Wikipedia and Its Place in the Field of History

Roy Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source?” brings up many relevant questions concerning the relationship between academic history/historians and Wikipedia. Though he ultimately supports a greater integration of historians into open source, free Internet sites such as Wikipedia, the beginning of his article thoroughly outlines the seeming incompatibility between the “laws” of historians and the set up of Wikipedia. Besides his premise that history is a “deeply individualistic craft” rather than a communal effort, his most important insight for me was Wikipedia’s emphasis on neutrality.

As future/current historians, we all know the value and necessity of arguing a point in our works. To this end, in addition to the weaker bibliographic information, anonymity, deemphasis on status (an individual with a PhD is not given prominence over a “typical” Wikipedian), and different value placed on certain facts (such as in the section where he is talking about James McPherson and what Wikipedians emphasize in their post on Lincoln as opposed to McPherson, or where Rosenzweig states Wikipedia is fueled more by popular news than academic historiography), Wikipedia appears to be the antithesis of “proper” history.

However, Rosenzweig is successful in two things: his attempt to legitimize the facts and articles on Wikipedia as factual, and arguing the venue of Wikipedia (as a free, open source, easily accessible site) would be a wonderful and important avenue historians could take to integrate a wider audience into historical works and debates. His point that Wikipedia is also run/edited by white, educated males and has a Western bias was also a very interesting point in regards to discussing history.

Honestly, I use Wikipedia to look up what year so-and-so was born. Or what year that movie was made. And that’s about it. I cringe, I’ll admit, when student cite Wikipedia as a source in their papers. Yet this article did somewhat assuage my fears that their information was entirely misguided. Despite the potential, as Rosenzweig outlines, for false information to stay on the site, Wikipedia apparently is factually accurate in general.

Though I feel Rosenzweig makes a good argument for why historians should interact on a larger basis in voluntary communities such as Wikipedia (NARA’s “tagging” archived documents online comes to mind), I’m going to have to argue that the non-historical community would not widely accept accessible, online historiographical information. Part of the reason, I believe, people love Wikipedia so much is because it’s quick and easy. There’s no reading multiple articles to come up with your own analysis, no weighing historiographical arguments, no reading introductions or paragraphs about context. There’s “boom. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861 and it hit the fan.”

While I would love for journals like the JAH to be online, free, accessible, I don’t believe it would either catch on like Wikipedia has, nor do I think it would open the pool of who was posting in these journals. I also agree with Rosenzweig that a majority of professional historians are not ready or willing to give up the tenets of their profession, such as hierarchy among PhDs, antiquarians, etc. Maybe these historians are the ones whose retirement we were discussing last week, but as it is, Wikipedia and academic history, though they have some crossover potential, are at this moment still inherently yin and yang.

(I would like to add that I was questioning my own resistance to calling Wikipedia compatible with academic history as I intend on going into academia. Did everyone have this reaction as well, or do you think there’s a divergence between academic and public history?)

11 Replies to “Wikipedia and Its Place in the Field of History”

  1. Katie,
    I also hesitate to call Wikipedia a site that is useful for thoughtful historical study. I think it is a great way to get introduced to a topic; it can be very helpful in helping one choose or think about a potential research topic, for instance. However, what bothers me most about Wikipedia is that a lot of the pages are not cited properly. How many times have you seen the comment “proper citation needed” next to a statement written in an article? Moreover, often times the sources that are used in Wikipedia articles are not very reputable. Of course, this is not true in every instance, but it occurs often enough to make me question Wikipedia’s value as a source of factual information. I also agree with you that, generally speaking, the public would not be open to a more scholarly approach to Wikipedia. I think most people use it as a quick reference tool and do not want to get bogged down by the long narratives or critical analyses that usually accompanies scholarly work. To me, Wikipedia fulfills its purpose as is. I don’t think incorporating academic thinking or writing into it would satisfy scholars or the general public.

  2. Rosenzweig definitely discusses the problems with sources, though he focuses more on the lack of “historiography” in Wikipedia pages. I also liked his section where he discussed how someone on the internet could look up a question on a variety of sources (he states how widely uses Wikipedia in their answers) and get the same answer from let’s say 6 or 7 pages, therefore making it look like the “truth” or correct answer. Lord knows I’ve done that a number of times. But he does say that in fact these sites may be all based in one false piece of information but due to the structure of Wikipedia and the Internet, feed off of each other.

    I have no real fears Wikipedia and other sites will contain false information, such as Lincoln was related to Calvin Coolidge and his favorite ice cream was rocky road, but when Rosenzweig qualifies that the few pieces of misinformation are not “large” misinformations, I still became perplexed. Even if a page mixes up two dates or switches up a minor fact, that’s still false information that’s out there.

  3. At least in my experience, the biggest problem with Wikipedia isn’t so much factual errors (e.g. dates, locations) but rather issues of tone and POV. Yes, we’ve all come across vandalized Wikpedia pages before they’ve been reverted to their “true” state. For the most part—as others have mentioned—I don’t think users who see these pages are going to think that Jay-Z really was the first man on the moon. However, there are articles—usually dealing with smaller topics or lesser-known people—that are biased in tone/POV and thus don’t read as encyclopedic whatsoever. This is where I think Wikipedia can be subversive and somewhat dangerous in regard to the dissemination of factual information. I’m not sure if this is an issue that can be overcome either.

  4. I agree with previous comments that I am unwilling to use Wikipedia as a source for scholarly information. However, I think that the open source nature of Wikipedia does have a certain appeal for the general public. As we have discussed in class, one of the most significant parts of moving the humanities to a digital format is to promote the idea of shared authority. While Wikipedia may have its issues, it does provide a platform for people who are not formally trained historians to participate in the historical dialogue.

    This idea of shared authority has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, allowing the general public to participate in the creation of historical sources popularizes history as a general topic. However, the move out of the ivory tower always has a downside. As others have stated, Wikipedia is not subjected to the same rigorous standards as an article published in a scholarly journal. Despite these potential problems, I feel that Wikipedia is an important step in the formation of the field of digital humanities.

  5. Bridget, I definitely agree that Wikipedia can be a great tool to democratize/popularize history. My biggest concern, or I guess I should say Rosenzweig’s most important point to me, is the official frowning upon of bias and such in Wikipedia articles. That and the ban on original research is problematic I believe for historians. I understand definitely why Wikipedia doesn’t want every Mo, Larry, and Curly presenting their own “original findings” in articles! But those two “rules” seem to make Wikipedia highly incompatible with academic historians, especially the old grumpy ones. There would have to be some level of compromise by both historians and Wikipedia, but then that brings up the problem of valuing “experts” over everyday Wikipedians. I think the forum/venue is a great setup for a future collaborative, historical Internet site, but maybe Wikipedia itself is just too far along now, too developed to make these changes.

  6. Certainly a good point Katie, I completely agree that historians can utilize the technology and strategies found in Wikipedia on a new website better tailored to professional historians and the public interacting. As the article points out, Wikipedia does have higher ranking moderators for articles, and that is a strategy that can easily be adopted in a Wiki that is more tailored to historians collaborating or connecting with the public.

    You mention that this setup could be in the future, but it seems that academic historians are already far behind their counterparts in other, usually more scientific, disciplines. There certainly are pitfalls to all this technology if you advance without thinking, but taking this to the extreme and acting too timidly and clinging to old ideas could easily result in historians losing what relevance they still have, even amongst there own students. This technology has been around for years and it is past time for historians to learn how to utilize it.

  7. Bias in Wikipedia is relevant to bias found in all sources of information; it goes with the territory of any mode of communication. Thus, while Rosenzweig has a point about Wikipedia, bias is, in fact, found in all books, documentaries and movies, etc.One should always consider the source and in Wikipedia the source is either always changing or unknown. That said, I have used Wikipedia to look up basic information and while it is helpful in that respect, there is also a lot of important information that is omitted. Its best use may be as a starting point for historical information. I also agree that the danger of the internet is that “facts” get repeated on different web sites more quickly than they do in books and those facts are then perceived and accepted as true historical accounts.

  8. Nice discussion here. It seems to me that there is a lot of consensus here, which is good, but in the interest of discussion I am going to try and push back against that consensus.

    1. A lot has changed since Roy wrote this article six years ago. In particular, more and more of the academic community has become involved. For example, check out this amazingly well written article on Science & Romanticism. Like many articles, this one has some very substantive sourcing in it, largely because it was written by Sage Ross who happens to be both a Wikipedian and a Historian of Science.

    2. It remains important for us to remember that Wikipedia brands itself as an encyclopedia and that encyclopedias have traditionally stayed out of the original research publication business. In this sense, the no original research policy strikes me as a great way to help attempt to weed out material that can be externally verified as reviewed.

    3. Since the article, there has been an increasing GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) Wiki movement which has focused on better connecting those at cultural heritage institutions with Wikipedians. Anyone who is mildly interested in this topic should check out the case studies they have developed around partnerships with cultural heritage organizations.

  9. This just got released tonight, I saw it on my RSS feed from AHA. It is an article that is extremely topical to what we have been discussing from this months PERSPECTIVES.

    It is the head of the AHA discussing how historians should deal with Wikipedia. In his words “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He then makes a call to historians to add some things to Wikipedia, particularly an improved entry for the AHA.

    There is some other stuff in the magazine regarding the challenges of the digital age for history and it is definitely worth a read.

  10. Some good points here. I agree with Bridget about the downside of telling history outside the “ivory tower.” The fact that anyone, provided they know how, can put anything they like on an wikipedia webpage epitomizes the democratization of the digital era. While this might seem welcoming and inclusive to many people, it detracts from the professional standards and formats that all of us are quickly learning here in grad school.

    I am intrigued, however, whenever I come across a wikipedia webpage that appears well-documented with authentic primary and secondary sources. I agree with other posters that wikipedia is not fit for professional historical research but it seems to me that there are occasionally posters on wikipedia who are aware of properly citing their sources and adhering to proper standards. I suppose what I am driving at here is that wikipedia, while not acceptably citable in any way, can still be a source for thought provoking ideas that we can further research on our own.

    It reminds me of the point I made in class last week regarding UTube research. I wondered about using UTube time machine for looking at presidential debates and campaigns. As I think we all agreed, citing a clip from UTube in any academic or professional paper would be a mistake. However, that doesn’t mean that UTube or wikipedia are places where we can’t pick up our own ideas and views, and then test those ideas with factually accurate, officially recognized historical information.

  11. I have quite a few comments to make, which I posted on my blog I hope you’ll put up with my rather lengthy reply.

    Can History Be Open Source?: As a historian/educator turned museum professional/Wikipedian/open source advocate, Roy Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source?” has served as the foundation of my current career path and inspiration for me in my research and my perspective on my field. It is what gave me the faith to move forward with this crazy world of cultural heritage and Wikipedia. After reading it I thought, “OK. There’s something to this… and I think I can make it work.” And now here I am, the US Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation and an emerging museum professional working in the largest children’s museum in the world… oh yea, and still a historian and educator at heart.

    GLAM-WIKI: I appreciate that Trevor pointed out in the comments just how far the cultural sector has come in adopting Wikipedia since Rosenzweig’s article was written. I’ve been amazed to see how the GLAM-WIKI initiative has grown around the world. Our goal is to work with cultural organizations to share heritage, resources, and expertise on a digital and globally-accessible platform. But this is just the first step. So far this has involved a lot of image donations & basic metadata content. We need to go deeper and begin to share the contextualized (published) expertise that’s hiding in the filing cabinets of cultural organizations. That’s my goal for the future. And historians have a place in that future.

    The role of the expert in Wikipedia: I am always interested to hear historians discussing their role in contributing to Wikipedia (or, often, perceived lack thereof). For instance, the statement was made, “I don’t think incorporating academic thinking or writing into [Wikipedia] would satisfy scholars or the general public.” I disagree. In my opinion (and in the opinion of many within the Wikipedia community), there is a strong need for experts within Wikipedia, historians included. When experts point to Wikipedia’s fallacies and claim, “there are mistakes, this subject is lacking, etc.”, the Wikipedia community often remarks [[sofixit]]! (Really, [[sofixit]] is a thing.) Wikimedia is working hard on making it easier for anyone to edit Wikipedia, and experts more than anyone understand the need for citations. Rather than complaining about Wikipedia, we really do need the experts to join in. We’re good to go on the big, obvious stuff. There will always be need for help on the little details.

    Neutrality: It was stated that Wikipedia is the antithesis of proper history. I can see this point, but will have to argue it. Wikipedia will always be better if multiple points of view are presented. This is where the academic history will serve an incredibly important purpose within Wikipedia. Published academic articles should be incorporated into Wikipedia articles, not as fact, but as separate interpretations of that topic. This gives it the nuance needed to continually improve Wikipedia. And as new interpretations arise, they can be added. Wikipedia is in fact a living, breathing historiography of our ongoing perspectives on any given topic (just look at any article’s discussion page and History tab!)

    “The non-historical community would not widely accept accessible, online historiographical information.” If I’m understanding this statement in context, it’s saying that there’s not necessarily a need for publicly accessible academic publications. You’re getting this open-web-advocate’s feathers all ruffled with this one (and remember, I’m a historian by trade!) I’d say this is absolutely not true. There will always be use for scholarly, historical publications and these should certainly be made publicly accessible, if for no other reason that to allow them to be integrated into the wider narrative within Wikipedia as a citation. If they’re hidden behind a pay wall, a Wikipedian will not be able to find these new insights to incorporate them (as an additional interpretation) into that topic’s Wikipedia article. Why are we researching if not to disperse our findings?

    Wikipedia, shared authority, and collective intelligence in action. I’m currently researching the role of Wikipedia in the shifting perception of “authority” in the digital museum. In order to make sense of my thoughts, I’ve coined the term “open authority,” as in, there is a place for the respected authority of the museum, and there is a need to be open in sharing this authority and incorporating new perspectives into the broader narrative. Wikipedia is an incredible platform for bringing together the insights of experts, hobbyists, cultural organizations, and community members. Discussions take place on the talk pages and a neutral interpretation of the topic is presented in the article, with appropriate third party sources. Every article is only as good as its contributors. So contribute! Embrace the openness and let Wikipedia do what it does best – to bring together and share knowledge on a global scale.

    On that profound note, I’ll stop for now. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on “open authority,” you can read my definition via the New Media Consortium’s MIDEA blog: “Defining Open Authority in Museums.”

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