Term papers? These science students write Wikipedia pages instead.

A program created three years ago by the independent Wiki Education Foundation enlists students to write articles, supervised by their professors, in lieu of term papers. This year, it's focused on science, and particular the role of women in the field.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Mallory Whitt works at her desk at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. The independent Wiki Education Foundation created a program to have students edit Wikipedia pages, with the help of their professors, instead of writing term papers, as a means to help improve the site. This year, they're focused on science, particularly the role of women in science.

When scholars talk about Wikipedia, it’s often to debate its accuracy.

But what if Wikipedia could improve its focus on a particular topic – such as women in science – by using articles written by students from around the country, supervised by their professors?

That’s the goal of a project launched by the independent Wiki Education Foundation, which has students write articles, in collaboration with their professors, in order to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic, instead of a term paper.

The program, which is focusing this year on science-related topics, and specifically on women in science, has student members from 200 schools, including University of California at Berkeley, Duke University, George Washington University, Harvard University, and New York University, which have incorporated editing Wikipedia pages into their curriculum, Motherboard reports.

They’ve worked on 35,000 articles, which have received 78 million views so far. Given Wikipedia’s ubiquitous nature online, particularly among younger users, focusing on how the public views science will also give students a chance to shape Wikipedia itself.

The program’s goal is simple. “If it isn’t presenting the information you think it should be presenting, or you don’t think the information’s accurate—fix it.” Eryk Salvaggio, the foundation’s communications manager, told Motherboard.

Tackling diversity on the site is a key focus. Wikipedia’s editors often skew white and male, with one study finding that less than 13 percent of the site’s editors were women (though other studies have pointed to somewhat higher proportions of female editors), an imbalance that is particularly pronounced when it comes to female scientists editing the site.

45 percent of the site’s edits came from only five countries – Italy, France, the UK, Germany, and the US – researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute found. Many pieces about specific places came from far-away parts of the world, they found, noting that more editors came from the Netherlands than from all of Africa.

Another concern for the Wiki Education Foundation is to get a broader group of scientists to use the service, noting that it could broaden the appeal of their research beyond the academy. That’s long been a controversial topic for researchers, particularly in fields that often dip into national headlines, such as climate science.

“It almost seems like a hugely irresponsible thing to ignore the largest place for information where everyone goes to learn about science—to not include your expertise,” Greg Boustead, an education programs manager at the Simons Foundation, which is supporting the project, told Motherboard.

Students have also been involved in similar types of collaborative projects through so-called competency-based education programs, which particularly aim to keep costs down by having students track their learning by moving through a series of “competencies.”

One program, at Texas A&M University at Commerce, has students learn to use quantitative data to make decisions by reading a paper on data analysis in government or watching a video, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

They then demonstrate their knowledge by answering questions on a discussion board and interacting with their peers and finally write a short paper that uses personal examples to sum up their knowledge.

But questions about accuracy have long dogged Wikipedia, though studies of the subject have found a mixed picture compared to news media accounts and traditional encyclopedias. In 2009, one sociology student in Ireland sparked a debate by posting a false quote attributed to the film composer Maurice Jarre on the site, quickly duping a series of media outlets into using the quote in their obituaries when he died.

One aspect of editing for the site is working actively to ensure stories remain neutral and unbiased by flagging articles for review. The site’s policy also bars scientists from writing about their own research unless they disclose a conflict of interest on a Wikipedia talk page that’s used by editors to discuss improvements to an article.

Wikipedia also works to identify topics that would be particularly helpful for the students to cover through its own WikiProjects, which includes a task force that focuses on women in science, Motherboard reports.

A key goal for the Wiki Education Foundation is to encourage a discussion among professors and students about how they use sources, and particularly whether a source is promoting a particular perspective or bias.

“They’re also just thinking about how to read things they find on the Internet,” Mr. Salvaggio told Motherboard.

[Editor's note: This story originally misidentified the name of the Wiki Education Foundation.]

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