Wikipedia and Mechanisms and Robotics

J. Michael McCarthy, May 3, 2012

Type “mechanism” or “robotics” into google.com and the first items to appear are Wikipedia articles. In fact, chances are that any technical term in mechanisms and robotics, such as “machine,” “gear,” or “inverse kinematics,” will yield Wikipedia articles on the first page.

Internet marketers work hard to achieve first page rankings in Google’s search algorithm using techniques known as search engine optimization (SEO). In response Google regularly revises its algorithm to reduce the presence of web-sites that have poor content but high rankings, a sign of effective SEO. (1) A revision introduced in early 2011 seems to like Wikipedia.

When teaching, I check to see what my students find on-line with search terms like “four-bar linkage” and “mechanical advantage,” even “screw theory” and “quaternions.” Last year I became so frustrated with the poor quality of the articles appearing at the top of my searches, that on May 27, 2011 I created a user account and entered Wikipedia as a novice editor.

I am approaching one year and 3,800 edits on over 60 articles on Wikipedia. While I could not repair everything that I felt was wrong or misleading, I am claiming success, because the culture of Wikipedia imposes limits on what can be done.

This experience has sharpened my appreciation for the challenge of managing information on the Internet. Before I get to this, let me share some advice regarding the world that is Wikipedia.

First, please do not ignore Wikipedia, at least not while Google is placing it at the top of most every search. You may dismiss its content, but your students and colleagues are reading it. In fact, 400 million people access Wikipedia every month, that is 13 million people every day. (2)

Next, remember that everyone can edit a Wikipedia article, whether or not they have a user account. Students around the world have great fun calling each other names in the article Simple machines, which has close to 3000 views per day. Wikipedia volunteers work tirelessly to check edits and identify and remove vandalism.

Lastly, regular Wikipedia editors have user names, and it is expected that their identities remain private, which eliminates claims to expertise. In practice, this means any editor can question any edit, and revert it to the original until the questioning editor is convinced. Such edit conflicts can be overcome by a third opinion, or more if needed, documented in written exchanges on the talk page of an article. The infrastructure to manage conflicts and vandalism gives Wikipedia its reputation as a massive, multi-player on-line role-playing game (MMORPG).

The focus of my effort was articles on machines and related topics, which is an infrequently traveled region of Wikipedia. Some articles such as Work and Power have close to 4000 views each day; but Four-bar linkage and Virtual work have around 200; while Kinematic chain and Screw axis bounce around 50 views per day. For comparison, Britney Spears and France receive 15-20,000 views per day.

This means, that I was often left alone in my editing activities. However, I did attract negative attention for edits to the articles Machine, Sprocket, Kinematics, Simple machine and Forward kinematics. In most cases I had to give up, because in remote corners of Wikipedia these are one-on-one conflicts that favor the status quo.

There is much to criticize in Wikipedia (3) and competing web-sites have been designed to increase the reliability of the information they provide. For example, Citizendium, created by Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger, requires editors to use their real names. Scholarpedia and Annotum are designed to support user-generated scholarly content. Another approach is iMechanica for “mechanics and mechanicians” hosted by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, which provides specific knowledge for a particular community. A similar site is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy found at plato.stanford.edu. Science magazine and Nature both have beautiful web-sites, but neither is designed to provide simple explanations for basic concepts.

The fact remains that the breadth and accessibility of Wikipedia supported by Google’s ranking system makes it the first stop for an overview of a particular topic. (4) And other sites such as About.com and even Citizendium often reproduce Wikipedia articles. None-the-less, in my opinion, it is wise for teachers to disallow Wikipedia as a source, because errors can be persistent. (5) Then again, Wikipedia articles often include links to useful sources. In fact, while working on seemingly ordinary articles like Pulley, Block and tackle, and Inclined plane I was pleasantly surprised by insights found among these links.

Our university and industry colleagues form an international research community that is responsible for expanding, reworking and continuously evaluating what we know and can use in mechanisms and robotics. We prepare textbooks and research monographs, on-line lecture notes and videos for our colleagues and students. This activity continuously verifies and demonstrates the use of this knowledge, which the Internet and google.com then make available around the world.

But where do elementary and high school teachers and the larger society go to find simple and reliable explanations of the basic principles of mechanisms and robotics? I may wish that it was an on-line source that we managed, but the real answer is Wikipedia. I believe our community cannot ignore this. We must make Wikipedia work for us, for our students, and for those who rely on our expertise. So, if the material you find in Wikipedia is not correct, then please fix it, or at least ask me to fix it.

(1) Jessica Guynn, Google’s new search formula results in some unhappy websites, March 10, 2011, Los Angeles Times.

(2) Noam Cohen, When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count? August 7, 2011, New York Times.

(3) Vipulnaik, Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter, February 23, 2009, http://whatisresearch.wordpress.com/2009/02/23/wikipedia-criticism-and-why-it-fails-to-matter/

(4) Lisa Spiro, Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?
Posted on September 1, 2008, http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/is-wikipedia-becoming-a-respectable-academic-source/

(5) Scott Jaschik, A Stand Against Wikipedia, January 26, 2007, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/01/26/wiki

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