Dishonest science: self-promoting your findings on Wikipedia

Or “why not every method to increase your h-index is equally ethic“

I work in science. And, as any scientist, I feel the need to communicate my findings to the rest of the scientific community, and to the general public —to you, for example! Leaving that second case apart for today, I will focus here on the former one.

In a nutshell, there are different channels to spread your academic work. The most important one is the scientific publication. Your findings can be published as an article in a scientific journal, as a chapter in a book (or an entire monograph), or in an academic conference (which is later published in the proceedings.) We like scientific publications because they are tangible and they count: that is, they can be added to your CV, and anyone can check whether you actually published in this or that journal, or if you gave a talk in a certain conference. Funding bodies such as the government are happier is you publish more and more papers. And if you receive citations, too. A scientist with many citations is a happy scientist: it is a proof that your work is important for other people, and that you are actually dealing with an interesting topic.

You can get citations because you are very good, very well-known, the topic you work in is a trending topic or any combination of the previous reasons. You can give a little boost to this phenomenon: if you promote your work it is more likely that people know about it and, incidentally, cite you.

Promoting your work is a bit like marketing. There are different ways to sell the same product, and not all of them are equally ethic (and effective). One easy way to promote your scientific work is the self-citation (i.e. when you cite one of your previous works). Self-citations are necessary to maintain the internal coherence of a research line, but their abuse is not a good practice, in my opinion. Some of the self-citations are made just to give visibility to an old paper, or just to increase your bibliometric indicators, such as the h-index. I have a certain interest in the phenomenon of self-citations, and I have worked with my colleague Emilio Ferrara to develop a variant of the h-index —the dh-index— taking into account the self citations as a penalizing factor (here is the link to the paper, “Scientific impact evaluation and the effect of self-citations: mitigating the bias by discounting h-index”, if you are interested.)

There are other ways to promote yourself: some people like to have a research blog to further discuss topics, present preliminary results or just summarize their recent publications, or even they open completely their research from the early stages (JJ Merelo’s group is a nice example of this methodology.)

But the scientists (we) are usually navel-gazing. And we sometimes use dishonest methods to promote ourselves. I recently found a method which is probably very effective, relatively widespread and, in my opinion, highly unethical. The method is as simple as taking a piece of your research and creating an article in Wikipedia with it (obviously adding some of your papers as bibliographical references). Google and a bit of time should do the rest. Scientists will start thinking that your work is very important and, incidentally, will know about it —and eventually, cite it. Some people have even created their own personal entry in Wikipedia. To me, this is disgusting.

I will enumerate reasons because I think Wikipedia is not for personal promotion. The first one is that Wikipedia itself has a rule: Wikipedia is not a soapbox or means of promotion. This is the spirit in which Wikipedia is create and, as a user, you accept those terms and conditions. If you don’t like them, just don’t use it, and do not try to cheat. Period. Or try another alternative encyclopedia. This fact is very funny becaus some prestigious editorials consider this a good practice and they even recommend it.

Wikipedia has a very strict view on neutrality, favouring what is known as a neutral point of view. Even if I am a Nobel prize-winner, and I create my own Wikipedia entry, the community will probably delete it, as I am not neutral and independent enough to talk about myself.

Besides, this practice reveals an immense lack of humility. Many well-known scientists are known for their work, not because they were very good at advertising it. Think of your favourite scientist before editing the Wikipedia. Would she or he do this? Probably not. Then, why would you do this? Do you think you are better than her or him?

My last reason is personal. I love Wikipedia and I strongly believe it is one of the most important projects in the history of the human knowledge after probably, the Encyclopédie, carefully edited by Diderot and d’Alambert. It is made by the people and for the people. And I always enjoy and learn with it a lot. For this reason, I seldom contribute to the Spanish Wikipedia (I have created few articles and made a few contributing editions), and I have donated a some money to the Wikimedia Foundation. Self-promotion is an attitude which goes beyond the line of what I (and many people) believe is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not to support selfish attitudes, neither to act as a marketing service for some mediocre scientists. If I (or my work) appear once in Wikipedia, you may be sure it was not me who created the article.

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