Do try this at home: explorations in Open Knowledge

This is the first in our series of ‘how to’ blog posts from the Bodleian Libraries’ Wikimedian in Residence Martin Poulter. The posts accompany his Open Knowledge Ambassador series. There are still two sessions left – sign up at and

This week, I ran the second workshop in the four-part Open Knowledge Ambassador series. In the appropriately scholarly surroundings of the the Bodleian Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship, we took a look into the underbelly of Wikipedia that the great majority of its readers never see.

It’s apt to be running the course now. At the end of January, a journal editorial warning of ‘research parasites’ (who analyse data they didn’t themselves collect) prompted an outraged but hilarious response. Hundreds of scientists used the #ResearchParasites and #IAmAResearchParasite hashtags on social media to defend the sharing and checking of research data. Climate scientists ‘confessed’ to not having personally launched their satellites into space, and Isaac Newton was sarcastically branded a ‘parasite’ for his remark that he saw far by standing on the shoulders of giants. It was a great example of the tension between those who think knowledge benefits from an open process, and those who want that process enclosed.

Each workshop is 1.5 hours, and the emphasis on active learning means that a lot of this is spent in tasks in which we dig into Wikipedia and related sites or tools, and discuss what we find. This is a fun way for me to share my insider knowledge, and for participants to explore resources that are relevant to their own interests.

Working with open resources has its headaches. This week’s starting point was the WikiProject Directory: an index of projects to improve specific subject areas of Wikipedia. When I brought the directory up on screen, it had just been massively vandalised, so I had to begin the presentation by reverting the vandalism. That’s never been a problem in Powerpoint.

On the way, we’ve explored the strengths of the wiki platform as well as the weaknesses. A misconception among academics is that Wikipedia throws everything together without the traditional publishers’ concern for quality. It’s quite a shock for people to see how much contextual information there is about the quality and authorship of articles, and how much effort goes into various review processes.

‘Open’ goes beyond ‘public’. Imagine the following:

  • A museum creates an online image gallery of its exhibits.
  • Educators write overviews of key historical events that are available in an eBook.
  • Researchers publish some key facts and figures as a table in a PDF document.

These might all be great resources, but it’s a mistake to call them ‘open access’ (as people sometimes do) just because they can be accessed without subscription. When we talk about ‘free and open’ we mean content that is not tied to one particular way of accessing it. We mean the ability to remix and reuse, not just read.

Untitled2What does a remix of knowledge and culture look like? In the course we’ve had hands-on experience with a few examples. Histropedia is independent of the Wikimedia charity, but uses data, images and text from Wikipedia and related projects to create interactive timelines. It provides a new and educational way to look at a topic. Other tools display Wikipedia’s knowledge on a map, in abstract conceptual space, or in a weird hybrid of encyclopedia and database. If Wikimedia sites and their contributors did not explicitly allow remixing, these kinds of tool would not exist, and the world of education and research would be poorer for it.

True to the open spirit, I am documenting the workshops, and all participant feedback, on a public wiki. I’m also using Wikipedia talk pages to keep in touch with participants. The worksheets are available to download, as editable files. Anyone is welcome to use them to run a discussion or training session around Wikipedia and related sites.

Note: it’s still possible for University of Oxford staff or students to book for Workshop 3: ‘Putting knowledge in‘ and Workshop 4: ‘Building collaborations‘.

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