Let's write a Wikipedia article

I have always been entralled by the idea of a worldwide knowledgebase and a decade ago Lesley West, Alan Mills and I developed a technology to create a worldwide terminology. The Virtual Hyperglossary (TM) [probably the earliest use of this term] proposed terminological entries with unique identifiers in cascading dictionbaries which – in principle – could resolve any term. It was ahead of its time and although we had several groups who were attracted the technology did not exist.
Wikipedia (WP) has hit the right place at the right time. The Web is always able to tolerate many failures and WP was not the first attempt at a virtual encyclopedia. But it has the right combination of funding, zeitgeist, and technology. Something like this was bound to happen around now – it has turned out to be WP.
Many academic colleagues poo-poo WP as uncurated and capable of corruption. They are shortsighted – in <=2 years time I suspect WP will be standard reading in all undergraduate science and technology courses. This year – 2006 – has seen a critical mass of contributors in all subjects (with chemistry, as always, lagging behind the rest). The maths and physics is superb. The chemistry is good (given the current total disdain of almost all of the community). I salute the efforts of the relatively few who have laboured to create many excellent pages. I have predicted that in <= 5 years WP chemistry will be consulted more frequently than standard references works such as the Merck Index (The recent edition is a massive red paper volume).
So how does WP work? Simply, anyone in the world can contribute and anyone can change what previous authors have contributed. And contributions can be anonymous. So isn’t this just mindless wibble? Unsurprisingly (to me, at least), no. As an example take the first thing that came to my mind: the Gibbs-Duhem relation (like other chemists I struggled with this as an undergraduate).
[Eyeball the article] to get a feel for the scope and quality.
I immediately get a feeling of competence and relevance to what I need. I will read this article with confidence if I need to know about this area of thermodynamics. How can I do this when I know nothing about the people who have written it? Couldn’t it be the delusion of a perpetual motionist? Or some failed undergraduate?
No. The reason is in the history. It was started in 2003, and has over 50 edits. My own experience is that scientific entries are heavily edited until there is acceptable consensus (there is a different approach to contentious issues – e.g. politics). You can see that the frequency of edits is slowing – a good sign that the entry has stabilised. You will see that there are several editors of which one, PAR, has made a large number of edits. PAR’s home page again manifests a high-quality contributor (I have no idea who s/he is). But note, also, many other edits with specialist or niche contributions.
So I myself have started a few pages (e.g. Molecular Graphics , to which having been an Officer of the Molecular Graphics Society I feel I can make a moderately authoritative contribution) . There should be no pride in having done this as the work is not “mine” but the community’s. I’ve probably spent a day or two on this as I care about the discipline and its history (which is so easily lost). I have been the substantive contributor but various people have made contributions to formatting and style which are very useful – this consistency of presentation in WP is one of its great strengths.
In general physical science is often uncontroversial and so it is fairly easy to have a neutral point of view (NPOV). When we come to “Open Data” we shall have to be careful to avoid factionalism and advocacy and to research our sources.

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