Is Wikipedia a good reliable source of historical scholarship?
The answer to this question depends upon several factors including, but not limited to our own relationship to historical scholarship. According to Roy Rosenzweig, “History is a deeply individualistic craft” and its scholarship is characterized by the possessive individualism of historians. As historians we are taught to cite our sources, giving credit to other historians for the use of their ideas and words to avoid charges of plagiarism. In contrast, Wikipedia encourages the creation of entries in cooperation with multiple authors, who may be anonymous. Wikipedia allows users to freely copy and use the entries found on their site in a variety of ways. Teachers can make copies to use in their classes, students can copy and use the articles in their papers, authors can use the information in books, and anyone with a website can copy information found on Wikipedia to their website. The only restriction imposed by Wikipedia regarding the use of these entries is…”you may not impose any more restrictions on subsequent readers and users than have been imposed on you”.
What is Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is a free, open, collaborative source which first appeared on the World Wide Web in January 2001. The idea behind Wikipedia was originally developed in 1999 by Richard Stallman who proposed a website called GNUpedia. The following year Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales and Larry Sanger, the driving forces behind Wikipedia, developed and launched Wikipedia’s predecessor – Nupedia in March 2000. This was followed quickly by Wikipedia in January 2001. The WikiWikiWeb software which enabled the creation of Wikipedia was developed in the mid 1990’s by Ward Cunningham. Since its premier Wikipedia has become the largest, most widely read and most important free historical source. Wikipedia has its own set of rules which are intended to regulate participation, however the co-creator and the site’s editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger resigned in 2003 in response to the projects “tolerance of problem participants and its hostility toward experts”.
The Wikipedia Way…
Wikipedia has its own set of policies and guidelines, which are “policed” by both volunteers as well as The Wikipedia Foundation. The Wikipedia Foundation consists of five members including Wales, two of his business partners and two elected members who retain the power to “ban users” from the website.
There are four “key” policies which should be adhered to in using Wikipedia. They include:
1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and therefore personal essays, dictionary entries, critical reviews, propaganda, advocacy and original research are excluded. Basically, Wikipedia wants the accepted history summarized on the site and discourages anyone, especially historians from breaking new ground with original research.
2. Avoid bias – All entries must be void of any bias effectively remaining neutral on all subjects – especially volatile ones. Rosenzweig compares Wikipedia’s “founding myth” of neutrality with Peter Novak’s “founding myth” of the historical profession, “objectivity”.
3. “don’t infringe copyrights”
4. Respect other contributors
Is Wikipedia a good, reliable resource for historical scholarship? This question keeps resurfacing and for good reason. Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia and therefore is not a good, reliable resource for any student beyond middle school. Like other encyclopedias the information contained within the entries is limited with a neutral point of view and therefore void of opinion.
Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a white board site which enables readers to edit the information contained within any entry. The collaborative writing style encouraged by Wikipedia increases the possibility that Wikipedia entries could be altered at any given time, a characteristic which prevents its use as a reliable source of historical scholarship.
Why should historians and educators care about Wikipedia? The answer to this question is simple…because our students do! Personally, when I returned to school in 2002 I had not heard about Wikipedia, but I learned quickly. During my undergraduate and master’s programs my history professors warned us against using Wikipedia for several reasons…
1. It was new technology and they did not trust the information.
2. The constantly changing information within the entries
3. It is an encyclopedia and college students should never use an encyclopedia as a source
I have been teaching history at a community college since last spring and in my syllabus under instructions for research papers I tell my students, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for your paper. My primary reasons for this are that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and the collaborative nature of the site which potentially results in changing and/or inaccurate information.
Roy Rosenzweig leaves us with an idea, a challenge in regard to Wikipedia’s popular history. It is his tentative belief that “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”. He challenges historians to devote one day to review and improve those entries which cover their area of expertise. Participating in this project would enhance the quality of Wikipedia.