On Wikipedia

Charles had a nice post a while back on Wikipedia and the changing world of scholarship. He deals pretty well with what wikipedia is (an on-line, collectively edited encyclopedia) and what the pluses and minuses of that are. I use Wikipedia all the time, and it is the first thing I talk to the majors about in the methods class, since I know it is their first choice for research. Still, while some people call it revolutionary, at its heart it is still an encyclopedia. The really significant thing about it is not that it is a better encyclopedia than others, but that it is on-line. To coin a phrase, the medium is the message.

When talking to students about research one of the first things than I have to disabuse them of is the notion that historians do research by looking at all the sources and then thinking about them. We are far too lazy for that. Historians (and I think this applies to other humans as well) do research by looking first at whatever sources of information are quickest to get hold of and easiest to use. Thus if I want to know what names Wang Yangming used I don’t have to go to the office and find a Chinese biographical dictionary. If I want to know where Sage Rosenfels played his college ball I don’t need to go out and buy a reference book on pro football. I just google and up comes Wikipedia.

So if Wikipedia and its successors are going to become everyone’s first stop for research how will this effect us? As Charles points out, Wikipedia is biased towards things that Wikipedians like. It tends to be dominated by white English-speaking peoples, but beyond that it is dominated by the concerns of the on-line world, which is a shadow world that is very much like the real world but also different in certain systematic ways. Korean history gets lots of attention. Thai history does not, one assumes because there are so many more Koreans on-line than Thais. The article on Knights (medieval European guys in armor) is entirely inadequate for anything serious about European history. The article on Jedi Knights is a lot more complete.1 I think the Jedi article is better because it is big enough for the significance of the subject and because it has a lot of crosslinks that let you follow the story pretty much anywhere you want to go, which is one of the advantages of a Wiki.

I think Medieval Europe is more important than Star Wars, and so Knights should be bigger, better, and more crosslinked than Yoda. Obviously Wikipedia disagrees. I think this is going to be a continuing problem. There has always been tension, (sometimes fruitful) between popular and academic history. I think on-line stuff is going to push the balance of power decisively in a popular direction. One could end up with a situation where the distinction between scholarship and fantasy disappears entirely. Click if you dare, to see what Wikipedia says about…Ninja. Not what a scholar would say. I suspect that some parts of Wikipedia will get better over time, but the presentist and popular bias will remain and in some cases get worse.

The other bias Wikipedia has is towards certain types of sources, especially on-line ones. This is a change I have noticed in my own students. When I was an undergrad the sources most history students liked were books. They were easy to find in the card catalog, and the catalog had a subject section. Journal articles were a lot harder to find. You had to find a bibliography of some sort or even worse go through the journal itself. Now students love articles because it is easy to search JSTOR or whatever and find exactly what you are looking for. As Charles pointed out, Wikipedia debates are often settled by volume, but there is also a bias in favor of on-line sources. Who cares what some old book about James Yen says if nobody in the Wikipedian scholarly world can go look at it? I think in the long run this will have a real effect on scholarship. You are who cites you, and to get cited you need to accessable. Google books will help some, but the balance of power in sources is going to shift towards on-line stuff.

  1. I think I got this point from an article in AHA Perspectives, but since I can’t find it on-line it does not exist 


  1. Nice post, Alan, though (like my own piece) maybe too optimistic about Wikipedia. Without mentioning particular articles, some are so offensively and aggressively amateurish that the only prudent strategy might be to ignore them and hope that nobody serious will use them. But then I look at the statistics that hundreds of people a month at least look at the article and maybe believe it.

    So I renew my plea that everyone with knowledge or interest take one or two articles, put them into reasonable shape, and then watch that nobody messes them up.

  2. To me, the bigger problem is that a lot of students (which I am sure you have both encountered) are entirely dependent upon Wikipedia because no one has taught them that an academic paper with only wikipedia based sources is not appropriate. I thought it was a really serious problem at my undergraduate institution, but when I took classes in Hong Kong I found it to be even worse and more unchecked. Once, everyone had to give a short presentation on Mao, and 7 students stood up and read the same Wikipedia article aloud…and the professor did very little. Clearly there are more problems here than Wikipedia, but still. I guess this is my problem, then: that many students are completely ignorant as to the proper use of wikipedia.

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