Time to Update Wikipedia

Currently, Wikipedia represents one of the best resources for gathering information about … well, everything. The thing it, Wikipedia only works as long as two things are true:

1. The information presented in it is accurate, and updated with new information;
2. The information is available.

For that latter bit, Open Access information is the lynchpin to much of what makes Wikipedia WORK: all images and data submitted to the Wiki are Open Access, CC-BY, and preserved on a server which is funded solely through contributions [from viewers like you]. In an age where we have massive amounts of data at our fingertips, however, for fossil taxa not so well familiar as Tyrannosaurus rex, or so popular as Microraptor zhaoianus after a new paper on its wings comes out or what not, the information that allows browsers to drink in the data itself, rather than just words sometimes copy-pasted into the Wiki’s editing fields, is amazingly sparse. This often has to do with the fact that editors do not have time to insert images of material, but also that in many cases, these images are licensed and copyrighted: They cannot be posted anywhere, or even shared among scientists. This is true when you take photos at many museums — which often requires paying a fee and/or signing a piece of paper promising not to share — or even copy the images out of a paper or monograph. As such, data is limited. Wikipedia is a great resource, but starved for visual impact. Many of the images on Wikipedia are created by editors or submitters at large, artists like Nobu Takamura pepper all of Dinosauria with his work, while Matt Marynuick of DinoGoss has practically illustrated every member of Avialae. There’s an overwhelming amount of data on theropods, less on nontheropod dinosaurs, worse on non-dinosaurian dinosauromorphans.

Recently, Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology and Doctor of zological things like dead bats and turtle penises and whatnot (and what a whatnot!) exposited on a problem he sees in the prevalence of work by Dave Peters being cited in lieu of, perhaps, more credible sources. One can see the effect Dave Peters’ websites (ReptileEvolution and PterosaurHeresies) have due to the high amount of traffic he receives daily; one can see this effect simply by plugging any pterosaur name (like Scaphognathus crassirostris) into Google Images search, and you will see examples of Peters’ characteristic skeletal illustration style (preserving lumps and ridges of broken bone due to his also characteristic tracing style). Darren’s appeal to readers (not to go to these sites, be aware of them, etc.) was following by a sharper critique by his colleague and friend Mark Witton — also a Doctor, but of Pterosauriamology or whatever it’s called. And it’s gone from there, where people involved in the public distribution of science information and its production (guys like Dave Hone and so on) have made some public appeals about this work: Brian Switek of Tracking Dinosaurs and Laelaps blogs, Nima over at Paleo King, and so on.  The thing is, of these people only Darren has made an attempt to show off or illustrate the diversity of animals he discusses, being an artist in his own right. I attempt the same, but am less prolific. Well, there’s a few solutions, and as several people in response to the critiques and appeals noted here have said, the best way to “combat” diverging perspectives is have students and authors talk about their research, blog it and plug it and so on. Show their work, but to the public. But there also remains no repository for information as concentrated as that of websites like ReptileEvolution, meaning these places are steeped in traffic while also dispensing some ideas that may not be as thoroughly tested as they should be. But enough about that. Not only should scientists blog and publicize their own work, they need to show it by presenting imagery. This may require stepping around what might seem licensing issues with publishers, but also by promoting alternate sources for information; it may mean that authors who have the ability have to take the extra step by either setting up a blog, or by updating a taxon page on which they do research, and plugging in an illustration or two showing the taxon they are talking about. And Wikipedia seems prime for that.

This isn’t a strike at Dave Peters, who is a friend, but I’d like to note merely that when there are controversial sites that enjoy high traffic, and all critiques are in highly restrictive fora where people who use Google may never find themselves reading, then there is a gulf of noninformation and no one is bridging it. Controversies should be exposed as such a thing, and people taught about the degree of controversiality of certain hypotheses. This isn’t just about Peters’ sites, but also about Triassic “kraken” or controversies over how pterosaurs were so heavy that they have to have a tailwind and a perfect slope just to get into the air. Science communication needs the ability to refer to something without a bone to grind, but also a resource to allow them to investigate; students need to be able to find the information, and visualize it. Kids need to find out how bizarre some animals are … or aren’t. But they need to also realize that a single researcher’s opinion on something isn’t the only story, and when we’re honest with ourselves — as many scientists are, but some not — we simply describe the material, illustrate it, and then discuss it.

So, here’s an appeal: If you can change this, do so. If you have the time, splice up images, photos, and descriptions of material (not just what someone once said about it) and plug it into Wikipedia. Pimp those pages out. Make Wikipedia one of the, if not THE definitive resources for plugging a taxon into Google. Make it not only the top hit, but the fossils thoroughly illustrated and well-documented.

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3 Responses to Time to Update Wikipedia

  1. So much of the literature is right on the money, but where the literature is lacking or mistaken, testing reveals where the problems are.

    • You disagree with them; that is fine. But the problem is that you are also saying they are WRONG. They write a paper describing their argument, after examining specimens first hand and such, but you’re using photos, some of them very small and not very well-resolved, to contradict their results. It is fine to place their info into contexts, even if it disagrees with their conclusions, but arguing they are wrong (as you do) is another thing entirely. Your latest posts on Heresies are a great example of the pot calling the kettle black — and this is said without malice, so please pardon me.

  2. I tried improving the Plateosaurus articles on both the German and English wikipedia. It was a mostly unpleasant experience.

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