“I started hearing those very same sentences getting quoted almost verbatim by major media outlets. I can’t help but think that if we, meaning the topic experts who are around (and could be around) didn’t put that information in there, what would these media outlets be saying then?”
IVM: Since you’ve been a Wikipedia editor for a while, tell me about some of the things you have done as an editor.
JMC: When I first joined Wikipedia, it was still uncharted territory and was still the Wild West. In the context of that, Wikipedia didn’t always police itself very well and was subject to a lot of manipulation. Now, the way I got involved was because some people who considered themselves justified activists, one of the activist groups, and one person in particular, a trans-activist, was using Wikipedia to promote herself. For example, she was trying to start a Hollywood career and was inserting references to herself and her commercial websites marketing makeup and other products to the transgender market, via Wikipedia pages. One of the other things she did at the time was to turn certain Wikipedia pages into attack pages against certain people she did not like, which included a few sex researchers who were reporting things that did not align with her particular political views. Since I knew many of those researchers, at that time I joined Wikipedia to correct the misinformation. That was the context in which I first started.
[IVM Side note: The person Dr. Cantor refers to was ultimately banned from the sexology pages by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee.]
As time went on, and as Wikipedia improved, it has become the go-to place for any kind of information. Amazingly, once I (with other editors) started to put good information into it, I started hearing those very same sentences getting quoted almost verbatim by major media outlets. So, thank goodness it is actually good information in there now! I can’t help but think that if we, meaning the topic experts who are around (and could be around) didn’t put that information in there, what would these media outlets be saying then?
IVM: And so that is one thing that you've seen with your own editorial work with Wikipedia pages is that it has had an impact on what the media and what the public pulls from the pages.
JMC: Yes, very dramatically and very unexpectedly. Wikipedia is always the first message and people take for granted that this is where a lot of information is going to come from. And for many topics it is actually a great source of information. Unfortunately, there were very few people working on the sexuality pages and even fewer on the sex offender and forensic-related pages. So many or most these are still of mediocre quality.
IVM: When you are writing on a Wikipedia page something that is more content than correcting a typo, do you use a different style of writing or language? Or is it similar to academic or scientific writing?
JMC: It’s meant for a lay audience, so it really needs to be written for regular, everyday people, from a junior high and high school students, and without a post-graduate education. It is meant to be understandable by everybody. If something is written in a very technical way, it is likely that another editor will come in and reword your sentence or suggest a rewording of that sentence (or delete it entirely).
As well, behind each Wikipedia page is what they call a ‘Talk’ page. And sometimes the Talk pages are much more active than the actual main pages. The Talk page is where the people who are interested in the topic or in editing that page discuss changes to the page. It can have two people disagreeing about phrasing or a reference or how to fairly represent both sides of this particular issue, and editors have whole conversations to come to a consensus over how the page should read. Then somebody puts the consensus version onto the main page. In practice, instead of being a monk working alone, editing pages is almost always a collaborative effort.
“When I do some background reading and thought people should know something, rather than me just sitting with it in case somebody asks me, Wikipedia serves as a repository for that information.”
JMC: Number one: it’s fun! I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the material. I enjoyed catching up on my reading. I enjoyed looking up other references. It used to be that I would read whatever article and I would put it in my notebook in case I needed to remember it later. But putting it only Wikipedia pages was a way to do something more broadly useful with what I just read. When I do some background reading and thought people should know something, rather than me just sitting with it in case somebody asks me, Wikipedia serves as a repository for that information. So, when newspapers or anyone else needs, they now also have access to this piece of information. So, it feels good. It feels like I’m now part of the chain of information and everybody has access to it. It feels useful…and I’m getting more ‘bang out of my buck’ for my reading time.
It is also extremely helpful to any academic, anyone who teaches, really: Because we are accustomed to high end academic language, we forget to translate this into regular English. Taking a minute to think about how we express this to the public or citing whatever statistical tests. It’s a great exercise.
IVM: One of the things that I’ve struggled with when I’ve thought about being a Wikipedia editor is, ‘Can I, should I, put my own research on a page’s topic?’
JMC: Every problem you can think of encountering: It has been encountered before. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have been Wikipedia editors before and every conflict that can be had, has been had, and has led to some guideline, standard, or policy. The one you’re talking about is the Conflict of Interest standard. You are not banned from citing your own material, but editors are (rightfully) on the look out for editors using Wikipedia for self-promotion. The best thing to do is simply to disclose your relationship to the material and invite interested editors to look it over and check it for appropriateness. Everyone who uses Wikipedia has the option to use a user page describing themselves and their interests. I am very upfront about my identity (most editors use pseudonyms), what my expertise is, and what I think about various issues, just to remain as transparent as possible.
“Everyone there learns as they go. And always remember that anything that is done in Wikipedia can be undone.”
IVM: To follow up on that topic, it sounds like there are a lot of standards and guidelines for editors. So, for a student or early career researcher starting out trying to do this work, what would be your advice in terms of learning how to be an editor?
JMC: The basic rules are very logical and are exactly what you would expect them to be. There are 5 main pillars: things like information has to be described neutrally; information you provide has to be verifiable, that that information has to be attributed to a reliable source. (You can’t quote the National Enquirer or your own opinion.) In order to create a page about a topic, the topic has to be notable unto itself. You can create a page about a legitimately notable person, but you cannot create a page just about your neighbour (unless otherwise notable!). There are pages like that set up the basic rules, with the more detailed rules for individual exceptions or out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. So, you learn as you go: Everyone there learns as they go. And always remember that anything that is done in Wikipedia can be undone.
IVM: So, for the next generation of clinicians and researchers in the sex offender field, what would be some pages that you think are at the top of the list to get edited?
JMC: If I had even a little more time on my hands than I do, the next pages that I would be editing are probably around the various pieces of legislation that has been passed in the US over in the past generation. The Meagan’s Law and mandatory registration and things like that. Most of these pages are poorly written and really need to be re-written from beginning to end with legitimate information. In the past 5 years or so, there has now been enough research and enough long term follow-up on the effects of these laws, but these findings have not made their way into the newspapers—they are still limited to journal articles. So, none of the Wikipedia pages are really following up and presenting what the effect has been of mandatory reporting, what has been the effect of registration, residency restrictions. Not only are those poorly written pages, just plain bad English, they are also grossly outdated. And outdated in a way that makes them biased in exactly the opposite of what we now know. So, if I were going to pick pages to edit, those would be the pages that I would hit next. I think this would be of interest to many ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers) people.
If there was a bunch of ATSA people or a club of students who wanted to do this, then they will inevitably start to interact with each other and get to know each other. I would love to see that mutually supportive effort. And since ATSA had that kind of population already, getting a subpopulation that are interested in Wikipedia, I think it would easily become a long term, self-sustaining effort. Which is a way for us to educate the public in a dramatic way, for free, on a permanent basis. It is really an exciting opportunity.