History…The Wikipedia Way???

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

History…Wikipedia Style!

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.

7 Replies to “History…The Wikipedia Way???”

  1. I've always found the notion that Wikipedia is free and open to be a bit deceptive. Some people on Wikipedia are far more "free and open" than others, namely the admins. There have been several documented instances of Wiki drama on the site involving admins with a bone to pick about particular topics doing fascistic policing of edits. Sometimes this is caught, especially in topics with extensive talk pages that people are more likely to pay attention to. Sometimes it isn't. To be fair, I have never experienced such a thing happening on a history page, or seen it in a history talk page. It is worthwhile, however, to look up controversial topics and browse through the talk pages to see the battle scars of these debates in the forms of locks, bans, petitions for deletion, and removal of admin privileges. Then again, such things are common in print resources as well. Some encyclopedias, for instance, carry deeply insulting definitions of terms like atheist, simply because they were published or managed by deeply religious editors. The advantage goes to Wikipedia in a way because talk pages exist, whereas you can't sit in on editorial board meetings at Britannica. I worry though, that with Wikipedia becoming a quick go-to source for factual information, that the nuance of how information gets processed is lost on Wikipedia's larger audience.

    1. Thanks for your comments Peter!

      I have not personally encounter "changing" information either, but then I have not looked for any either. Rosenzweig mentioned a controversy which occurred in the fall of 2005 involving a "false, malicious biography" which appeared under journalist John Seigenthaler's name for more than 4 months. The information claimed he had been directly involved in the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy. After he filed a complaint, Wales removed all references to the information (including the history) from the site. Unfortunately the information was picked up by other sites such as Answers.com and Reference.com and was retained on their sites for nearly a month after it was removed by Wikipedia.

      Episodes such as this bring to light the possibility that Wikipedia is being used as "a quick go-to source" not only by the general public but by other websites as well.

  2. All in all I am a big fan of Wikipedia and the free information that it provides the general public. That being said, in reading the Wikipedia ‘how to’ page on neutral point of view (NPV), I have to wonder if some people writing articles have ulterior motives for doing so. I remember when Wikipedia first started up and people could make up Wikipedia entries for anything without having them fact checked. It seems that Wikipedia has seriously cracked down on these sorts of issues. Even so, every person, regardless of how much they want to remain neutral, will always have their own biases because of their upbringing, education, religion, etc. This is often the case when reading a scholarly work; you have to have an idea of the author’s prejudices in order to read it well. I think that one of the things Wikipedia has going for it is that so many people can edit a page. Do multiple points of view have the power to eradicate bias in a single article? Historian Edward Carr states in his work, "What is History", 'We need a new model which does justice to the complex process of interrelation and interaction between them. The facts of history cannot be purely objective, since they become facts of history only in virtue of the significance attached to them by the historians.' Do you think that Wikipedia is helping to create this ‘new model’?

    1. I'm still debating the whole Wikipedia thing right now. Almost anyone can go in and alter information. What are their credentials? Do they have knowledge of the particular subject? Then I read where Wikipedia's success rate is sometimes better than that of on-line encyclopedias. It is unfortunate that they will not accept groundbreaking papers or commentary even if it comes from noted historians This would have only helped their credibility. They may be good with the details of a pop culture icon, but so is US or People magazine.

      1. Thank you for your comments Dino! According to what I have read about Wikipedia's contributors, they do not have to provide their credentials…they do not even have to use their name…they can contribute ideas anonymously. While Wikipedia stands by their rules…this is one rule I wish they did not have because I would like to know who is contributing information (flawed or correct) to the site.

  3. Great post! I have more substantive things to comment on but I wanted to post this link about a conference held over the weekend which is very much on point for our discussion. http://inkdroid.org/journal/

    One noteworthy quote "If Wikipedia is good enough for the Archivist of the United States, maybe it should be good enough for you."

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