Given that I’d spent last week crowing on about the need for academia to be more public-facing in its work, taking part in this week’s UCC Wikipedia editathon provided me with an opportunity to turn some of that bluster into action. The purpose of the event was to take what we had been researching as part of our Masters and use it to improve the quality of related Wikipedia pages. While this seemed a simple enough task, I wanted to take some time and think about how and why we use Wikipedia in relation to research. In pitching the assignment to us, our tutor had warned us of the difficulties of researching while working on a zero-hour contract with a college. When your ability to work is dependant on library and journal access that can be revoked on a bureaucratic whim, Wikipedia seems less like the bête noire of scholarship, and more like a sensible, open-access place to start research. And in truth, this is a much more honest depiction of our relationship to Wikipedia – while I’m not going to copy and paste text from a page into an assignment, I often use it as a way to find sources that I wouldn’t otherwise come across on JSTOR or other databases.
Seeing as good citation is something that is useful to me in my use of the site, I decided to try and give a little of that back. In researching Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones recently, I’d noticed that the section concerning his influence on black actors was well fleshed out but almost completely lacking in references. I clearly wasn’t the first to notice this, as the section was riddled with  marks, and seemed a prime candidate for deletion.
Determined not to let good writing go to waste, I set about researching the topic, with a view to exposing some of those dusty books on the UCC library shelves to the public eye. This actually proved to also be a valuable research tactic, as I ended up having to read books on subjects I had thought only tangentially related to O’Neill’s work, such as the 1915 American occupation of Haiti, which greatly expanded my understanding of the social and political context he was writing in. And, while I didn’t manage to clear up all of those pesky citation tags, I did manage to improve the overall number of citations on the page by about a third.
For just two hours of work (plus a few more in the library reading up on all of this), I was pleased with the improvement, and I hope the next person who comes along looking for directions to take their research will be find it useful.