Skeptic of Wikipedia turns into a fan (more or less)





Stephen W. Campbell is a lecturer at Pasadena City College. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 2013 at UC Santa Barbara, analyzes the intersection of newspapers, financial institutions, and state-building in the antebellum era.

As an American historian who studies the political economy of the antebellum period, I have always been fascinated by the panic of 1837—a financial cataclysm that is, according to one recent book, deserving of the term “America’s First Great Depression.” During the 2012–13 winter break, I typed “Panic of 1837” in the Wikipedia search field and found a disjointed entry listing only a few secondary sources. This was vexing, to put it mildly. The editors of Wikipedia had flagged the entry for biased or incomplete information and solicited a “specialist” in US history for improvements.

I took it upon myself to improve the entry, and in the process I discovered important details behind Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy, the ideologically charged subcultures that often tamper with these entries, and a potential explanation for why I was able to rehabilitate the entry successfully. As recently as two years ago, I was a strident Wikipedia critic, having become frustrated by too many Wikipedia-derived answers on student exams. But as I’ll show further, I have grown more optimistic about Wikipedia’s mission and believe that it embodies many of the values that academics hold dear.

Among scholars there is a diverse spectrum of thought on Wikipedia’s utility. Former AHA President William Cronon saw mostly positives in encouraging historians to contribute more to Wikipedia, while Timothy Messer-Kruse’s ordeal underscores the pitfalls of a website that does not distinguish between expert opinion and that of the layperson and whose policy of verifiability precludes content based solely on inaccessible primary sources—making him a vocal Wikipedia critic.1 My position falls somewhere in between.

As I examined Wikipedia’s Panic of 1837 entry more closely, I noticed that practically all of the authors cited in the reference section were hard-line libertarians. The lone “external reference” was an informally written, selectively sourced paper written by an obscure historian who did not list his credentials and which was delivered at a conference hosted by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute (LVMI), an Alabama-based think tank unaffiliated with any university or independent process of peer review....



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