BERKELEY -- Citing Wikipedia in a research paper may still be a huge faux pas, but for a growing number of college students, the online encyclopedia is now the assignment.

Enter 24-year-old Kevin Gorman, UC Berkeley's new Wikipedian-in-residence.

In January, the campus hired the Wikipedia devotee (interests: wild mushrooms, women in philosophy) to coach students and advise professors on the deceptively complex task of editing articles for the user-generated encyclopedia that gets 500 million monthly visitors.

"The goal of cultural institutions is in large part to share knowledge, to make their information accessible to the general public," Gorman says. "I think it would be really, really cool to get that information online one way or another so its access will no longer be limited to people at Berkeley who have Berkeley credentials."

Rather than write term papers to be read by a professor and forgotten, students at UC Berkeley and elsewhere are being asked to make their mark on the site. More than 150 universities nationwide -- including the University of San Francisco and California Maritime Academy -- have classes producing content for the encyclopedia, according to Wiki Education, a foundation created in July to support such projects.

"Students are the fuel of Wikipedia," said Frank Schulenburg, who directs the foundation.

Cal is the first American university to create a position devoted to improving the site -- and getting its own rarefied scholarship out to the public. Some museums around the world have Wikipedians and Harvard's Houghton Museum last week advertised for one.

Gorman has edited Wikipedia obsessively since his undergraduate days at Cal. But don't call him a "WikiGnome," as UC Berkeley did in a 2012 headline about the 6-foot-5 undergraduate geography major. "I have no idea why someone chose to call me that a couple of years ago," he said.

Aside from interviews -- news about the position caught the attention of reporters in Germany and Spain, he said -- Gorman has spent his first weeks on the job training students, teaching assistants and professors how to produce and source Wiki articles, a more complicated task than it might seem.

Changes need to be explained, and they often are discussed with other editors at length, in an article's "talk" page. Subjective or weakly sourced entries may be deleted, something junior Katrina Anasco hopes doesn't happen to her group project on the Toxic Substances Control Act.

"It definitely opened my eyes to how much work it is to actually get an edit into a page," said Anasco, a student in professor Dara O'Rourke's environmental justice class.

Gorman and Schulenburg say college students bring needed racial and gender diversity to a site dominated by young white men, many of them computer programmers. While the site has more than 4.5 million entries, the information tends to be skewed to their topics and perspectives.

Search for a battleship or sports car and the resulting article will likely be "gorgeous" in its detail, Schulenburg said. But, as Gorman has pointed out, articles about female philosophers were decidedly lacking.

Gorman has filled some of those gaps himself. And now, editing Wikipedia articles is part of the curricula in environmental justice and cultural studies courses taught by O'Rourke and Victoria Robinson.

The students will tackle existing articles on air pollution, urban agriculture, hydraulic fracturing (also known as "fracking") and a toxic waste dump near Kettleman City, south of Fresno.

The Kettleman City site has been fined for failing to report hazardous waste spills. However, Gorman says, "all Wikipedia has about the entire controversy is a paragraph that almost looks like it was written by a PR person for the toxic waste dump." ("The company is an important employer and donates significant funds to the local community, including Kettleman City Elementary School," it says in part.)

Even before Gorman became Cal's official Wikipedian, a job funded by grants, he volunteered. With his help, Robinson said, her students published information from peer-reviewed sources about public interest topics such as incarceration alternatives and three-strikes laws.

"There's a sense of great pride that they've contributed to public knowledge," Robinson said. "Oh, my God, now the world can see their work."

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.