Wikipedia and Psychology Students
When you Google most psychology topics, you'll likely find a Wikipedia article among the first 10 hits. For millions of people worldwide—consumers, therapists, journalists, students—Wikipedia has become a primary source of information about psychology. Its articles range from how psychotherapy works to specific therapy techniques and information on the causes and treatments of depression, bipolar disorder, grieving, and addictions—you name it.
Unfortunately, many of the more than 6,000 articles related to psychology are seriously underresearched and superficial. An article on dialectical behavior therapy, for example, says that it's the first empirically supported therapy for treating borderline personality disorder (BPD), but fails to mention that several other therapies are also effective—something a person with BPD ought to know. Many articles explaining psychotherapy are so lightweight that Wikipedia calls for more research and citations right in the article.
This situation is disturbing to Mahzarin Banaji, president of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), who believes that psychologists have a responsibility to ensure that such widely accessible information about the field is accurate and comprehensive. Now the Wikipedia Initiative, an ambitious APS project, is working to significantly upgrade Wikipedia's psychology articles. In doing so, APS hopes not only to improve the quality of education for psychology students, but to increase the accuracy of the information about psychological science that's freely available to audiences worldwide.
Wikipedia, a collaborative effort, permits anyone to submit or edit an article. Whereas print encyclopedias relied on a narrow task force of experts and were updated infrequently, Wikipedia's strength lies in its 24/7 availability and continuous revisions. The volunteer project WikiPsychology, one of the groups working on the psychology articles, provides a general safeguard against inaccuracy or bias, periodically culling Wikipedia for new psychology articles that have been created, focusing on the most frequently accessed articles, assessing them for reliability and the quality of citations, and then calling upon the Wikipedia community for revisions or additions. Maintaining Wikipedia's spirit of collaboration, WikiPsychology holds online dialogues about specific articles and proposed edits, and requesting new articles on important topics. The group has rated only about 40 of the more than 6,000 psychology entries as a B or higher, so there's a lot of work to be done.
By encouraging students and professors to participate in WikiPsychology and to edit and submit Wikipedia articles, APS hopes to move psychology education from its cloistered, top-down structure into a broader, collaborative venture. Historically, psychology students don't impact the field much until they're well into their careers. Now, they could be making a major contribution to people's understanding of the field right away, as APS President Mahzarin Banaji explains to students and professors in the January APS Observer. "You can take . . . somebody's passable entry and bring it to perfection with the right sentence or two. You could supply new, more compelling, examples. You could diversify the content by showing that a particular view isn't the only one that exists."
Another aim of the Wiki Initiative is to foster a collaborative attitude toward research among students, something often lacking in the competitive, ego-driven worlds of academia and clinical research. Because all Wikipedia contributions are anonymous, the psychology project "runs on the goodwill of those who work for the public good and out of a sense of professional responsibility," says Banaji. "These motivations challenge simple notions of compensation, and even public recognition." Nevertheless, APS will highlight students who make noteworthy contributions, and it urges professors to integrate the Wiki Initiative into their course requirements.
With the help of Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University, an APS task force member and expert in electronic learning and collaborative online communities, APS has developed a website and software to facilitate contributions. They're intended to help students and faculty members locate underresearched articles that fit their specific interests, learn Wikipedia publishing and editing protocols, and connect with others around specific topics. The Wiki Initiative, he says, will engage students in authentic education by helping them learn to do research that's relevant and giving them the opportunity to create work that thousands of people will read.