Students Bolster Wikipedia’s Pet Nutrition Content with Science

Posted on Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Written by Stephanie Craig

Laptop compter on table outdoors, Wikipedia page open on screen

Wikipedia’s reputation as a go-to source for information is clear in the English site’s statistics; it receives 7.7 billion page views per month, but is it a reputable source for information?

The information on pet nutrition is certainly much more credible today, thanks to Prof. Kate Shoveller’s pet nutrition class that gathered reputable information on 32 different pet nutrition topics for submission to the site.

“Pet nutrition is a very underdeveloped content area on Wikipedia” shares LiAnna Davis, Director of Programs at Wiki Education Foundation. “We were thrilled Kate wanted to help us improve the information available on Wikipedia about pet nutrition.”

The Wiki Ed Foundation encourages university faculty to replace a traditional research paper assignment with an assignment to improve a Wikipedia article.

“In adding content to Wikipedia, students gain media literacy, research, critical thinking, and online communication skills,” explains Davis, “while Wikipedia gets better information on important academic subject matters.”

After hearing that Wiki Ed was looking for professors to write a Wikipedia page as part of class assignments, Shoveller adapted her fourth year pet nutrition course to turn traditionally required literature reviews into a research communications exercise.

 “Sometimes changing the world comes in itty-bitty steps,” Shoveller explains. “I saw this as an opportunity for my students to do literature reviews, but then share them with the world and increase the knowledge base.”

The students were randomly split into 32 groups of four or five, giving the students an additional learning opportunity on effective teamwork. 40 potential topics were provided to the students by Shoveller, all focusing on current pet industry nutrition products and trends, for example grain free, eating raw and sporting dog diets.

“I wanted the assignment to make students think more broadly, improve their skillsets and get them to think about how they can change the world,” shares Shoveller. “I wanted them to challenge dogmas. The pet food industry is full of false and persuasive advertising.”

As Shoveller explains, selecting food for healthy adult dogs and cats can be overwhelming, even for her. “There are so many options and everybody has marketing to make their brand and products look like the best,” she says. “’How do I figure out what is best for my dog or cat?’ That’s the kind of information I wanted the students to provide.”

Each group selected a topic from a listing provided by Shoveller. The teams worked throughout the 12-week semester to gather credible information on their topic and then drafted Wiki page content. Students were also responsible for peer editing and were able to get feedback from Shoveller and teaching assistant, Nicole Weidner, to ensure the quality of information was high enough for publishing. The students also took training on how to update Wikipedia, provided through the Wiki Education Foundation.

“Wiki Ed provides the support for faculty so they don't need to be Wikipedia experts themselves,” explains Davis. “We teach students what they need to know about Wikipedia in order to effectively contribute content.”

Weidner shares that the assignment gave students an appreciation of the misinformation that can be found on the internet.

"I believe it helped students understand how to critically evaluate existing information and scientific literature," she says, "as well as the art of taking this information and transforming it in a way that was interesting to the public, while still conveying the right message and the importance of the research."

After completing the assignment, the students are indeed thinking differently.

“It is now abundantly clear there is a disconnect between research and the general public,” shares Mike Scolaro, a third year animal biology student. “I am certain more effort must be made to communicate findings in a comprehensive and digestible manner to the consumer, especially when it relates to issues regarding health and nutrition.”

Scolaro and his group chose the topic of feeding cats a vegetarian diet.

“What I enjoyed most was the challenge of finding information and presenting it in an unbiased way. For instance, after all of the research for this project, I am convinced vegetarianism in felines is, although possible, a poor set of constraints to impose, but I had to put my opinion aside to deliver facts,” Scolaro explains.

Sarah MacDonald Murray, a third year animal biology student who drafted a Wiki article on the general nutritional requirements of senior dogs, agrees that the Wikipedia assignment was a good way to affect change.

“When you don't know something, the first thing you do is Google it. Most of the time, Wiki pages come up first in a google search,” she explains. “There are vast amounts of conflicting knowledge about pet nutrition on the web. Having one place that owners can go to get credible information can help ensure our pets receive the proper care they need.” 

After completing her bachelor of science, MacDonald Murray plans to pursue graduate studies focused on pet nutrition.

“Animals have become such important aspects of our lives. It is not only critical to their survival and function that we feed them properly, but also our own well-being,” she says.

To provide robust feedback from different perspectives, Prof. Adronie Verbrugghe of the Ontario Veterinary College helped mark the Wikipedia submissions and also gave feedback on what needed to be adapted before final submission to Wikipedia. Verbrugghe is an assistant professor of clinical nutrition and Royal Canin Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition

“The students got a lot of feedback about proper scientific writing with the overlay of communicating more broadly to the public,” says Shoveller, who is happy with the overall quality of the content developed and plans to build upon the content in the next course offering.

Wikipedia is happy as well.

“We're extremely grateful for the hard work of Kate's students, and we look forward to seeing more University of Guelph students improve additional articles on pet nutrition on Wikipedia in future terms,” says Davis, who as a new puppy owner herself found the content developed by the students especially interesting.

Content developed by the students will continue to be added to Wikipedia as the students upload it. After it is posted, anyone can view the information and edit with further sourced information. At the time of the publishing of this article, five pages have been posted:

 

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