Whither – Or Whether – Wikipedia?

Originally posted by eugene on 02/19/07

The poll on the right side of the site today, “Should we ban Wikipedia citations?” finally got me to sit down and write this diary that has been brewing for at least six months in my head, regarding the place of Wikipedia in the production of history.

Much of this is informed by Roy Rosenzweig’s essay in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of American History, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”. It’s a longish, but VERY good, read. What I will offer here will be, I hope, much more succinct.

Partly as a result of Rosenzweig’s article, and partly through my own interactions with Wikipedia figures (disclosure: one of my best friends from high school wrote the Wiki software and is their CTO), I have come around from my initial disdain and disregard for Wikipedia. I think it has its uses, is more accurate than people give it credit for – in a way – and presents an interesting but imperfect opportunity for historians to engage a wider public in the production of knowledge. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but we are wrong to dismiss it wholly.

Rosenzweig argues that

your assessment of Wikipedia as history depends a great deal on what part you touch. It also depends, as we shall see, on how you define “history.”

What he means is that Wikipedia focuses only on a particular kind of historical knowledge – fact-based encyclopedic knowledge. To put it simply, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and preferences simple facts over the kind of historical interpretations that we see as the core of our study.

Rosenzweig’s own investigation, along with that of Nature magazine, suggest that Wikipedia IS generally an accurate source of information:

Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history. In the 25 biographies I read closely, I found clear-cut factual errors in only 4. Most were small and inconsequential. Frederick Law Olmsted is said to have managed the Mariposa mining estate after the Civil War, rather than in 1863…Wikipedia, then, beats Encarta but not American National Biography Online in coverage and roughly matches Encarta in accuracy. This general conclusion is supported by studies comparing Wikipedia to other major encyclopedias.

Larger articles, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Persia are less prone to factual error, but suffer from a deeper problem: emphasis and content. It is relatively easy to pinpoint the dates of FDR’s presidency – but assessing the impact of the New Deal, his own role in shaping economic growth, things like that, are not something that lend themselves to cut and dried factual writing. These are ongoing debates, ones that we historians still have amongst ourselves.

And it is for that reason that Rosenzweig ultimately argues that historians should not only take Wikipedia seriously, but should get involved in the project. He believes that since Wikipedia is so widely used, and because so many of our students see it, historians have an obligation to be a part of it to help shape the public historical knowledge that we as scholars and writers are all interested in. He argues:

If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible. And if every member of the Organization of American Historians devoted just one day to improving the entries in her or his areas of expertise, it would not only significantly raise the quality of Wikipedia, it would also enhance popular historical literacy. Historians could similarly play a role by participating in the populist peer review process that certifies contributions as featured articles.

Here Rosenzweig addresses a more fundamental issue Wikipedia presents – the democratic nature of historical knowledge. Wikipedia is so popular, I would argue, because many people on this earth have an interest in history and want to write about it. Academics have for too long disdained popular history, and we should involve ourselves in its production – to some degree. Academic views of popular history are not specious, as much popular history lacks the sort of analytical sophistication that we rightly value. And yet it does continue to exist, and as Rosenzweig says, we should be involved in its creation.

Further, I support the democratization of the production of historical knowledge. And we historians, who are trained in methods of assessing sources, who know what has been written, who know what claims have held up in the face of new research and what claims are simply myth, would do well to help show others how this is done. We teach our students how to use primary sources to make historical arguments – perhaps, we can accomplish similar ends with Wikipedia.

I say perhaps, because it is worth noting that Wikipedia remains imperfect. Rosenzweig notes that Wikipedia has a ban on original research, limiting what some of us might be able to offer the project. Moreover, there are continuous flamewars and debates that mirror the crippling “meta” arguments that too often cripple the left blogosphere. Sometimes these are resolved by putting two “sides” of a claim on an article in the interest of “balance” even if one side is something that is clearly nonsensical (conservatives try to do this a lot at Wikipedia, especially with global warming articles).

Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy, which creates some of the situations I just described, further limits the way we historians can contribute to the site. Many of our interpretations might well be seen as violating NPOV, and the Rosenzweig article mentions some instances where historians who did try to contribute saw their work neutered under this rule. Since I don’t think historical objectivity is either possible or even desirable, the NPOV is something I have a hard time with.

Teaching

My above thoughts are either based on or responding to elements of Rosenzweig’s article. Here I offer some thoughts derived from my experience as a TA and instructor at the collegiate level.

I’ve had the experience many of you may have had with Wikipedia, where students cite it and assume that is all the research they need to do for the paper. I have learned that the fault there is not with Wikipedia, or even with the student, but instead it is usually a result of inadequate teaching.

For students to do well on a research paper, they need to know how to find good sources, and how to evaluate their usefulness. I would never assign a research paper to students unless I had already taught them how to make those basic judgments of historical literacy. Nor would I assign it unless I knew a subject well enough to advise them on sources.

Some instructors prefer an outright ban on citing Wikipedia in essays. That may be useful in steering students to more useful sources, just as assignments that force students to use only a few sources to make an argument and ban “outside sources” can both help focus the student as well as mitigate against Internet plagiarism.

But I think that since our students know Wikipedia, we should play to that, in a way. I have been crafting an assignment that I will use the next time I teach 20th century US, or California, history. I will ask students to write a Wikipedia article. It’ll have to be an article that doesn’t already exist, and on a subject where they can find good sources. I’ll have them post the article on a website (I have a basic knowledge of the MediaWiki software and so I’d create a class wiki) and then have them do peer review of the draft articles. Once they’ve got it refined, then they turn it in for the final grade. Any article that gets an A grade would be one I’d suggest they submit to Wikipedia, or one I’d post on my own site (I’m considering making a local history wiki).

I’m still refining the assignment, but I think it would be a good way for them to see how Wikipedia is made, for them to learn how to critically evaluate what they read, and for them to put their skills to public use. If I ever do it, I’ll let you all know how it goes!

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