Recognition for Beth’s Wikipedia work

25 June 2018 at 21:48 | Posted in Circadian rhythm, DSPS | Leave a comment

In addition to founding this blog, Beth MacDonald was also very active in editing the Wikipedia articles on circadian rhythms. She worked under the pseudonym Hordaland. Last year I was contacted by two researchers in the field of the history of science, Omer Benjakob and Rona Aviram. They were studying the contributions to scientific pages on Wikipedia with a particular focus on the area of circadian rhythms. They had found a large number of edits by the user Hordaland and asked if I could confirm that Hordaland was actually Beth (who had died a few months before). I confirmed their attribution and in subsequent emails answered some of their questions about Beth and her work.

A few weeks ago I received another email from the researchers saying that they had published their research in the Journal of Biological Rhythms [1]. Their article details Beth’s amazing contributions to the Wikipedia articles. I know Beth would have been thrilled to see her name appear in such a prestigious journal on circadian rhythms. It is a fitting tribute to a pioneering advocate for persons with circadian disorders.

Here is some of what Benjakob and Aviram wrote. (CC and CR refer to the wikipedia articles entitled “Circadian Clock” and “Circadian Rhythms”.)

The most prominent editor on the CR and CC
pages was a user called Hordaland, ranking first in
overall edits to these articles (244 in CR and 14 in CC),
(Fig. 3A). We successfully identified Hordaland as
Beth MacDonald, an American based in Norway who
had delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPS). MacDonald,
who died in 2017, maintained a blog in collaboration
with James Fadden, a biochemist working in private
industry who confirmed her identity to us. Together,
the two founded an international nonprofit called the
Circadian Sleep Disorder Network. In the sleep disorder
network’s blog, MacDonald wrote that her “mission
is to inform [people] about DSPS based on what
I’ve learned since diagnosis” (MacDonald and
Fadden, 2017). Describing MacDonald as someone
with both intimate and scientific knowledge of the
topic to which she contributed vastly online, Fadden
wrote, “Despite having no formal scientific training,
[MacDonald] steeped herself in the circadian science

I need to add one point to that paragraph. Although Beth and I played important roles in helping The Circadian Sleep Disorders Network get started, the lions share of the organizational work (including the legal incorporation papers and setting up the web site) was done by Peter Mansbach, the founding president. I wrote to the authors to correct their ommision but by then the paper had already been published.

They made an interesting observation about the times of day when Beth did her editing.

Because every edit is logged, one could use editing
activity as a form of action metric (Yasseri et al.,
2012a). To get to know our main characters better, we
created actographs for their editing patterns in
Wikipedia: While Looie496 (Skaggs) edited in a
highly rhythmic daily cycle, Hordaland (McDonald),
who had a sleeping disorder, edited around the clock.
Gorton K, the purported “budding biologist,” edited
rather sporadically, mostly on Thursdays (Fig. 3C).

These graphs are remarkable in two ways. The bar graphs show the large quantity of edits by Beth (Hordaland). The spot graphs show the time of day when she made her edits. They show the imprint of her circadian disorder. She was mostly awake at night but could be awake at any time of day or night, in contrast to the other contributors who did not have a circadian disorder and whose edits were at more consistent times.

There is a discussion of the interaction of “citizen encyclopedists” and scientists in Wikipedia.

Among the CC and CR contributors, we identified
those whom we call “citizen encyclopedists,” like
Hordaland, who played a role that has historically
been reserved for academics…

As well, real-world scientists active in Wikipedia
also contributed, functioning as a specific kind of
reviewer who could be labeled a “scientific gatekeeper.”…

Reading through Wikipedia’s talk pages, we also
located interactions between these two different
types of authors (lay and expert). For example,
Hordaland periodically edited another article called
“Bacterial circadian rhythms,” which was opened by
a user identifying as Carl Hirschie Johnson, whom
we independently confirmed to be the clock scientist
from Vanderbilt University. Hordaland exemplifies
how despite Wikipedia’s lax admission standards, it
can attract a different kind of expert—a “lay expert”
(Prior, 2003)—with a personal and vested interest
who may or may not have formal academic training
but who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the relevant
scientific community. Indeed, Hordaland even
thanked Prof. Johnson for writing “a very interesting

In a telling example, after Hordaland changed the
opening section of the CR article to state that
“Circadian rhythms are endogenous and can be
entrained by external cues,” Looie496 wrote to her on
her talk page to say that the word “and” in the sentence
should be replaced with “but,” as the former
“seems confusing to me. . . . Given that circadian
rhythms are generated internally, it will be unexpected
that external cues control them, so the word
‘but’, is needed for clarity” (1744 h, 7 February 2010).
Hordaland responded cordially, offering an alternative
formulation, “hoping this reword[ing] satisfies
us both: ‘Although circadian rhythms are endogenous,
they are adjusted (entrained) to the environment
by external cues called zeitgebers, the primary
one of which is daylight’ ” (1831 h, 8 February 2010).
Looie496 agreed: “That works fine for me, thanks”
(2120 h, 8 February 2010).

These interchanges bring to light an encyclopedic
effort in which laypeople and experts not only write
different parts of the article but also edit it collaboratively.

You couldn’t mess with Wikipedia when Beth was on the case!

For example, a user called Brian Phosphorus made
the following edit to the article for “Circadian
rhythm” (CR) on May 17, 2008:

Circadian rhythms is a rapper from Peabody, Ma. He has yet
to release an album, but he performs many live shows from
his house/car. Born in 1985, CR has an older sister and a
younger brother, and two parents.

The example of the aspiring rapper shows how
people try to use the encyclopedia for self-promotion.
Tellingly, only 7 minutes later a user called Hordaland
deleted the rapper’s unremarkable biography from
the “Circadian rhythm” article, which more readily
defines circadian rhythms as “any biological process
that displays an endogenous, entrainable oscillation
of about 24 hours.”

While I have picked out the sections mentioning Beth’s work, the entire article is worth reading as a fascinating analysis of the cooperation of scientists and interested citizens in adding to the Wikipedia knowledge base. Personally, I have always had a particular interest in the history and philosophy of science, so this article appealed to me in many ways. I know Beth would have found it fascinating as well.

Congratulations to Omer Benjakob and Rona Aviram for an excellent article. Beth would have been proud of you.

1. Benjakob O, Aviram R. A Clockwork Wikipedia: From a Broad Perspective to a Case Study. J Biol Rhythms. 2018 Jun;33(3):233-244.

The article is freely available (three cheers for open access) for download as a pdf file. I highly recommend it.

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