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The Wikipedia, Possibilities and Opportunities

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Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the Wikipedia, has been interviewed by Charlie Rose (a Wikipedia fan) several times. You’ll learn a lot about the Wikipedia quickly if you watch videos of these interviews and you’ll appreciate the idealism behind the effort.  A Stephen Colbert-Jimmy Wales encounter (there’s a lot of Colbert-Wikipedia history) will alert you to the most persistent complaint against the resource: its accuracy.  Colbert ends this 24 May 2007 interview saying: “It’s the first place I go to when I’m looking for knowledge, or when I want to create some.”  Incidentally, if I were looking for biographical information on the men mentioned above, I’d turn first to the Wikipedia, wouldn’t you?  I occasionally drop into the Wikipedia from my Kindle while reading.

The point is that the Wikipedia includes an enormous number of entries on a huge and expansive diversity of topics, and often achieves comparatively acceptable levels of accuracy through the ongoing efforts of anyone who wants to pitch in. The Wikipedia has been studied a lot: as of 24 August 2010, over 200 monographs and 50 dissertations had pondered it in some way (Taemin Kim Park, “The Visibility of the Wikipedia in Scholarly Publications,” First Monday 16, no. 8 (1 August 2011).  It would be difficult to find someone in academia who has not heard of the Wikipedia, let alone not used an entry found through a Web search.  The peer reviewed open access internet journal First Monday has featured many articles on the Wikipedia and I’ve reviewed several for what follows.  The Wikipedia has become part of contemporary culture; see the Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia in Culture.

You can watch the Wikipedia grow as its edits pop up across a map of the world .  It is not especially hard to learn broadly about the Wikipedia because the source tells you about itself through, what else, Wikipedia entries.  Potential contributors can start by clicking on Help on the left frame of any entry or enter Wikipedia as a search term.  For the Wikipedia’s accuracy see the entry Reliability of the Wikipedia, potential contributors should read Contributing to the Wikipedia and contributors who want to have an enduring and identifiable presence (based on their chosen user name) should read Why Create An Account?  At least one professor was awarded tenure based on his Wikipedia contributions.  A search in Amazon turns up some guides/manuals for anyone who is considering contributing or simply interested, see John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (2008) and How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It by Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates (2009).  There’s much about the Wikipedia that should appeal to scholars and instructors and some things that will be frustrating and frightening as well.

The Wikipedia is not exactly the Wild West; there are many policies and guidelines – and eventually (quickly, someday, maybe) even consequences and corrections when they are violated – what’s lacking is a controlling editorial and curatorial presence. Featured Content and Good Articles are the best of the Wikipedia, meeting its standards for citing sources, what constitutes a reliable source and neutral point of view; but the pieces that do not meet these standards vastly outnumber those that do. Neutral point of view is something that might confuse many academics, as well as student contributors. Taking a stand or expressing an opinion in a Wikipedia entry– or including original research that cannot be footnoted — is not desired. Everything is supposed to be documented.

Studies have been conducted that suggest that students realize the Wikipedia’s information should be corroborated; but its credibility does not trump its many advantages: it’s free, it’s easily searched, and it covers just about every field of study or endeavor.  Some studies argue that it is a bridge between the really unreliable and traditional scholarly sources.  And students, in some studies, state what is the obvious: it’s a good place to begin, for assessing the lay of the land and acquiring the vocabulary to proceed further; but it is never a good place to end.  If we’re honest, many of us reading this will admit that we’ve used a Wikipedia article in these ways; but will counter that we know just how far to trust.  Knowing that so many people use the Wikipedia — and that many of them may not know how certain such trust should be – has led to calls for scholars to contribute to and monitor entries in their areas of expertise.

The Wikipedia has actively courted academics for a while.  For instance, there is the Project United States Public Policy/Campus Ambassadors program. Ambassadors, a concept born of and tested in the above project, may be students, faculty, staff, anyone really who “provide[s] face-to-face Wikipedia training and support on university campuses, particularly in classes where the instructors are interested in incorporating Wikipedia-editing into the curriculum.” They are also available to students regardless of the student’s affiliation. Perhaps UB should have a campus ambassador?  Most recently the American Sociological Association has encouraged its members to improve the Wikipedia and use it in teaching: “The ASA is calling on members to use the power of Wikipedia to represent the discipline of sociology as fully and as accurately as possible. Additionally, we seek to promote the free [link leads to supporting material for the initiative] teaching of sociology worldwide.”  See the 6 January 2012 Research Blog of the American Sociological Association.  The American Historical Association, according to reporting in the 18 November 2011 Inside HigherEd, may also consider the issue and reported the ASA’s action in its blog AHA Today, 24 November 2011. The Association for Psychological Science also has an initiative as does the Wikimedia Foundation with the Public Policy Initiative; see also Public Policy Initative Learning Points. From this Initiative and Wikipedia’s Education Program, see: Information for instructors, Wikipedia Ambassadors’ portal on English Wikipedia, and Wikipedia United States Education Program.  See especially the useful collection of online tutorials.

The Wikipedia offers many instructional possibilities as well as ways, of varying intensity and nature, to contribute to the resource’s growth in size and quality.  This is beyond telling students not to cite the Wikipedia, something that is widely done across academia and even made a rule by Middlebury College’s history department in 2007. Although many scholars contribute to encyclopedias, it is not uncommon for them to discourage encyclopedia citations in college-level papers.  This is despite the fact that such sources we pay for as Gale Virtual Reference Library (or more precisely the sources in it) are far more reliable than the Wikipedia. But this content is not as easily found as Wikipedia content.  A student perspective on the Wikipedia issue, which is still discussed at Middlebury, can be found in the college’s student paper The Middlebury Campus, 5 December 2011.  What some instructors have spurned; others have embraced.  For some examples of instructional use, in addition to what already has been mentioned in the above paragraphs, see Wikipedia: school and university projects and Wikipedia:FAQ/Schools.  I personally find compelling the suggestion that having students write and load a Wikipedia entry as part of their course work dignifies the work by giving it a value beyond a grade. Monitoring what happens to the entry can also be instructive and has been part of some instructional designs.  In addition to students in courses, libraries (the University Libraries has done this in some instances), and really any institution, can contribute to the Wikipedia by simply adding footnotes and links for its collections and works to appropriate articles.  The collaborative work of the British Museum with Wikipedians is a stellar example of entry creation and in June 2011 the National Archives announced selection of a Wikipedian in Residence.

Roy Rosenzweig, in many respects the father of digital history, founded the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, now the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.  He saw the promise as well as the challenges and deficiencies of the Wikipedia in “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (June 2006): 117-46.  Insightful and detailed, it is essential reading.  Focusing on history, he observes that Wikipedia material is uneven, that biographical entries are usually well done and better than the far more problematic thematic entries and that accuracy comparisons with traditional works are favorable.  He tentatively concludes that professional historians should join with “popular history makers” in writing history in the Wikipedia.  The Wikipedia is also taken up in the first episode of the podcast Digital Campus, maintained by members of the Center, entitled Wikipedia: Friend or Foe? (start in the middle and for ongoing Digital Campus Wikipedia commentary click here).  The podcast considers the ability of the Wikipedia to teach students how knowledge is constructed by recounting a specific course assignment.

Future scholars — and historians in particular — will be indebted to the Wikipedia as a primary source.  It will be used with care; but it will suggest changing perceptions and interpretations and capture the broad and minute nuances of change across time because entries are works in progress.  It can do this because every Wikipedia article can be reconstituted to reflect a version at any point in time.  It is an encyclopedia with a restore key and every edit is a restore point.  To accomplish this, select “View history” on the upper right of any entry.  To view what often amounts a historiographical conversation about an entry or elements of an entry, select “Talk” on the upper left of any entry.  For instance, a 7,000 page 12 volume book was published showing the edits for the entry on the Iraq War, December 2004 – November 2009.  For a discussion of this effort at the conference dConstruct 2010 listen to The Value of Ruins.  The Wikipedia is discussed half way through this enlightening and humorous 12 minute recording; but it’s worth listening from the beginning.

In protest of the feared passage of the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA)  and the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), on 18 January the English-language Wikipedia went dark.  Links are to the respective Wikipedia entries, which are semi-protected.  Foreign-language versions, which in some instances serve needy parts of the world, and of course their governments are not considering this legislation, remained up.  The duration of the blackout was surely too brief for many to realize how weak the Web would be without the Wikipedia.  How to survive the blackout was a topicAlone, the Wikipedia stands as an immensely powerful tool and, in addition, many sites depend on the Wikipedia for their content.  Wikipedia is not the most authoritative of sources; but it is free.  Free to access, freely contributed to, and its content may be freely used.  As Dan Cohen observed on 20 December 2005 “anyone can download the entirety of Wikipedia and use it and manipulate it as they wish .”  In fact, the Wikipedia is the corpus for many text mining projects, see DBpedia and H-Bot.  Free is a very powerful thing.  And it is free not only fiscally, it is free intellectually.  Wiki software, invented by Ward Cunningham, makes the Wikipedia possible and allows it to be democratic, even if despite its impressive organizational efforts it sometimes seems teetering on the edge of chaos and its overall quality is definitely uneven.

Wikipedia serves a purpose beyond academia; it provides an opportunity for individuals, possessing varying levels of expertise, to contribute to the public good.  When the process works as it should, this is done through dialogue and cooperation. The Wikipedia is the product of an inclusive and welcoming community. Useful and inspiring, it’s free to everyone – and all indications are that just about every kind of person uses it – although not all in the same way.   For reflections occasioned by its 10th anniversary, visit Sue Gardner’s Blog, 14 January 2011.  Gardner is the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit charitable organization that operates the Wikipedia and other wiki projects.

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