nextgenforensic

Becoming a Wikipedia editor for sexuality and sexual violence pages

Ian McPhail

One of the purposes of the nextgenforensic blog is to promote the dissemination of high quality scientific information to as wide an audience as possible, without paywalls.  Part of this purpose is our impulse to social justice, but it is also pragmatic: If students and early career researchers want to impact the world in as meaningful a way as possible, we need to think broader in terms of what it means to have impact (that golden calf of the academy). This post focuses on an important and effective avenue for disseminating scientific information, that being: becoming a Wikipedia editor for its human sexuality and sexual violence pages.

I had the chance to discuss being a Wikipedia editor with Dr. James Cantor.  He is an avid supporter of the idea that scientists and students should be actively involved in contributing content to Wikipedia pages in their areas.  If one wants to provide content that will be used potentially by thousands of people, provide it to Wikipedia.  Compare that to the average number of times a journal article is read (spoiler, it’s less than thousands), we can start to think about the potential impact Wikipedia content has.

As well, one fascinating point Dr. Cantor has made is that, if we are in the business of science, part of that business is science communication, and what better way of ensuring the public has access to reliable science information than with first page that comes up on google?

For instance, since I am doing research on phallometry and am doing a lot of reading of scholarly sources, I’ve been contributing to the Wikipedia penile plethysmography page as I read; which received over 6100 views in the month of June, 2015!  I don’t think I will ever write a journal article that stands a chance of getting anywhere near that number of views!

Recently, I skyped with Dr. Cantor to interview him about the in’s and out’s of being a Wikipedia editor and his experience with it.

“I started hearing those very same sentences getting quoted almost verbatim by major media outlets.  I can’t help but think that if we, meaning the topic experts who are around (and could be around) didn’t put that information in there, what would these media outlets be saying then?”

IVM: Since you’ve been a Wikipedia editor for a while, tell me about some of the things you have done as an editor.

JMC: When I first joined Wikipedia, it was still uncharted territory and was still the Wild West.  In the context of that, Wikipedia didn’t always police itself very well and was subject to a lot of manipulation.  Now, the way I got involved was because some people who considered themselves justified activists, one of the activist groups, and one person in particular, a trans-activist, was using Wikipedia to promote herself.   For example, she was trying to start a Hollywood career and was inserting references to herself and her commercial websites marketing makeup and other products to the transgender market, via Wikipedia pages.  One of the other things she did at the time was to turn certain Wikipedia pages into attack pages against certain people she did not like, which included a few sex researchers who were reporting things that did not align with her particular political views.  Since I knew many of those researchers, at that time I joined Wikipedia to correct the misinformation.   That was the context in which I first started.

[Side note: The person Dr. Cantor refers to was ultimately banned from the sexology pages byWikipedia’s Arbitration Committee.]

As time went on, and as Wikipedia improved, it has become the go-to place for any kind of information. Amazingly, once I (with other editors) started to put good information into it, I started hearing those very same sentences getting quoted almost verbatim by major media outlets.  So, thank goodness it is actually good information in there now! I can’t help but think that if we, meaning the topic experts who are around (and could be around) didn’t put that information in there, what would these media outlets be saying then?

IVM:  And so that is one thing that you’ve seen with your own editorial work with Wikipedia pages is that it has had an impact on what the media and what the public pulls from the pages.

JMC: Yes, very dramatically and very unexpectedly.  Wikipedia is always the first message and people take for granted that this is where a lot of information is going to come from.  And for many topics it is actually a great source of information.  Unfortunately, there were very few people working on the sexuality pages and even fewer on the sex offender and forensic-related pages.  So many or most these are still of mediocre quality.

IVM: When you are writing on a Wikipedia page something that is more content than correcting a typo, do you use a different style of writing or language?  Or is it similar to academic or scientific writing?

JMC: It’s meant for a lay audience, so it really needs to be written for regular, everyday people, from a junior high and high school students, and without a post-graduate education. It is meant to be understandable by everybody.  If something is written in a very technical way, it is likely that another editor will come in and reword your sentence or suggest a rewording of that sentence (or delete it entirely).

As well, behind each Wikipedia page is what they call a ‘Talk’ page.  And sometimes the Talk pages are much more active than the actual main pages.  The Talk page is where the people who are interested in the topic or in editing that page discuss changes to the page.  It can have two people disagreeing about phrasing or a reference or how to fairly represent both sides of this particular issue, and editors have whole conversations to come to a consensus over how the page should read.  Then somebody puts the consensus version onto the main page.  In practice, instead of being a monk working alone, editing pages is almost always a collaborative effort.

“When I do some background reading and thought people should know something, rather than me just sitting with it in case somebody asks me, Wikipedia serves as a repository for that information.”

IVM: From your point of view, why would it be a good idea for someone, particularly a student or an early career researcher in the sex offender field, to start being a Wikipedia editor?

JMC: Number one: it’s fun!  I really enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the material.  I enjoyed catching up on my reading.  I enjoyed looking up other references.  It used to be that I would read whatever article and I would put it in my notebook in case I needed to remember it later. But putting it only Wikipedia pages was a way to do something more broadly useful with what I just read.  When I do some background reading and thought people should know something, rather than me just sitting with it in case somebody asks me, Wikipedia serves as a repository for that information. So, when newspapers or anyone else needs, they now also have access to this piece of information.  So, it feels good. It feels like I’m now part of the chain of information and everybody has access to it.  It feels useful…and I’m getting more ‘bang out of my buck’ for my reading time.

It is also extremely helpful to any academic, anyone who teaches, really: Because we are accustomed to high end academic language, we forget to translate this into regular English. Taking a minute to think about how we express this to the public or citing whatever statistical tests.  It’s a great exercise.

IVM: One of the things that I’ve struggled with when I’ve thought about being a Wikipedia editor is, ‘Can I, should I, put my own research on a page’s topic?’

JMC: Every problem you can think of encountering: It has been encountered before.  There are hundreds of thousands of people who have been Wikipedia editors before and every conflict that can be had, has been had, and has led to some guideline, standard, or policy.  The one you’re talking about is the Conflict of Interest standard.  You are not banned from citing your own material, but editors are (rightfully) on the look out for editors using Wikipedia for self-promotion. The best thing to do is simply to disclose your relationship to the material and invite interested editors to look it over and check it for appropriateness.  Everyone who uses Wikipedia has the option to use a user page describing themselves and their interests.  I am very upfront about my identity (most editors use pseudonyms), what my expertise is, and what I think about various issues, just to remain as transparent as possible.

“Everyone there learns as they go.  And always remember that anything that is done in Wikipedia can be undone.”

IVM: To follow up on that topic, it sounds like there are a lot of standards and guidelines for editors.  So, for a student or early career researcher starting out trying to do this work, what would be your advice in terms of learning how to be an editor?

JMC: The basic rules are very logical and are exactly what you would expect them to be.  There are 5 main pillars: things like information has to be described neutrally; information you provide has to be verifiable, that that information has to be attributed to a reliable source.  (You can’t quote the National Enquirer or your own opinion.) In order to create a page about a topic, the topic has to be notable unto itself. You can create a page about a legitimately notable person, but you cannot create a page just about your neighbour (unless otherwise notable!).  There are pages like that set up the basic rules, with the more detailed rules for individual exceptions or out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.  So, you learn as you go: Everyone there learns as they go.  And always remember that anything that is done in Wikipedia can be undone.

IVM: So, for the next generation of clinicians and researchers in the sex offender field, what would be some pages that you think are at the top of the list to get edited?

JMC: If I had even a little more time on my hands than I do, the next pages that I would be editing are probably around the various pieces of legislation that has been passed in the US over in the past generation.  The Meagan’s Law and mandatory registration and things like that.  Most of these pages are poorly written and really need to be re-written from beginning to end with legitimate information.  In the past 5 years or so, there has now been enough research and enough long term follow-up on the effects of these laws, but these findings have not made their way into the newspapers—they are still limited to journal articles.  So, none of the Wikipedia pages are really following up and presenting what the effect has been of mandatory reporting, what has been the effect of registration, residency restrictions. Not only are those poorly written pages, just plain bad English, they are also grossly outdated. And outdated in a way that makes them biased in exactly the opposite of what we now know.  So, if I were going to pick pages to edit, those would be the pages that I would hit next.  I think this would be of interest to many ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers) people.

If there was a bunch of ATSA people or a club of students who wanted to do this, then they will inevitably start to interact with each other and get to know each other.  I would love to see that mutually supportive effort.  And since ATSA had that kind of population already, getting a subpopulation that are interested in Wikipedia, I think it would easily become a long term, self-sustaining effort.  Which is a way for us to educate the public in a dramatic way, for free, on a permanent basis.  It is really an exciting opportunity.

[end interview]

So, for those early career researchers and students who want to get involved in editing Wikipedia, here are a few good links for more information on the nuts and bolts of becoming a Wikipedia editor.  And when you create your own user page, you are automatically sent all the editing guidelines and policies you will need!

Wikipedia Welcoming Committee

Happy editing!

Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2015, August 16). Becoming a Wikipedia editor for sexuality pages [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-b2.


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7 thoughts on “Becoming a Wikipedia editor for sexuality and sexual violence pages”

  1. Hey Gary,

    Thanks for your question. I will preface my response with one thing.

    I think your question, though interesting, contains an aspect that the literature to date cannot answer. In order to answer the question, “what age do most men prefer?”, we would need population-based research. That is, research would need to exist that examines a variety of age preferences, assessed via penile plethysmography, in a large, representative sample of men. Then this research would need to look at the rates of different age preferences (pedophilic, hebephilic, ephebophilic, teleiophilic).

    Research my team and I are conducting currently suggests that the current literature shows the following (based on research that compares groups of individuals who have committed an offence against a child with other groups that have not committed similar offences):

    1. Individuals who have offended against a child show more arousal to children than other groups (non-offending males, individuals with histories of non-sexual offences, and individuals with histories of offending against adults).

    2. Individuals who have offended against a child typically show lower arousal to adults than other groups (non-offending males, individuals with histories of non-sexual offences, and individuals with histories of offending against adults).

    3. Individuals who have offended against an unrelated child show more arousal to children than individuals who have offended against an related child (incest offenders).

    While this research is limited to these samples, it is interesting nonetheless. In addition, if I could speculate a bit, it is likely that if one was to use an age preference phallometric test in a representative sample of adult males, you would expect the greatest number of individuals to show arousal to adults (teleiophilic arousal) and a shrinking number of individuals showing arousal as the age declined (post pubescent teens, pubescent teens, prepubescent children, infants).

    I hope this helps.

    Ian M.

  2. >use an age preference phallometric test in a representative sample of adult males, you would expect the greatest number of individuals to show arousal to adults (teleiophilic arousal)

    Why do you think this? Is this just a presumption you’re making or do you have scientific reasons to believe this? I’m doubtful that most men have preferences for fully developed adults myself. Just take a look at what sells the most in the sex industries and what porn groups get the most traffic. It’s not adults but adolescent girls. There’s also biological reasons to expect men to prefer adolescents over adults.

  3. Gary,

    I had a suspicion that you were not asking the original question out of curiosity but to make an argument. Either way, I will respond with some of the science that I feel suggests something different from your read of the evidence you indicated and I will provide some further thoughts based on some of the science.

    First, online pornography sites provide statistics regarding what search terms viewers use. Some of the most frequently used search terms do include “teen”. However, in the context of the pornography industry, the age of the actresses in “teen” films is over 18, presumably because the laws in most places that produce pornography require actresses to be over 18 years of age. Otherwise it would be illegal material. So, while you seem to read this as evidence that people are looking for adolescent pornography, this seems to suggest adults. Since typically, individuals over the age of 18 are in the final stages of physical maturation, especially as it relates to sex characteristics, and this would mean that even in the “teen” categories, we are talking about adults. We can argue over “young looking” adults vs. “mature” looking adults, but this is still a far cry away from what one would be attracted to if they experienced pedophilic or hebephilic attraction.

    Second, you bring up the evolutionary argument. I am not familiar with the science on this topic as it relates to human sexuality, though I am aware that people make this argument. Although, I don’t know if we can take the step from ‘a biological reason exists to be attracted to younger individuals’ to ‘most men show arousal to younger individuals”. This seems to require a leap of faith. But again, my knowledge of this literature is limited at best.

    Third, the research I discussed above suggests to me that teleiophilic arousal is likely more frequent. This is for a few reasons. But first, I will say that our research takes a meta-analytic approach to the phallometric literature, so the research is based on a quantitative review of the science. Since we typically find that community samples of men are more aroused by adults, we might think that this counts as (although not the strongest) evidence that in general more men are aroused by adults. This interpretation is based on the assumption that community samples function to be representative of the population at large. Secondly, two other forensic groups, individuals with non-sexual offence histories and individuals with offences against adults, show similar profiles of arousal to adults. So, we have three groups who display predominantly adult-oriented arousal on phallometric tests. Again, while this is not population-based sampling method, it would at the very least lead us to make certain hypotheses (e.g., that the largest portion of the population shows arousal to adults, since these three groups might be generally representative of the population).

    I think it is important to say that even though some thing about humans is infrequent relative to some other thing, this doesn’t necessity an argument of abnormality/pathology/disorder. We know from the evidence that some men do show arousal to pre-pubescent and pubescent children, this seems to be a fact of life. What we choose to do with this knowledge is another question entirely, but again, I don’t think this fact necessitates an explanation from abnormality/pathology/disorder.

    Ian McPhail

  4. In addition to Ian’s response here, I would suggest that using the labels porn users choose as a proxy for sexual preference is problematic.

    Such an approach is referred to in behavioral economics as “revealed preference”: that the preferences of consumers can be revealed by the way in which they consume goods. This idea, however, often fails (a) to take into account the range of decisions and options that consumers have on which to base their decisions and (b) that consumption decisions are stable over time.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revealed_preference#Criticism (I realize this is a Wiki page, but the economics papers I found were too stats-heavy to make these simple points!)

    Thus, without knowing more about the individuals doing the searching and the environments/circumstances in which their searching occurs, the stats showing that ‘teen’ is a frequent search term on pornography websites does not really confirm anything about sexual preference.

    Ian Elliott

  5. Oh, stop grasping at straws. The adolescent image is what sells the most in the sex industries all around the world. It’s pretty clear where most men’s sexual preferences lie, just as biology predicts.

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