Blogs > Cliopatria > A Different Take on Wikipedia

Dec 1, 2005 10:21 am

A Different Take on Wikipedia

When it comes to reference and scholarly authority, I disagree to some extent with my fellow Cliopatrians Jonathan Dresner and Oscar Chamberlain that "the odds are better when you're in the stacks", in relation to Wikipedia.

Pick a topic that's been written about by historians or social scientists for fifty years or so. Now go start pulling books off the shelf at random that are concerned with that topic. Start reading the older ones. Some of them are going to be pretty embarassing in terms of factual accuracy and argumentative judiciousness even if they were written within a peer-reviewed norm. Historical scholarship also often passes on claims and arguments made in past work without vetting or revisiting those arguments, and it can often be very surprising to go back and read source material in this light: you find that conventional wisdom about what it says is often wrong, especially for less heavily-trafficked or analyzed sources. I have a student working on a thesis this semester who is looking at some primary materials on colonial India and finding that some common scholarly interpretations of them are in her (entirely reasonable, I feel) reading fairly wrong and in a few cases, wrong because of simple or casual misreadings rather than analytically biased readings.

You might protest that scholarly historians are savvy to this, and don't go picking older or less reliable books off the shelf. Perhaps. But we're talking here about what we advise or permit our students to do, and I wouldn't wager that a student is more likely to find the one most authoritative work by going to the shelves than they are to find information by going to Wikipedia.

Let's take the entry on Afrocentrism on Wikipedia, which I assigned students in my class to read. It's very interesting: hotly contested, often re-written, a battleground between partisans. I'd be uncomfortable using it to make"objective" claims about Afrocentrism, sure. But let's turn to the stacks instead. Who are you going to direct students to: Mary Lefkowitz and Stephen Howe or Molefi Asante and Cheikh Anta Diop? There isn't much in between: you could argue that Gerald Early, Ibrahim Sundiata, and others have written more evenhanded assessments, but partisans on one side or the other would fiercely contest that claim. So what do I tell my students?"Go read ten or fifteen books and then maybe you'll know something" or"Read this Wikipedia entry and the backchannel discussion linked to it". I have no problem with the latter choice.

I would readily acknowledge that there are a few places where Wikipedia is less usefully authoritative than other sources; there are equally many places where it is more so (or where there are no printed sources that contain the terms, concept and names which is defines). Most of the time, it's neither better nor worse in this respect: but it is more accessible, more rapidly, which is all to the good.

For those who trouble to look carefully, Wikipedia even provides a way to track error and malevolent intent that conventional peer reviewed publications do not: you can see the changes others have made. In some respects, Wikipedia is a dream for a historian of knowledge, or for someone interested in intellectual history in general. Look for example at the detailed history of the entry for Social Darwinism. That's pretty interesting. The same thing very well might happen in a scholarly reference work, only we'd never see the hand of canonical inclusion and exclusion at work, or the underlying debates.

Wikipedia also presents a pretty interesting challenge to anyone who has expertise who spots an inexpert entry. With a published encyclopedia, reference or scholarly work, the most you can do is write a critique of that work which might appear in print two to five years later, given peer reviewed publication cycles. By the time your correction or critique appears, the work you are critiquing is in all likelihood regarded as obsolete. If your correction is not widely disseminated, it won't matter anyway. And your correction may well be disputed or regarded as stemming from an epistemological rather than empirical disagreement. With Wikipedia, the challenge is more immediate: write a correction to the entry now. This very minute. Yes, that might feel like being the little Dutch boy with his fingers in the dike: you couldn't hope to be a good steward to more than a few entries. At the same time, the impact of your correction is immediate, indisputable and potentially very potent.

This isn't to say that there aren't ways for Wikipedia to improve on what it does, to make it harder to vandalize the site or to carry out crank vendettas in unwatched entries. Nor would I tell my students to trust it. But I don't tell them to trust historical scholarship, either. In both cases, there are skills involved in knowing what to trust and when to trust it. Wikipedia is a good opportunity to teach information literacy for the 21st Century: in many ways, a better opportunity than the books in the stacks.

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Timothy James Burke - 12/6/2005

Ok, then I don't get your problem with Wikipedia, really. If you do all that work on research assignments, then what's the beef? I don't blame Time Magazine if students who have been given extensive research guidance from me just go and quote an article from there instead. It's not Time's fault; it's not Wikipedia's fault if the students decline your extensive guidance. It's fine to steer students away from Wikipedia for such purposes: if they still go there, that's neither your problem nor the problem of Wikipedia.

I see no reason to prefer the Encyclopedia Brittania on-line for quick reference purposes. Here we simply disagree: I don't think Wikipedia on average is any worse than the Encyclopedia. Moreover, it has entries on many subjects that the Encyclopedia Brittania does not: it is actually far more attentive to the range of topics and names for which a student might want a quick and dirty reference.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/4/2005

If you have assignments where you expect the students to go find information, then I think you have to make the time to explain how to do that, to explore the way information exists in the world and the tools used to find it. If you sacrifice that teaching to some other kind of coverage, then I don't think you should blame Wikipedia for bad results: its bad usage is only a symptom of something deeper.

Gee whillikers, Prof. Burke, thanks so much for explaining what I've been doing wrong all these years. It's all my fault, I see it now. All my detailed syllabi, my step by step research and analysis assignments, my carefully selected and discussed readings, all my students' sessions with the librarians, all wasted because I didn't explain wikipedia to my students.

GMAB, please. It's not like there weren't encyclopedia before, lots and lots of books and articles in the library to pick through, and lots of opportunities for students to take shortcuts before the glorious digital revolution. I'm trying to teach my students, as I'm sure you are, how to creatively read primary sources, to evaluate the relevance of evidence in relation to questions, how to come to a conclusion and support it with evidence, etc. I've chosen to create (mostly) assignments which focus on restricted sets of sources and specific questions so that they can work on those skills. When I give open research assignments, there's always a bibliographic stage in which they search for and evaluate sources.

I do know what I'm doing, I think. Yes, I choose not to engage Wikipedia directly. No, it is not because I'm not teaching my students about research and analysis skills; it's because I don't think wikipedia is worth it, yet, given the skills my students still need to master and the inconsistency of quality.

For "quick and dirty," I'd still rather my students go to Encyclopedia Brittanica On-line, or something like that. No, it's not perfect, but it's a damn sight closer than Wiki.

Timothy James Burke - 12/4/2005

I'm sure a bit of it is difference in students, and another bit of it is difference in the structure of assignments.

But I'm not sure most of my students are that different from yours in terms of what happens if I give them a research assignment. It's not that they're lazy, or go running to Wikipedia and stop. It's that nobody has really showed them how to navigate through the structure of information as it exists. The paradox is that as our information-seeking tools get richer and more powerful, it gets harder and harder to find things even for fairly experienced students, because any query brings either a flood of information or no information at all (because the query is malformed in some respect). If you have assignments where you expect the students to go find information, then I think you have to make the time to explain how to do that, to explore the way information exists in the world and the tools used to find it. If you sacrifice that teaching to some other kind of coverage, then I don't think you should blame Wikipedia for bad results: its bad usage is only a symptom of something deeper. I think historians are actually extremely well-suited for that.

For other purposes, though, nothing wrong with Wikipedia. I had students look at some entries on cultural theory before a discussion in my class on that; I recommended a reading group I'm supervising look at the entries on Zimbabwe and Zambia for background to a novel they're reading. For the provision of quick "confirmational" information, Wikipedia is very useful, perhaps more useful than any previously existing encyclopedia or reference work. As a research instrument, it's not useful--but then neither would any encyclopedia or compendium be.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/4/2005's a source, and like any source its claims have to be evaluated critically. ("Information literacy" is what we used to call "critical thinking" with a layer of "ohmigod these kids watch too much tv.")

We're talking about two very different issues, you and I. I'm talking about the student who's writing a paper for World History, or even one of my Japan classes, who ignores the fact that the information they need is in the books I assigned (or, for research papers, doesn't find it on her first library catalog search and then says "there's nothing there") and googles or wiki's his way to something that "looks right." I'm talking about massive plagiarism. I'm talking about first and second year students, non-history majors.

You're talking about students with whom you can spend time talking about intellectual provenance and theoretical discourse. You're talking about students who are, under your guidance, working through primary sources and comparing them to the secondary literature. You're talking about advanced students with historiographical training.

Maybe you have more of them than I do. But I don't have time to work through every entry relevant to my assignments, and I have never gotten good results from wiki-students.

Alan Allport - 12/1/2005

These may be urgent issues for geneticists and astronomers, but I'm neither, and I'll leave the problems of other disciplines to their students. History, on the whole, is far more quiescent.

John H. Lederer - 12/1/2005

"(the point is surely about the balance of probable reliability - the aforementioned odds - not whether one form of evidence is always right or not)"

That is why I inserted my comment about currency.

If what is one is concerned about is accuracy of knowledge and not the definition of "error", books have a serious problem. They are in general "wrong" about anything for the last 1-5 years, simply because they do not include it.

If you throw that into the equation, books may not be more reliable sources, even though they might be more correct about what they cover.

For example, the mapping of the human genome is a relatively recent thing. It has all sorts of implications for various theories because it permits measure of basic differences.

But to a large degree this is an online discussion , covered in some periodicals, but accurately in few if any books because it is too recent.

Or take another example: some recent breathtaking photos of one of Saturn's moons shows an outward eruption from one of the moon's poles that appears likely to provide the material for one of Saturn's rings. Who'd a thunk it? Likely not any of the books that discuss Saturn's rings.

Alan Allport - 12/1/2005

Notwithstanding Tim's interesting rebuttal, Jonathan and Oscar's claim that "the odds are better when you're in the stacks" still seems to me to hold true; the fact that traditional peer-reviewed print sources from well-established publishers can also sometimes be in error does nothing to change that (the point is surely about the balance of probable reliability - the aforementioned odds - not whether one form of evidence is always right or not).

Rob MacDougall - 12/1/2005

Thanks, Tim. That's a very nice statement of some things I was stumbling towards in my comments on the other post.