese culture, though. My area of expertise there would probably be the food! :P


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