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I am considering applying for graduate school at some point, and I am wondering how academia looks upon contributions to Wikipedia.

Essentially, the article will be a dedicated to a very specific subfield of the physics of spin glasses, with seminal papers written on it in the 1980's. It has somewhat of a "cult" status within a small subset of the field, and the inspiration for writing it is:

(a) This aligns strongly with techniques I aim to use for my further research, so it seems like a good way to share what I know with the community.

(b) This seems like there is a legitimate need for advanced undergraduates/new entrants into the field who want a surface level introduction to this technical area.

Of course I am not the authority on subject by any means but nevertheless I feel that there is something here to contribute. My question is mainly whether or not this could be used to my favour in future graduate admissions processes, or even academic applications beyond that? Assuming of course that I have written it at an acceptable level to the "real experts" who might read it.

EDIT: Just to clarify, I am in no way under the impression that this would replace legitimate academic work (hence in a CV this would go under "other interests",etc.) - indeed it should not. I am simply wondering whether it would be an added bonus (and if so, to what extent) that academia looks favourably upon.

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    One article doesn’t matter, over on Physics.SE we have users with a thousand answers who don’t bother listing it on their CVs. What matters is whether you have enthusiasm for the field and the ability to learn and communicate. So go ahead and write that article today, then forget about it and write another tomorrow, and then in two years you will be a better candidate for it, whether or not you put it on your CV. – knzhou Feb 4 at 11:38
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The notion of authorship in wikipedia is rather antithetical to the notion of authorship in "standard" academic works. Wikipedia articles don't have "bylines," and the point is that anyone in the world is welcome to make constructive edits and/or additions to an article at any time. Even if you feel that you are the primary or sole author of an article at time t_1, at some time t_2 > t_1 this may no longer be true. Finally, the ethos of wikipedia is such that other wikipedians would not necessarily be happy to see a given person claiming "credit" in this way.

If you are motivated to write such a wikipedia article, I suggest that you give it a go -- it has the potential to be both a learning experience for you and result in something of interest and use to many people. However, if you want academic credit I suggest you write something more substantial, formal and/or independent. As the head of a graduate admissions committee (albeit in mathematics, not physics) I would be more impressed even by a sequence of blog posts than by a wikipedia article. Still probably not crucially impressed by the way, but more impressed.

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    A well-written Wikipedia article can be way more work than a series of blog posts (also, a fairly different skill set), and probably has a higher impact in terms of knowledge dissemination. In some subfields of biology and medicine (arguably the strongest areas of Wikipedia) there have been attempts at more formally recognizing contributions, e.g. a journal for publishing Wikipedia articles. So in some fields, being the primary author of a high-quality Wikipedia article might be looked upon more positively. – Tgr Feb 4 at 21:03
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    Personally, writing on Wikipedia is both 1) wider readership and 2) harder than writing a blog post, so I'd be more impressed by writing on Wikipedia. It's a form of community service as well. Still, like you, I wouldn't be very impressed, just more impressed. – Allure Feb 5 at 1:42
  • I tend to agree with comments above. I would think that it is much harder to write a high quality Wiki article. Why would the blog posts be looked upon slightly more favourably? Is it because the audience reached is potentially wider? – ags14 Feb 6 at 10:59
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As someone who contributed to various Wikipedia articles myself (though almost no one knows this :-)), personally I like the idea and would encourage you to contribute to Wikipedia, as I have encouraged many of my students in the past. It’s fun, helps the world and is a great learning experience. As a general rule, these sorts of contributions are something that can show you are enthusiastic about a subject, and about learning and sharing your knowledge with others. If someone who is applying to my graduate program is an experienced Wikipedian, definitely I want to hear about it.

With that said, I feel like you are putting the cart (way) before the horse. You should contribute because you want to contribute, and you should write something in your CV because you have done it and it signals something good about you. Planning to do X and then add that to your CV so that people will think you are the kind of person who likes to do X is a bad idea, because it doesn’t work - people who do that always end up looking not like people who like to do X, but like people who did the minimal amount of X to make it just slightly less than pathetic to include X on their CV. In your case too, as @Pete and @knzhou said, no one is going to be impressed by a single Wikipedia article (which may very well get deleted for lack of notability, or edited beyond recognition, by the time anyone bothers to look for it - another issue you need to be aware of is that writing for Wikipedia is a communal activity where both the credit and decision making are shared among large groups of people, making it hard to use as the basis for CV-bragging activities; but that’s a secondary issue).

Anyway, hope you do decide to do it, and good luck with your grad school applications.

  • Great, thanks for the perspective. Just to clarify, I certainly do not want to be that caricature you have painted. I think there is a legitimate need for such a contribution. I was simply wondering whether there is an added bonus with regards to CV prospects, and in general whether such things are looked upon favourably in academia. From the responses I've gathered, it seems like it is, but to a rather limited extent. – ags14 Feb 6 at 11:03
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It seems to me there is nothing new about including information about publication in non-academic outlets. I would suggest you apply the same reasoning to this decision as you would if you had published an article in a magazine, or on your own blog.

One of the main benefits of publishing in a non-academic outlet is your ability to reach the general public, or at least those outside your field. If you publish an op-ed in the Washington Post, it will reach a lot of people who don't read physics journals. If you publish something on your own blog, it might reach a lot of people, or it might not. In either case, lack of review by qualified experts might be a knock against its credibility, or it might not.

So, can you demonstrate that there there was some review of your text, and/or that it reached a lot of people? Wikipedia has internal peer review processes, though the definition of "peer" is vastly different from how academia defines it. Did you put your article through one of those, like the Good Article or Featured Article process? If so, include links to those reviews. Did you consult with a faculty advisor prior to publishing the Wikipedia content? If so, say a few words about that process. Did you get significant feedback, positive or negative, after publication? If so, comment on that. Can you demonstrate significant readership of the article (and readership stats on Wikipedia content are easy to come by)? Present and comment on that.

Above all, assume that your audience may have some skepticism around Wikipedia. Anticipate and address their concerns. Don't just include the Wikipedia article and expect them to take it as a positive; give them a real, and defensible, justification of why it's a positive reflection on you.

Disclaimers: I have a bachelor's degree, from before Wikipedia existed. I've done extensive work around Wikipedia with academics, building the first project for the Wikimedia Foundation supporting the use of Wikipedia as a teaching tool, speaking at Harvard, Princeton, North Carolina State University, and others. I've worked in partnership with the University of Mississippi to secure and fulfill a multi-year grant centered on getting academics to write Wikipedia articles, and on proposing a grant proposal with similar goals for a partnership lead by the University of Michigan.

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I donno. Think a more popular article might actually be more interesting and favorable than the spin glass subculture thing. Using Wiki to write a highly technical article (a subset of spin glasses) seems a little off to me. Like you can't do it well enough to publish a real review in the real literature? And then it's not really showing evidence of science popularization since you are picking such an arcane and difficult topic. (Don't get me started on obscure Wiki math articles, written more to inform the writer than the encyclopedia reader...sigh.)

This is not meant to combat all the excellent answers which were much more positive. But just something to consider. (I think Pete's answer is more positive, but he also warns you of the skepticism and even mild annoyance which Wiki may elicit.)

Maybe it makes more sense to give some general claim on your Wiki writing ("started 5 physics articles and one GA" or whatever). And to do it in a general context of your popular interests in physics (tutoring, reading popular books, etc.) I just worry a little about referring to some wiki spin glass article like it was a "real" publication, that it may come off odd. Just a thought though.

Oh...and avoid getting banned/blocked or having mean things written on your Wiki wall page. Social media can be a bitch.

  • It would definitley go under a "popular interests"-like section. Not to be confused with real publications/academic work. – ags14 Feb 6 at 11:06

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