by Greg St. Martin

This spring, marine biology major Laura Goetz sought to learn as much as she could about Antarctic fish to pre­pare for her upcoming co-​​op in Antarc­tica, but she noticed that there weren’t many acces­sible web resources on the topic.

Thanks to an assign­ment in her “Advanced Writing in the Dis­ci­plines” course, how­ever, Goetz was able to do some­thing about that: she cre­ated a Wikipedia page. “These are really inter­esting fish and everyone should have a chance to learn more about them,” she wrote in an email from Palmer Sta­tion in Antarc­tica, where she and two other stu­dents are now working along­side North­eastern pro­fessor William Detrich.

Goetz’s work to create a Wikipedia page on Antarctic fish was part of a larger effort over the past year to enlist thou­sands of stu­dents from North­eastern and other col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to improve Wikipedia’s cov­erage of the sci­ences. Fifty-​​four stu­dents in advanced writing courses taught this spring by Cecelia Mus­selman, asso­ciate teaching pro­fessor in Eng­lish, con­tributed to the Wikipedia Edu­ca­tion Foun­da­tion’s “Year of Sci­ence” pro­gram.

Col­lec­tively, Musselman’s stu­dents wrote or improved upon 141 Wikipedia arti­cles. During the spring semester, Kostia Bergman, asso­ciate pro­fessor of biology, also learned about this oppor­tu­nity from Mus­selman and exper­i­mented with it as part of his Summer I biology course.

It’s a beau­tiful tool for teaching crit­ical thinking,” Mus­selman said of Wikipedia, “and then the work stu­dents are doing is becoming avail­able to whole world. It’s very moti­vating but also ter­ri­fying to know that you’re con­tributing to some­thing that so many people will see.”

Year of Sci­ence” was the Wikipedia Edu­ca­tion Foundation’s first major push to improve Wikipedia’s sci­ence con­tent. But Mus­selman and other North­eastern edu­ca­tors have been studying and using Wikipedia for class assign­ments for sev­eral years. Mus­selman, Joseph Reagle, Ryan Cordell, and other pro­fes­sors have worked closely with Amanda Rust, dig­ital human­i­ties librarian and assis­tant director of the library’s Dig­ital Schol­ar­ship Group, on these projects—many of which have focused on Boston’s his­tory and uti­lized resources in Northeastern’s Archives and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions.

Through class assign­ments and edit-​​a-​​thons held by Uni­ver­sity Libraries, stu­dents have cre­ated or improved arti­cles on people and topics including Muriel Snowden, co-​​founder of the Freedom House in Boston’s Rox­bury neigh­bor­hood, and the Boston Society of Vul­cans, a community-​​based non­profit orga­ni­za­tion of black and Latino firefighters.

North­eastern fac­ulty and staff involved in these efforts said stu­dents ben­efit from these assign­ments in a range of ways: they develop better writing skills and a strong under­standing of the topics they’re researching, they gain a stronger grasp on how Wikipedia can be used as a resource, and they ben­efit from the col­lab­o­ra­tive process around cre­ating and editing these pages.

Stu­dents often don’t even know they can edit Wikipedia pages and see the his­tory and dis­cus­sion,” Reagle said. “It’s an impor­tant lesson about how knowl­edge is con­structed.” For his part, Reagle wrote the 2010 book Good Faith Col­lab­o­ra­tion: The Cul­ture of Wikipedia, one of the early books on Wikipedia, and stu­dents in his “Online Com­mu­ni­ties” course have been con­tributing to Wikipedia for the past few years.

Goetz, S’18, for her part, said that the Wikipedia class assign­ment has fit per­fectly with her co-​​op. The project she’s working on focuses on deter­mining the effects of cli­mate change on the embry­olog­ical devel­op­ment of Antarctic fish, and the work involves raising embryos of two fish species and sam­pling them at var­ious stages of devel­op­ment for analysis back in Detrich’s lab in Mass­a­chu­setts at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center.

Goetz goes out on trips to catch fish for pre­pro­duc­tion and then pho­tographs the embryos as they develop. She said the knowl­edge she gained about fish mor­phology for her Wikipedia project has helped her iden­tify species of fish they’re catching and deter­mine whether or not to keep them.

Goetz recalled that as far back as middle school, teachers “drilled into us that Wikipedia is not an accept­able source of infor­ma­tion,” not even good enough to use to col­lect back­ground infor­ma­tion on a sub­ject. But she said her opinion has changed. “The editing process between mul­tiple writers and the rating system for each article does place quite a bit of atten­tion on each article,” she wrote. “Plus the addi­tion of flags on arti­cles helps readers who don’t know much about Wikipedia gain aware­ness of the amount of trust they can place on each article.”