6th anniversary Wikipedia chemistry section

October 2007 - Happy Birthday

The very first entry for the chemistry article on wikipedia was logged on October 25 2001 at 21:37 hours by wikipedia pioneer Larry Sanger. He and Jimbo Wales launched wikipedia in January of that year as the internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Since then the chemistry article has received up to 3000 edits from countless contributors. The article is also available in over 120 different languages and the article is the parent page for over 11000 satellite pages with topics ranging from astrochemistry to xenon.

The chemistry desk is currently staffed with around 30 wiki regulars with great diversity in professional background and covering all specialist area's. In addition Wiki is frequented by many more occasional visitors leaving additions, correction and remarks. A user account is not required which makes participation the more easy.

The main issue to resolve is how accurate Wikipedia exactly is. In 2005 the journal Nature (1) compared Wikipedia favorably compared to Encyclopedia Britannica. Weaknesses were found in articles such as Aldol reaction and kinetic isotope effect but since then both articles have received a serious upgrade.

In the meanwhile a group of editors in the chemistry section have set up a monitoring system that not only grades quality but also grades importance. As of October 2007 a total of 4300 articles are assessed with over 250 articles having B class or higher. An important milestone for Wikipedia articles is the attainment of the so-called Featured Article (FA) status. This requires a process of extensive peer-review also from editors outside chemistry. As a key prerequisite the article must be accessible to non-chemists especially in the lead section. Thus around 20 chemistry articles have this distinction among which paracetamol, hydrochloric acid, acetic acid, Raney nickel, caffeine, Aldol reaction and lead(II) nitrate.

Key to the success of Wikipedia are edit retention and internal linking. Each edit is stored and accessible which makes it very easy to keep track of changes in an article and possibly revert an edit for instance in the event of vandalism. The internal linking system connects keywords in an article through a hyperlink to an article covering this keyword. In this way specialist topics can be made understandable even to a nonchemist. For instance the aldol reaction’s lead sentence links to articles covering the carbon-carbon bond, chemical reaction and organic chemistry. The total number of supporting internal links in the introduction is 47 with topics ranging from nucleophile to acetaldehyde.

There are still many issues to be resolved some of them specific to the chemistry section. Frequently discussions flare up on the merits of presenting laboratory procedure howtoos, information on illicit drugs, explosive materials (notably acetone peroxide), substances with questionable health benefits and how to deal with information that can be construed as commercial spam for instance external links to commercial suppliers.

A reoccurring event in Wikipedia is the so-called edit war where two or more editors are unable to reach consensus on a certain topic and keep reverting each others edits. Recently hotly debated issues (not necessarily edit wars) in the domain of chemistry are the etymology of chemistry, thermodynamics versus kinetics in chemical equilibrium or the finer points of mass-to-charge ratio in mass spectroscopy. Unsurprisingly many of these edit discussions (each article has a public discussion or talk page) are unintelligible for non-specialists.

A fundamental weakness in the Wikipedia chemistry section is the lack of citations in many articles which does not help reliability. For many editors finding a reference (a book, article or even a website) is not a top priority considered tedious and with little job satisfaction. On the other hand the chemistry is an early adaptor of the DOI citing system (2). It also cherishes so-called open-access publications such as the IUPAC Gold Book and the venerable Organic Syntheses.

In due course the Wikipedia chemistry section can become a reliable resource for students of chemistry at every level. It is especially effective when it comes to demolishing boundaries between the different chemistry branches or any science branch for that matter which is very important in the age of multidisciplinary research. For example the central chemical concepts such as symmetry and chirality in wikipedia as a whole are just branches of symmetry and chirality in general

Students can also participate as editors as part of the educational curriculum as an alternative to writing a paper (usually shelved after grading). Writing content for Wikipedia is different from writing a regular paper because a serious amount of time is spent identifying the articles that can be used as internal link. One student project conducted in May 2006 involved articles such as tantalum(V) chloride, isoquinoline and xenon difluoride.

After 6 years en.wikipedia.org/chemistry has accomplished a lot but still has a lot of ground to cover. Luckily the office is open for business 24/7, the atmosphere is friendly and the manager is never around.

(1) Internet encyclopaedias go head to head Jim Giles Nature 438, 900 - 901 (2005). 10.1038/438900a
(2) http://dx.doi.org/