Recycle your term papers: Don’t just file them away

by M.E. Malone

Another class, another term paper. Another semester’s worth of work destined for a computer folder that will never be opened again. Wait. Stop. Why not ensure all that hard work lives on with the potential to be viewed by hundreds of thousands of others?

On Wikipedia.

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Every day, more than 14,000 edits are made to the 4.4 million Wikipedia articles currently available in English. Anyone can write or edit a Wiki page. You need a little expertise, a free account, some patience, and a little Wiki-know-how. Just like school, you won’t be paid for your hard work. Your name won’t be on your article; your efforts will probably not be reflected in your resume. But you can take satisfaction in knowing that you’ve helped a 9th grader in Mississippi or a bureaucrat halfway across the globe to better understand a topic you’ve just spent weeks mastering.

Friedman students are in a unique position to join the collective effort to build an accurate, useful, global, online encyclopedia.

“I had noticed that Wikipedia was weak on food policy topics but impressive on many other topics that I read for fun, such as history, religion, geography, computer technology, pop culture, and board games,” says Parke Wilde, associate professor at Friedman. Not one to assign typical term papers, Wilde asked his Determinants of U.S. Food Policy class to undertake a series of more hands-on projects. One such project was to take a careful look at food policy topics on Wikipedia and propose, develop, revamp, and publish articles for the site.

“Even though it is not perfect, Wikipedia provides insight into the strengths and weaknesses of a non-profit volunteer-centered approach to collaborative information sharing,” Wilde says. “Wikipedia’s writing principles, such as ‘neutral point of view’ and ‘assume good faith,’ are more profound than mere writing guidelines — they are connected to a more fundamental vision about how to learn from each other and thrive in a diverse society when no single opinion can win over all the others.”

The effort proved to be more time-consuming than we’d thought.

“That kind of work can seem limitless. There’s always more [work] than can be done,” says Kalyn Weber, a second year FPAN/MPH student who undertook a revision of the Wikipedia page on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
My experience was similar, as I edited the main “Food policy” and “Food politics” pages, and tried to make meaningful additions without trumping someone else’s work.

Wikipedia editors are encouraged to propose new pages or major edits to a page through a “talk” function available on the site to anyone who signs up as a user. Comments or critiques of other’s work are meant to collaborative, not combative. But as several of us working on the project found, there was no response to our proposed changes from other editors on the site.

“My biggest regret in taking on this project was my limited interaction with other wiki contributors,” Weber adds. “Although the SNAP page was highly trafficked, I was unable to facilitate any sort of meaningful collaboration with other ‘Wikipedians.’”

Wikipedia also strives for an encyclopedic tone that is relatively neutral and frowns on “original research,” which means citations are a key component of any work posted on the site. But if you’ve already written the term paper, you’re more than halfway there.

Interested? Go to en.wikiepedia.org. Use the search box on the upper right to see what’s been written about your topic of interest. Does the information look thin? Are there fine points you might add?

Great. Go up to upper-upper right corner and “Create account.” It takes very little time. Once you’ve done that, you can get started as an editor or page creator. All the instructions for joining the Wiki effort are located on the site.

Small edits are relatively easy. Revising a page in its entirety can be daunting, but also worthwhile. “The main reason why I wanted to update the SNAP page was to make it more palatable and informative for individuals who are eligible for SNAP,” she says. “Also, I disagreed with the general negative tone of the page and thought it really undersold the importance of SNAP as a component of the federal safety net.”

Whether you’re interested in policy, humanitarian assistance, nutrition science, or agriculture, there’s likely something on the site that could use some sharpening. Just to give you a flavor of articles Friedman students might help improve, take a look at these articles on Wikipedia.
• Advertising to children
• Behavior change (public health)
• Childhood obesity
• Community-based participatory research
• Environmental impact of agriculture
• FDA Food Safety Modernization Act
• Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA)
• Humanitarian aid
• Let’s Move! (see subheading “Impact”)
• Nutrition program for the elderly
• Nutritional rating systems
• Nutrition transition (see subheading “Case studies”)

Heavy editing sessions on Wikipedia led to a job for Lane Raspberry, whose title is Wikipedian in Residence and Consumer Reports magazine. Speaking in July to students at a summer seminar in Digital Health Strategies, offered through the M.P.H. program, Raspberry said his interest in health topics led him to become engaged in the Wikipedia community. Later, when Consumer Reports magazine decided to launch a health-focused initiative, they found Raspberry and hired him to help with their effort.

Raspberry emphasized that this volunteer-driven project may be the most widely read publication in history and its democratic approach is a sound one. In addition, people looking for information about health topics increasingly turn to Wikipedia.

“There’s no fame. No self-promotion,” he advises. Think of readers and what you can contribute to their experience and their knowledge. Ask yourself: “What do readers really want [to know?]?”

M.E. Malone is a second year MS/MPH student who usually has either food or food policy on the brain. She can be reached at me.malone@tufts.edu.

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