May/June 2006

Wikipedia: A Plea for Help

Seismologists: Belar, Gutenberg, Fahim, Lapajne, Kanamori, Lehmann, Mercalli, Milne, Mohorovicic, Oldham, Sebastião de Melo, Richter, Papazachos, and Varotsos (downloaded 14 February 2006)

Do you like this list of notable seismologists? If not, you have two options: Stroll to your nearest terminal and revise it, or categorize Wikipedia as untrustworthy and dissuade people from using it (or at least tell them to use it with great care). The purpose of this column is to convince you to select option one. If enough of us devote even a few minutes to reading and reviewing Wikipedia’s seismology articles, we can create a comprehensive and trustworthy source.

In my previous column (SRL 77:2), I mentioned that Nature had compared Wikipedia, the most popular online encyclopedia ( with other encyclopedias and discovered similar error rates. After investigating Wikipedia’s seismology-related topics, I think the Nature conclusions are optimistic. While average error rates might be similar, the variance in article quality is striking. Some articles are remarkably well written and comprehensive (e.g., the 1755 Lisbon earthquake), while others remain half-baked at best.

But the great advantage (and potential drawback) of the “wiki” approach is that entries can be modified easily. Anyone can edit the articles. In a sense, it represents the ultimate peer review. The process is simple. Use a browser to find the article. Read it. If you wish to make changes, simply click the “edit” tab and type in new text (or delete the old). The IP numbers of editors are logged, so the process is not anonymous. Changes are also tracked, and reverting to previous versions is possible in case of errors. You need to register to be able to create new entries; read the Wikipedia help pages on editing style for more information.

Is it worth it? Or do these efforts merely encourage a new generation of slackers—people who will simply Google a topic and accept anything on the Internet as truth? I argue that it is worth the effort. Some entries are excellent and the overall scope is impressive, with separate articles on seven fault systems and more than 30 earthquakes, ranging from the 2002 Dudley event to the 1960 Chilean earthquake. At any rate, quite a few students and others use Wikipedia already. It is also potentially useful for those who may not have easy access to seismology textbooks, such as high-school students or people in remote areas. With a little work from each of us, we can create a good, up-to-date seismology resource. Indeed, I am told that the Electronic Encyclopedia of Earthquakes ( is considering collaboration with Wikipedia.

It may seem, given the ease of editing by others, that creating a polished article is a Sisyphean task, but Wikipedia text, in general, eventually converges toward a reasonable result (with the exception of contentious or politicized topics such as global warming). I suspect that most seismology topics should be safe, with the possible exception of “earthquake prediction.” Most errors I encountered were in articles written and edited by one or two authors who had made valiant attempts to fill gaps. They recognized the potential for errors and omissions, and one issued this plea for help (which inspired this column):

feel free to edit other articles you think needs some work. There are apparently not many professional seismologist editing so your additions are highly important, take a look also, at the article about Seismology, it’s currently a stub (only a beginning of an article) so much further work is needed on this field!

So take a look at the entry on your favorite earthquake, fault, or seismologist (creating an entry for yourself is possible but tacky). Also check historical entries, as many historical earthquakes seem prone to exceptionally large magnitudes. The entry on Ashgabat in Turkmenistan listed the destructive 1948 earthquake as magnitude 9, which was changed to 7.3 in February 2006 (by one of my students following a class lecture).

There are other organized Internet resources, such as the Digital Library for Earth System Education ( and the Schlumberger Oilfield Glossary ( Although oriented toward reflection seismology, the oilfield site contains numerous concise (and reviewed) definitions, including several hundred in geophysics and seismology. The Z’s alone include “zero crossing,” “zero-off set data,” “zero-off set VSP,” “zerophase,” and “Zoepritz equations.” I expect many other resources exist; please feel free to inform me of useful ones.

Rob Mellors
San Diego State University




Posted: 05 May 2006