Wikipedia for academics

Academics have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of the hugely popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a credible source of scholarly information. They are concerned about the validity and reliability of the information presented, and the fact that entries are open to editing by any comer. Few academics thus far have contributed to Wikipedia as content generators or editors, although they admit to using it regularly, and they know that their students constantly refer to it.

Given that Wikipedia is now the most visited online reference work, surely it is time that more academics played a role in shaping its content? It should be noted that Wikipedia has changed in its approach to content generation over the years. A sophisticated quality control process is now in place by which entries are created, accepted and edited. Wikipedia entries must now be correctly referenced with credible and reputable sources. Although the entries do not have contributors’ names directly appended, it is easy to see who has contributed by clicking on the ‘edit’ button, as well as to view details of the edits they have made.

An increasing number of libraries, art galleries, archives and museums are using the ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ idea to promote their holdings. Under this scheme, a person experienced in editing and creating Wikipedia entries spends a period of time (several weeks or more) at the institution to train staff members in the art. Institutions that have taken advantage of this scheme include the august British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, the Museu Picasso, the Smithsonian Institution, and here in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales.

This seems to me to be a good idea for universities to adopt. If students and academics are regularly using Wikipedia, then they should also learn about how to contribute to the body of knowledge in this platform. For academics, this means that rather than simply sitting back and letting others create content on a topic in which they may be particularly expert, they can take an active approach and shape the content themselves. The entry can be revised and added to at any time, making it responsive to changes in the field about which one is writing.

Those academics who have worked on entries are often positive about the experience. One, Martin Poulter, argues that writing for Wikipedia has taught him how to write about academic subjects in an accessible manner. He gives examples of using Wikipedia writing for students as a means of allowing them to engage in online publication, and notes that Wikipedia entries often shape public debate because they are so widely consulted. He sees Wikipedia as an ‘online community for researchers, educators and students to take part in’.

I have created my own Wikipedia entry on the topic of digital sociology. This entry is now the first hyperlink to appear when the term ‘digital sociology’ is input in a search engine. It was not a particularly onerous task, once I had become familiar with the protocol.

Wikipedia provides clear outlines for how to create and edit entries. Nonetheless, providing training programs for academics by those experienced in creating Wikipedia content would make the process far easier. Some academics have held Wikipedia ‘hack days’ or ‘editathons’, gathering together to work on entries as a group. In the UK the organisation Wikimedia UK offers assistance for such training and events.

Engaging in Wikipedia content creation or editing can be a form of political resistance to marginalisation. Women contributors are far in the minority in Wikipedia, as are entries about high achieving women, and it has been contended that existing entries about women are deleted or severely edited disproportionately compared to those about men. There is clearly a ‘politics of Wikipedia’ involving the same types of marginalisation of and discrimination against less powerful social groups that occurs in other areas of social life, despite the platform’s rhetoric about open collaboration and democratic participation. Some feminist academics have taken up the gauntlet to redress this imbalance, organising mass editing days as part of the ‘Storming Wikipedia’ project, in which female students and academics work together to create entries about influential women.

Participation in the dynamic forum that is Wikipedia, therefore, can take many forms. As an academic (or student) one can engage in active content creation as part of shaping the public discourses on one’s chosen topic. Social researchers can also use the platform as a source of research data, investigating the ways in which knowledge is created and contested as part of the process of Wikipedia content creation and editing, the types of content that shape Wikipedia entries or how people respond to Wikipedia as a source of information. Surprising little critical social research thus far has been conducted on Wikipedia — there seems great scope for further investigation. More radically, contributing to Wikipedia can constitute a resistant political act.

Digital sociology part 3: digital research

In my previous two posts (‘Digital sociology part 1: what is it’ and ‘Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice’) I presented an overview of the four practices of digital sociology and looked in more detail at professional digital use. This final post in this series on digital sociology looks at the various approaches to researching digital technologies from a sociological perspective.

Analysing digital data

Titles such as ‘digital social research’ or ‘digital social science’ tend to be used to refer to conducting ‘e-research’ using digitalised data sets that may be shared collaboratively using digital platforms. The focus, therefore, is on the collection and use of data and the tools to analyse these data rather than on the ways in which users of digital technologies are engaging with these tools and devices as part of their everyday lives: see, for example, the Oxford e-Social Science Project.

This approach is interested in the most efficient use of tools to store and analyse digital data and the ways of dealing with the constant churn of information on the web as well as the ethical issues around using such data such as copyright, privacy and data protection concerns. Research also includes investigation into how researchers engage with web archives as research tools and the reasons why they may choose not to do so.  ‘Naturally’ or incidentally generated data that are already collected by various web platforms (for example Facebook and Twitter posts, search engines, SMS messages and even GPS data) are used for analysis. Researchers may also elicit data for their own concerns, including using web-based surveys. This approach to digital data analysis is also interested in ways of recording and analysing data for qualitative analysis, including images, videos and audio data.

The terms ‘webometrics’ or ‘cybermetrics’ have been used to describe quantitative social research using digital data sets drawn from network websites and social media sites. While these approaches seem quite widely used in such fields as information science and technology, thus far they seem little used by sociologists.

Research into how people use digital and social media

As I commented in my previous post, people are now using digital and social media platforms and devices across the life span, from infancy to old age. Many of the consumers of media have also become content producers through the use of social media such as micro-blogging and blogging platforms and sharing tools such as YouTube and Flickr.

Since the advent of the internet,many sociologists and other researchers have used data from online communities to research many varied social issues, from the use of health-related websites for patient support and information sharing to the ways in which people with anorexia support each other in their ‘thinspiration’ quest, how people of ethnic minority groups represent themselves online, the articulation and organisation of online activism, self-presentation, self-identity and patterns of sociability on social networking sites such as Facebook and how ‘mummy bloggers’ share their experiences with other mothers on the web, to name but a few topics. Another topic of research has featured how people interact with their technologies: how they deal with the plethora of information streaming forth from the internet, what they use their digital devices for, how these devices are employed at home and in the workplace and so on. Children and young people’s use of digital technologies has come under quite a deal of scrutiny as well in a social context in which there is continuing concern about their ‘addiction’ to these technologies, their access to online pornography, cyberbullying or online sexual predation.

This kind of digital sociological research has clear overlaps with research in digital anthropology, digital cultures and cultural geographies of digital technologies, much of which is also directed at exploring the ways in which people interact with and use digital media using both qualitative methodologies (such as interviews, focus groups and ethnographic research) and quantitative approaches such as surveys and content analysis of digital material.

Critical digital sociology

A further topic of digital sociology research is that which directs critical attention at the ways in which sociologists and other academics themselves use digital media. This is a reflexive approach that draws on contemporary social and cultural theory to analyse and interrogate the kinds of subject positions or assemblages that are configured via digital technology use as part of professional practice. While such a critical approach does not preclude professional digital use, it opens up a space for reflection upon the implications and unintended consequences of such practices.

Burrows (2012), for example, has written on the ways in which metrics such as the’ h-index’ and ‘impact factor’ constructed via digital citation indices contributes to ‘a complex data assemblage that confronts the individual academic’ (p. 359). These metrics have become integral to the ways in which academics, academic units and universities receive funding and are ranked against others, and in the case of individual academics, to their prospects for employment and promotion. Uprichard (2012) has commented critically on the call for sociologists to use digital data in their research, focusing in particular on data-mining of the transactional data that is produced through live-stream interactions on the web such as Twitter and Facebook posts and updates. She argues that approaches to such data are often ahistorical and thus lack the richness of context. Further, they tend to be preoccupied with questions of method over sociologically imaginative ways of analysing the digital data that are collected. Other sociologists have addressed the ethical issues of using data from online communities and forums for research, including consideration of such questions as whether or not such communities constitute public or private space or whether researchers should make themselves known to communities when studying their interactions.

Very few sociologists (or other academics) have published critiques like these thus far. However the role played by digital technologies in the academic workplace looks to increase in importance as universities are moving (very quickly in some cases, more slowly in others) towards more extensive incorporation of online teaching as part of their credentialed courses. As an academic discipline sociology has traditionally played an important role in identifying and commenting upon the social and economic inequities underpinning the workplace and other social spheres. In this spirit, as digital technologies increasingly become part of the academic world, continuing critical and reflexive examination of these technologies and their implications for academic practice and selfhood should be an integral dimension of digital sociological research.


Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60(2), 355—72.

Uprichard, E. (2012) Being stuck in (live) time: the sticky sociological imagination. In Back. L. and Puwar, N. (eds) Live Research Methods (Sociological Review Monograph), in press. Preprint copy available here.

Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice

In my previous post (‘Digital sociology part 1: what is it?’) I explained the concept of digital sociology and presented four aspects I considered integral to this sub-discipline: professional digital practice, sociological analyses of digital use, digital data analysis and critical digital sociology. In this post I focus on professional digital practice, or using digital media tools for professional purposes: to build networks, facilitate public engagement, receive feedback, establish an e-profile, curate and share content and instruct students.

It is clear that a revolution in how tertiary education is offered is on its way, as demonstrated by the recent decision of elite universities such as Princeton and Stanford to invest significant sums of money in massive open online courses which at the moment are provided free of charge to anyone who wishes to enrol (including, I note, an ‘Introduction to Sociology’ subject). The move towards open access and e-publishing of scholarly work also seems inevitable. Furthermore, creating en ‘e-profile’ is becoming an important part of academic work. Judicious use of social media allows you to exercise better control and manage the content of your online persona in a context in which search engines are constantly collating information about you.

For all these reasons, an understanding of how to present knowledge and promote learning in digital formats will soon become a vital part of academic practice. Here’s some specific ways in which academics can use some of the digital tools now available:

Building networks

Using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can be a highly efficient way of connecting with other academics working in a similar area as well as interested people from outside academia. These platforms allow participants to join networks arranged around topic or discipline areas and to contribute in discussions and sharing information within these networks.

Facilitating public engagement

Blogging sites such as WordPress and micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter can be used as easily accessible forums in which academics can communicate their ideas in short form. Unlike traditional journal articles that are locked behind paywalls, these platforms are free to access and material can be instantly published, allowing academics to share some of their research findings quickly. They therefore allow academics to promote their research and share it with a far greater audience than they would usually find in the traditional forums for publication. Links can be provided to journal articles so that longer academic pieces can be followed up by readers.

Receiving feedback

Blogs and micro-blogging platforms also allow interested readers to comment and engage with authors, thus facilitating public engagement. You can ask a question in a blog or Twitter post and receive responses, or readers may simply chose to use the comments box to make remarks on something you have published. Quora is a social media platform designed specifically to ask questions of anyone who uses it. Once you have set up an account you can publish a question or answer other people’s questions, as well as follow others’ questions to see what the responses are. You can also follow topics or people.

Establishing an e-profile

Sites such as and LinkedIn as well as your university profile webpage are ways of providing information about yourself. In, designed specifically for academics, you can list and upload your articles, conference papers and books and you can follow other individuals and topic areas and be followed in turn.

Curation and sharing of content

Curation and sharing platforms such as Delicious, Slideshare, Pinterest,, Pearltrees, Bundlr, and Storify, as well as referencing tools such as Mendeley, Citeulike and Zotero, allow academics to easily gather and present information and, importantly, to then make the information public and share it with others online. On SlideShare you can share your Powerpoint presentations and the referencing tools allow you to gather lists of references on specific topics and then share these with others. Several of these tools, including Pinterest, Bundlr and Storify, allow you to insert your own comments or analysis on the material you have gathered.


The platforms listed above can also be used as teaching tools, providing new ways of engaging students both through classroom teaching and in student assignments, where students can use the tools themselves to collect, curate and present information. Students in any area of study need to be trained in using social media and other digital technologies as part of preparing them for their future careers, as these technologies are increasingly becoming part of the working world.

Some examples of using digital and social media in sociology

This blog post itself is an example of professional digital practice in action. It is an edited version of a longer Storify presentation, and I was first inspired to write on this topic by an exchange I had on Twitter (for the Storify presentation, which contains additional information on digital sociology including weblinks to relevant courses, books, articles and blog posts, go here.

Digital media are being increasingly used as part of academic conferences. For example, academics often tweet about the content of the presentations they attend, providing a ‘back-channel’ of communication that can be shared with both those participating and those who cannot attend. These tweets can then be presented and preserved in Storify as a record of the conference to which anyone can have access.

I have previously written in detail about how Pinterest can be used for sociological research (see my previous post on ‘How sociologists and other social scientists can use Pinterest’). As I commented in this post, this curation platform is a wonderful way of collecting images related to one’s research interests. It also offers various possibilities for teaching, allowing students to curate and comment on their own image collections. provides a platform to create online newsletters by collating material downloaded from other sites. It can be used by academics to collect recent blog posts, the abstracts from newly published journal articles or online news articles relevant to a specific topic which they then share with their social networks on a daily or weekly basis.

Sociologists may also like to think about making their own apps for teaching purposes. It is possible to access app maker wizards online that are easy to use and inexpensive. See here for my account of how I made my own app explaining key concepts in medical sociology.

Further Resources

The LSE Impact of the Social Sciences blog provides invaluable content for academics interested in using digital media. It also has a handbook on maximising the impact of one’s research (including via digital means) and a guide to using Twitter for academic purposes, both of which can be downloaded free

See also the University of Warwick’s research page for links to useful articles about creating an academic e-profile.

See my Delicious stack ‘Social Media and Academia’ for an extensive collection of articles and blog posts  and Mark Carrigan’s Bundlr collection on ‘Academia 2.0’ . Also see #mlearning and #digsoc on Twitter for tweets on this topic.

My next post ‘Digital sociology part 3: digital research’ will provide an overview of how sociologists can use digital data and research the ways in which digital and social media are used in everyday life.