Not just an encyclopaedia
These days, most people know about Wikipedia, ‘the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit’. The sister projects, run in the same manner and hosted by the same organisation, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), are less ubiquitous, but equally worthwhile. For instance, there are millions of free-to-reuse media files (pictures, video and audio) on Wikimedia Commons. Wikidata offers machine-readable ‘linked, open data’ (it’s a bit like our ChemSpider, but for everything, not just chemicals), and so on.
By taking a very broad view of ‘chemistry related content’, including biographies, histories of organisations, and artworks depicting chemists, we’ve enabled the participation of many non-scientists. In the last year, I’ve trained almost a hundred individuals to edit Wikipedia. We’ve held a number of Wikipedia editing marathons (‘Editathons’), where we introduce experienced volunteer Wikipedia editors to knowledgeable subject specialists (RSC members, academics, librarians, curators and archivists), so that they can collaborate on writing or improving articles. Most recently, we held an editathon at Catalyst, the science discovery centre and museum in Widnes. Some volunteers brought their cameras, and had added high-resolution (not to mention high quality!) images to Wikimedia Commons. I’ve done some photography, too, and am particularly pleased with my pictures of Royal Society of Chemistry medals.
Wikimedia around the world
I’ve worked with Wikipedia editors in or from other countries, to have articles translated into their own languages (Wikipedia isn’t one encyclopedia, but 290, in languages ranging from French to Welsh, Russian to Cornish). Introducing volunteers in Barcelona to nearby academic chemists, known to the RSC though their contributions to our journals, we enabled those volunteers to translate articles into the local Catalan language, with someone to call on if they needed help with a technical term or understanding an underlying principle. Those volunteers are now teaching Catalan-speaking chemistry students to edit Wikipedia.
During a private visit to Tunisia (a busman’s holiday – I was speaking at a Wikipedia conference!), I was pleased to able to meet our local section committee there, and give a talk about Wikipedia to chemistry students and lecturers at the University of Tunis El Manar.
Shortly afterwards, I made another overseas trip, to talk to early-career chemists from around Europe (plus an American guest) in Berlin. Sadly, I wasn’t able to accept an invitation to speak at the American Chemistry Society’s conference in Boston in August – but one of my Royal Society of Chemistry colleagues did – and kindly gave a talk on my behalf, while I answered questions from the audience on Twitter!
Our role in Wikimedia
I haven’t been working on my own, and my colleagues at the Royal Society of Chemistry have kindly contributed in a variety of ways. Many have written or improved Wikipedia articles, and some have uploaded their own photographs. Some of our more famous members, with Wikipedia articles about them, have kindly consented to having their voices recorded for a project I run, in which we ask people to introduce themselves, in an audio file, which then goes onto their Wikipedia biography so that readers can find out what they sound like and hear the definitive pronunciations of their names.
In July, my colleagues on Chemistry World ran a competition to source chemistry-related quotations so that they could be added to another of Wikipedia’s sister projects, Wikiquote. Dozens of RSC members suggested material, some of it funny, and some of it poignant.
The Royal Society of Chemistry itself has also been generous: in December last year, it donated 100 RSC Gold accounts – giving access to the full archive of RSC publications – so that Wikipedia editors who could demonstrate an existing commitment to working in a relevant subject area could use them as reference sources for Wikipedia articles.
So why is all this important to the Royal Society of Chemistry? Well, there is evidence – not least from the research underpinning our recent Public Attitudes to Chemistry report – that Wikipedia is the primary resource for many people looking for information about chemistry, whether it’s ‘What is this drug I’ve been given?’, ‘is this old insecticide safe to spray on my tomatoes?’ or ‘where does saccharine come from?’ or even ‘why did Fred Bloggs win a Nobel prize?’. We can’t ignore Wikipedia, and if people are using it, it’s sensible for us to help to ensure that it’s as accurate and complete as possible.
While my time in this role may be coming to an end, I’m sure that the people I’ve helped and encouraged will continue to edit Wikipedia, to take photographs for Wikimedia Commons, or to work on the other WMF projects, and to contribute to their mission of ‘a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge’, and I hope you will, too.
Now, who’s next for a Wikimedian in Residence?