Monthly Archives: January 2013

How to tell if a scientist has written their own Wikipedia page

I remember being a young aspiring scientist and thinking it’d be great to have a Wikipedia page written about me one day… So I was somewhat surprised a few years later to hear notable scientists actively discouraging keen editors from creating one in their name. Wikipedia has an essay titled “An article about yourself if nothing to be proud of“, which lays out the arguments for and against, emphasising that you as the subject won’t have control over the article’s contents, the good or the bad. What might start out as a brilliant looking CV could later sprout a “Criticisms” or “Controversy” section, and chances are that’ll be the page that tops Google’s search ranking.

Another entirely terrible idea is to write one about yourself.

In addition to the reasons listed in the aforementioned essay, there’s another and it’s, in my view, a more important consideration: it’s entirely obvious that you have done so, and the evidence is almost always permanently available.

I’ve come across a small number of scientist’s biographies (BLPs in Wikijargon) which are unambiguously self-written and a few more which are probably written by friends or colleagues.* It’s perhaps more common in my field of Computational Biology, as you have somewhat computer-savvy scientists looking to climb the academic career ladder; besides if most casual readers don’t realise it’s self-written, the professor or department head you’re aiming to impress probably won’t either. There’s little actual harm done to the project through doing this, it’s strongly discouraged but if you meet specific “notability guidelines” and write from a neutral point of view, it will likely go unnoticed—having said that they’ll always be a few tells:

1) Article History – if you’re just a casual Wikipedia reader you might not often notice the “View History” tab attached to each article. By clicking this you see the entire list of page contributors, with diffs that highlight the changes they made (along with the time and date). Yeah, it’s version control for Wikipedia articles. 


This is a permanent record of every change since the article’s creation—so an obvious first check is who created the article? Did a single user write the majority of it?


“User contributions”

2) User contributions – If the primary contributor or article creator is an IP address, this doesn’t necessarily add evidence to either side. James D. Watson’s somewhat modest article was started by an IP address back in 2001, and of course there’s no reason to suggest that was the man himself. Whether the edits were made by a logged-in Wikipedia editor (one with a username listed) or not, you can click their username and after reaching their userpage, the “Toolbox” can be used to inspect their “User contributions”. This lists all edits ever made by this editor or IP address.

At this point it’s easy to rule out non-autobiographical articles if the editor has made thousands of edits or written heaps of articles. If the article is self-written, however, it may be the editors only contribution. Even more telling is if they made only a couple of other related edits: say, adding their name to their institution’s article. Their work completed, the autobiographer will often then flee the scene, likely with no other substantial contributions to the encyclopaedia.

3) IPs aren’t anonymous – One of the reasons editors may want to create an account is to hide your IP address that is otherwise present with every edit. GeoLocation web apps can attempt to map an IP address to an approximate physical location, with varying success. Of course, dynamic IPs are used by most home ISPs so any geodata in such cases is likely useless, but most institutions will have a fixed line with a static external IP or two. In fact, the “talk pages” of large institutional IP addresses are usually tagged as such, due to previous high levels of vandalism (here‘s a high school example). Again, if the subject and institution match up, it’s anecdotal but by no means irrefutable evidence.

4) Article Content – Wikipedia has a core policy of “verifiability” and this is demonstrated through “reliable sources“; but self-written articles may contain substantial unreferenced information. That’s not to say bad referencing means self-written, but it is a touch curious if an article with no known sources can give personal details about where a subject grew up, or how many kids he or she may have. Lengthy lists of publications are also not a sight commonly found BLP articles, but often on a self-written promotional page. Even things like birthdays and years are not commonly found on staff pages, so raise some suspicion when added without references.

Of course, articles with promotional content may well be written by a colleague or a keen grad student rather than the subject themselves, but it takes a special effort to write an article as a non-regular contributor so any article written by a fly-by-night editor or IP address may well have been written by someone with a conflict of interest.

5) All of the above – Each of the above “things to look out for”, when combined together, represent quite a solid body of evidence that the article you’re looking at is self-written. To summarise: a short article with few (if any) references, but surprisingly personal knowledge, written by a throwaway account which made no other contributions, with the only other content edits coming from a corresponding institutional IP address, updating a publications list… is in all likelihood an autobiography written for promotional purposes.

What’s more, the evidence is there forever for anyone to see, given they have a few minutes to waste. My advice: tempting though it may be to write yourself an article, don’t do it! (…Drop a hint to your grad student.)

*Note: I debated using the real examples I’d found of self-written pages but in the end decided against it, as it’s not my intention to discredit decent scientists for a bit of harmless self-promotion.

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My PhD explained using only the 1000 most commonly used words

A dreaded question for any PhD student (in my field at least) is a non-specialist (often family or friend) asking something like… “so what is it you actually do?”. Maybe I’ll develop a stock response over the next year or two but for now there’s just lots of umming and ahhing until the subject is changed.

I suspect a lot of PhD students feel the same way, hence the uptake of the #UpGoerFive hashtag where, in deference to a great xkcd, people have taken on the challenge of explaining complex topics using just the 1000 most commonly used words, through this great tool. Cue a tumblr and the usual twitter back-patting, but while it’ll no doubt be forgotten in a week or so, I really like this idea.

Here’s my brief attempt:

I use computers to look at things on top of the stuff that tells a cell how it is made. Maybe the on top stuff tells the bottom stuff what to do, or maybe it’s the other way round. We don’t know that much about these things yet but we’re trying our best. I’m also seeing how the under stuff looks in real life – we sometimes like to think it’s a straight line but it’s really much prettier than that!

Pretty tricky when words like “DNA” and “gene” are off limits, let alone anything to do with chromatin and histone modifications, but a great idea and maybe it’ll help me put together some kind of layman’s explanation next time I’m asked to explain my work in simple terms.

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