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For All the World to Read

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In lieu of a traditional term paper, assistant psychology professor Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., asked her senior seminar students to research, write and collaborate on Wikipedia articles.

By Hilary Bentman

Most college research papers are rarely read by anyone but the student who wrote it and the professor who assigned it.

But that was not the case in Albright College assistant psychology professor Gwen Seidman’s senior seminar.

Her students’ work could potentially be viewed by millions, if not billions, of people.

“It’s so nerve-racking. The whole world can read this,” said Chloe Stratton ’15.

And any one of those readers can edit the students’ work.

“That’s kind of stressful,” said Ellie Herman ’15. “Anything you write could be changed at any time.”

But that’s the beauty of Wikipedia, the free and collaborative online encyclopedia featuring 30 million articles written by volunteers on nearly every topic imaginable.

Last semester, Seidman, a social psychologist who specializes in the psychology of the Internet and close relationships, asked Stratton, Herman and the other students in her senior seminar to write Wikipedia articles on social psychology topics not currently developed on the site.

The assignment, in lieu of a final research paper, was part of the Association for Psychological Science's (APS) Wikipedia Initiative, whose mission is “to deploy the power of Wikipedia to represent scientific psychology as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby to promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide.”

The APS initiative, said Seidman, is part of a broader movement to get educational institutions involved in editing Wikipedia articles on various topics, offering the average person access to more accurate, reliable and thorough information.

“The average person isn’t reading scholarly work. The average person doesn’t even have access to most of this work,” said Seidman. “So let’s try to disseminate psychological knowledge.”

Working in pairs, Seidman’s students divided up their topics, conducted research and cited their material like any other assignment. But the students had to master the difficult Wikipedia formatting system and compose their articles in a way that lay people could understand.

“You’re writing for the general population. You have to be clear,” said Herman, who partnered with Stratton on an article on “self-disclosure.”

Wikipedia, according to its own Wikipedia article, has an estimated 365 million readers, more than 71,000 active editors, and more than 20.5 million accounts. And all of those people can potentially edit, criticize or make suggestions about the students’ work using the “talk” tab at the top of every Wikipedia article.

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Meghan Tierney '14 helped write a Wikipedia article on self-referential encoding.

For instance, Stratton and Herman neglected to capitalize the word “Internet” in their piece. So someone accessed it and made the changes.

“You get so territorial about your article. But eventually you get over it,” said Stratton. “You realize this article is not mine. It’s a Wikipedia article. And it’s a really nice environment to write in. People are helpful.”

Added Herman: “I was amazed people were even looking at it. How often do you think people look up self-disclosure?”

Seidman, who also took part in the collaborative editing of her students’ work, was able to access an article’s history to see what her students contributed and what outsiders added or deleted.

Though her name does not appear on the article she helped write, Meghan Tierney ’14 is proud of her contribution of “self-referential encoding.” And Tierney relishes the fact that when one Googles that topic, the Wikipedia article is the first web result.

By and large, Wikipedia articles are compiled by random people and not experts in a field. Questions of accuracy and reliability have plagued the site, which is why many professors, including Seidman, are quick to tell their students that Wikipedia should never be cited in a research paper.

Seidman’s opinion has only been solidified by this experience. But she and her students still view Wikipedia as a good jumping off point, a place to get ideas and possibly find appropriate sources buried within the Wikipedia citations. And the site provides the average person unprecedented, centralized access to information, just as long as users understand it’s not gospel.

“I think Wikipedia is great if you know what it is and how to use it,” said Tierney.

 

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