In the 1980s my parents invested in an edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. It’s still there, taking up shelf space in its burgundy livery, unopened since 1993, the information frozen in time like Britpop and New Labour.

Encyclopaedia Britannica 15 with 2002

SEWilco (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia was launched in 2001, some 12 years after Berniers-Lee invented the Web, and is often maligned in academia. Yet it remains a default information source for many a denizen of the Web, whether layperson, undergraduate or PhD (citation needed).

Unlike a leather-bound Britannica, information is dynamic, updated by a small army of volunteers and there can be little argument regarding the success of the project in terms of sheer scale and cultural impact. Wikipedia and its sister projects are edited at the rate of 10 edits per second (which would equate to more than three-quarters of  a billion updates since 1993. That’s a lot of crossings out.)

Whether all those edits are accurate and properly referenced is a moot point of course, and like any informational resource, digital or otherwise, requires its readership to exercise its critical faculties.

Information and digital literacy

“Information Literacy is an umbrella term which encompasses concepts such as digital, visual and media literacies, academic literacy, information handling, information skills, data curation and data management”  SCONUL Working Group on Information Literacy 2011

Cognitive bias is universal, no less so in an information environment mediated by search engine algorithm, which is why peer review is essential in scholarship. Wikipedia’s model of collaborative authorship arguably provides a form of peer review and also supports formal academic citation, with many articles referencing peer reviewed sources, often by DOI. However, we are still a long way from full open access and many such references will inevitably be behind a paywall, inaccessible to those without access to a subscription through a university library i.e. those laypeople who might benefit most.

Fortunately it is quick and easy to sign up for a Wikipedia account and add a link to an open access version, in the White Rose Research Repository for example. WRRO also displays a colour coded Altmetric score to help identify when an article has been cited in Wikipedia – look out for dark grey in the patented donut:

Altmetric detail
Wikipedia links for “Investment and risk appraisal in enery storage systems: A real options approach”

Above is the altmetric page for Investment and risk appraisal in energy storage systems: A real options approach (DOI: 10.1016/ which is linked to from a Wikipedia page on Energy Storage and which took just a few moments to edit the linked title from the published version to the WRRO record (the link to the version of record is maintained via the DOI; click on the image to see the citation on Wikipedia):

Editing a Wilipedia page
Editing a Wikipedia page

To what extent the casual visitor will actually consult a citation and follow a link to a peer reviewed source is another question. Nevertheless, the very act of contributing to Wikipedia in this way will help to embed information literate practice into this culturally significant informational resource. It also extends the network of open scholarship which, in turn, will subtly influence those search engine algorithms.

A single link perhaps not so much, but three quarters of a billion…

For more information on contributing to Wikipedia and Open Access see Wikipedia:WikiProject Open Access