In this post I’m going to discuss the process of improving, extending and editing a Wikipedia article by applying information synthesis methods. I did this work as part of an assignment for my MSc in Information Management. I chose the Wikipedia page on ‘information pollution’ because the original article presented a number of important problems:

  1. The article lacked structure. The table of contents showed only four main headings, two of which were links to additional information. The body consisted of a definition of the topic and a large section discussing ‘instances’ of information pollution in no particular order.
  2. The content was poor and inconsistent. For example, a section contained a single line on ‘information overload’ and did not state its relationship with information pollution.
  3. The article contained many unsubstantiated claims and read like authors’ opinions. As a result, it had been tagged as “lacking in-line citations” and containing “unsourced statements”.

Overall, the purpose of the article was unclear and it was unlikely that the readers would find it useful and informative.

Audience, purpose and context

Wikipedia provides a series of recommendations to ensure that authors keep the target audience in mind when they contribute to the site and I started the project by spending some time thinking about the audience, purpose and context of the work.

People from many age groups, cultures and professions use Wikipedia. They access Wikipedia because they want to learn about a particular topic, but beyond that it is difficult to be specific about their profile. For example, they may or may not have previous knowledge of the subject. They could have used Wikipedia before or they might have just run a search query using a search engine like Google and arrived at the article page. The edited document would need to cater for all these possibilities but, in particular, it had to address the needs of those who have less knowledge of the topic.

The main purpose of the document is obviously to inform the reader about the chosen topic.

In terms of the context, again it is impossible to know exactly why the person is approaching this article. It could be part of their school coursework, they might have found the term on another web page and wished to learn more about it or their information need could be work related. With such range of possibilities, it was important to ensure that the document keeps a wide remit.

Selection, evaluation and restructuring

After performing some searches in bibliographic databases, I preselected 25 articles in English language on the topic of information pollution and evaluated them against the following criteria:

  • Relevance and topic coverage
  • Originality
  • Scope and level of complexity
  • Currency and date coverage
  • Authority
  • Objectivity
  • Availability

Once I had the definitive references I went through them noting the main ideas and scanning for common themes. I used the notes to create a concept map of the topic, arranged in sections that followed the development of the topic in chronological order, from how ‘information pollution’ originates to how it can be managed.

Content arrangement

Following the Wikipedia guidelines I then created a document structure where the information was presented in several levels that increasingly expanded the topic, meeting the needs of the target audience:

  1. A top level definition of the title concept.
  2. An overview section providing wider context for those who wish to know more.
  3. A highly detailed body section, broken down into sub-topics that discuss different aspects of main subject: Manifestations, causes, effects and solutions.
  4. A number of links to further information for those readers who wanted to expand their knowledge even further or read about related concepts. This includes the ‘See also’, ‘References’ and ‘External links’ sections as well as the links embedded within the text.

This format, known as ‘summary style’ follows Wikipedia writing guidelines and allows the reader to gain an understanding of the topic at a level of detail which corresponds with how much time they have available.

I reused very little of the original document in this version because, as mentioned earlier, there were major flaws with the text that had to be addressed. However I preserved the description of ‘infollution’, under ‘Related terms’, despite the fact that it was not possible to find any sources to substantiate the statement. I cut this section back considerably but I felt that eliminating it altogether was inappropriate as it seemed to bear some relevance to the main topic. Taking advantage of the collaborative aspect of Wikipedia, I added a note to the ‘talk page’ of the article to request that a source was added or the decision was reviewed.

Like I said earlier, Wikipedia is a vast resource which can be accessed in number of ways. Users could reach the article through a search engine or by following a link on another page. To address this, I wrote the document to remain self-contained and make sense as a standalone page.

Repackaging

To repackage the content as a Wikipedia article I had to follow explicit rules, both in the domain of web publishing and in terms of the style guides provided by Wikipedia itself. In fact, most of the decisions regarding font-formatting and overall page layout were dictated by built-in web styles (cascading style sheets).

In some areas however, Wikipedia provides advice but the authors are still free to make their own decisions based on the suitability to the content. These include:

Style and tone

Most of the papers I used to compose the Wikipedia article were aimed at professionals with previous knowledge of information science or information technology. With a few exceptions, they were written in specialist language with frequent use of jargon. As the revised article had to suit the information needs of a wide range of readers, it was essential to convey the main points in a language that everyone can understand. Given the nature of the topic, some technical terms had to be included, but I linked them to other pages where the reader could find additional information.

Layout

The page layout options in Wikipedia are quite restricted. Unless the topic requires the addition of specific visual aids, like images, tables or lists, the layout alternatives are limited to making decisions about headings and paragraphs. These helped to create a document that flows well while delimiting the different levels of content to suit the readers’ different needs.

Wikipedia articles span most of the width of the page, which in modern screens could be around 1500px. This makes the lines in the article very long and research has shown that long line lengths make text more difficult to read. Similarly, the table of contents for each article is in a fixed location. It can be hidden but the default option is to show it. This leaves a large gap between the introduction and the rest of the content, resulting on poorly utilised space and a break of continuity.

The content of the article did not require any tables or illustrations but I used lists for navigational or bibliographic content. For example, the table of contents and the ‘see also’, ‘references’ and ‘external links’ sections. I considered the possibility of formatting some of the sections as a series of bullet points but this went against the Wikipedia preference for narrative text, breaking the flow of the article, so I decided to use continuous text instead.

The result

The final article hopefully addresses the problems of the previous version, appealing to the general public, but also to those with specialist knowledge.

As publishing medium, Wikipedia clearly has a number of limitations mainly to do with the style and layout of the page. Also, being an ‘open’ medium, it is vulnerable to inaccurate information, which can lead to mistrust on the part of the readers.

Nevertheless there are also a number of important benefits to Wikipedia:

  • It can reach a worldwide audience that includes everyone with access to a computer. This could be particularly important in remote areas, where access to a library may be difficult.
  • Unlike many of the sources used to compose the article, Wikipedia is free and therefore available to a much larger number of readers.
  • The content can be easily updated. This makes Wikipedia more current than its paper alternatives.
  • It is easy to establish connections between topics by using hyperlinks.

The ‘summary style’ recommended by Wikipedia should address different levels of previous knowledge and interest, maximising the number of people who find the article useful.