Where Historians fit in the Age of Convenient Open-sources

It’s a warm summer’s day, June 19th to be exact. You’re scrolling down your news feed on Instagram and start to see a flood of posts from your friends with the hashtag #HappyJuneteenth. Based on the tone of the posts, you get a sense that the hashtag relates to some historic milestone. Curiosity draws you to Google search, “What is Juneteenth?” Wikipedia appears at the top of the results, before PBS, Vox, and other accredited news streams. You decide to start your research on the topic with Wikipedia. This choice takes you down a rabbit hole of other fascinating historical articles about the Emancipation Proclamation, American Negro Spirituals and the Galveston Islands. You spend a good amount of time researching all the events, policies, places and people that induced what is now known as Juneteenth. Like many inquisitive minds searching the web for information, you took all the content found on Wikipedia as evidence and did not consider fact-checking your source. Although the information came from an open-source you trusted that every article you read was accurate. According to Roy Rosenzweig, trusting open-sources as citations is a concern historians have against open-sourcing. While their objections may have some merit, he believes academic research and open-source can find a way to co-exist, not just in a state of consistent competition for the users’ attention.
Rosenzweig, an American historian, and digital history pioneer, argues the complexity of user-generated content as a substitution for academic original research. In “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”, Rozenweig dissects the success and shortcomings of Wikipedia and how the software’s presence impacts historians’ work. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia with content generated by public participation. The software has become a well-recognized reference for any and everything that draws your interest. The benefits of using Wikipedia are the fact it’s convenient, free, and, thanks to the General Public License (GPL), provides with users have the ability to share however they choose. There are even rules in place to keep the style, behavior, and content respectable. However, the accessibility and guidelines still do not quite prevent glitches and misinformation from circulating throughout the software.
Wikipedia is not regulated by an academic institution or accreditable group of scholars. Since there is no single author or editor, there is a lot of room for misinformation and plagiarism. Rosenzweig suggests the information could also be bias considering the lack of diversity in Wikipedia authors. Furthermore, Wikipedia is a platform that provides content created and edited by the public. Continuous edits are necessary since the history on Wikipedia is subject to change. However, participation is based on popularity, not every article gets the same attention for revisions. Regardless of the flaws in this model, students and knowledge seekers still prefer to use Wikipedia as a reference.
The trend of students using this open source over history books in a library is not going away and is not necessarily a problem. As Rosenzweig articulates in the reading, the problem is not the open-source, it’s the approach to using it. There are a few suggestions for historians and teachers to get the best outcomes from engaging with open-sources.
Most students stop their quest for research on a topic at Wikipedia’s website. They cite this website without verifying with other sources if the information they found is accurate. In this era of new media, people prefer, “predigested and prepared information without” the additional information to validate it. This is not solely a problem with Wikipedia. Teachers and historians should stress the importance in the critical analysis of all primary and secondary sources rather than isolate Wikipedia as the problem.
Wikipedia is free and accessible while scholarly journals are, well not. If historians have an issue with the misinformation sprinkled in with facts found on Wikipedia, if they believe open- sources bare fruit to poor, low-quality referencing, then why not make their historical work more accessible? Rozenweig suggests two options for historians to compete with the misinformation in open-sources: contribute and revise articles on Wikipedia or make professional scholarly journals more accessible. The brand of Wikipedia is that anyone can write and edit the information in good taste. If historians find the information on Wikipedia misleading, they can change it. Second, subscription-based historical journals are not accessible to everyone. Only people who are in the know with the means to afford it can benefit from the high-quality information available through these subscriptions. If scholars and academic institutions want to compete with open-sources like Wikipedia, then they need to become just as accessible and feasible for users. Otherwise, people will keep gravitating to what is most convenient for them, the free collaborative encyclopedia.
Historians can use open-sources like Wikipedia to their advantage. There does not have to be a competition between academic, single-authored research and content generated by public participation.

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