Writing a course is tough when you can’t rely on Wikipedia

There has been a fair amount said about students’ use of Wikipedia, for example in The Guardian and Wired*. But rather little about the use of Wikipedia by academics. This blog post will set this right.

I have to write a lecture on crystal growth, for a school for students in an EU network; the school is in three weeks. Crystal growth is how a crystal adds molecules or ions, and gets bigger; it is not something I have worked on, so I am a bit of a disadvantage. Crystal nucleation is a different matter, it is how a crystal first gets started ,and I have worked on it a fair bit. So my lecture on crystal nucleation is in decent shape.

There are numerous problems in preparing in a lecture on crystal growth. It is a horribly complex phenomenon studied by a huge range of scientists and engineers, from atmospheric physics, to metallurgists, to structural biologists, none of whom really understand it, and many of whom have different perspectives on it. As they are studying crystal growth in very different systems, these different perspectives are kind of inevitable. This is particularly true as in almost none of these systems can we actually observe in experiment the key step in crystal growth: the addition of the next molecule or ion to the crystal lattice. So in all these systems we are short of good quantitative data.

This mess is reflected in an extremely diverse scientific literature, with a real shortage of good reviews. Which is a problem for me. And the second part of the double whammy is that Wikipedia page for crystal growth is also a bit of a mess, as the contributors** to its talk page appreciate.

In this case, I think the messy and in places confusing nature of the Wikipedia page, simply holds a mirror up to the state of our knowledge of this topic, which consists of a partial knowledge of the growth of ice crystals, a partial knowledge of the growth of metallic crystals, and so on. It is not the fault of the Wikipedia contributors** that the page is messy, it is hard to see who could write a clear page until at least a fraction of the scientists and engineers working in the field to come to a consensus. So, I guess one take-home message here is that if you see a messy Wikipedia page, you should not leap to the conclusion that the contributors are substandard, it may reflect the state of our knowledge.

* Some people also worry about the reliability of Wikipedia I guess they see should see this page.

** Of whom I am one, I added a bit of text and a schematic over the Christmas break, I did not have time for more than this small contribution. In retrospect I would have helped myself by putting my time into it then, to do stuff I could re-use here; as it is I am using the figure I did for the Wikipedia page.


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