Fear and Loathing Wikipedia

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GUEST COLUMNIST

The Wikipedia Edit-a-thon held last weekend was the first of its kind here at UD. At around 11 a.m., dozens of librarians, graduate students, alumni, and members of the community started filing into the fourth floor of the ISE Lab. As the afternoon advanced, the cutting-edge technology of UD’s newest building met with old-fashioned historical research. Using biographies of significant though largely forgotten nineteenth-century African-American activists from UD’s Colored Conventions Project, we tasked attendees to edit or create articles so as to make Wikipedia a more representative hub of information. I find value in these kinds of events because, even as a PhD student, I refer to Wikipedia daily.

The event attracted people from all walks of life, both affiliated and unaffiliated with UD. However, two demographics were largely absent from the event: faculty and undergraduates. Taken together, they made up fewer than 10% of attendees despite being 70% of UD’s population.

Jordan Howell
Jordan Howell

I do not know what kept these two groups from attending in greater numbers. We did, after all, foolishly schedule this event on Ag Day, and people’s lives are busy enough without having to learn about Wikipedia. But I do know that an aversion to Wikipedia has become a troubling trend on college campuses. There’s an old saying in the classroom (you’ve heard it no doubt), that Wikipedia is an unreliable source and should be avoided in research papers. Good advice. Unfortunately, what started out as a warning about research methodology has evolved into a rigid division between academic and Wikipedian communities. In short, I worry that any interaction with Wikipedia now carries a negative connotation.

Faculty have legitimate objections to Wikipedia. Articles can be inaccurate, information poorly cited (if cited at all), and legitimate or meaningful contributions deleted, especially if there is a conflict of interest. Look no further than Phillip Roth’s hilarious complaint in The New Yorker. Wikipedia is also subject to a systemic bias which is the result of 90% of its active contributors being English-speaking white males with internet access. Clearly, Wikipedia should be used with caution, but all of these are reasons for students and faculty to become more involved with Wikipedia, not less. Improving the quality of articles is a worthwhile objective for either group.

For faculty, being an active contributor on Wikipedia provides the opportunity to shape public discourse and promote research, especially among non-academics. This is especially relevant for faculty who support the public humanities and community engagement. Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into the ninth most visited website and has amassed 30 million articles in 287 languages. Hundreds of millions of users visit Wikipedia every month. Wikipedia is the most visible platform for practically all research and historical knowledge in the arts and sciences. By avoiding Wikipedia, faculty not only risk alienating the general public, they also sustain the outdated ivory tower caricature they long to shed.

Students can also benefit from contributing to Wikipedia. Unlike research papers, writing for Wikipedia bears near-immediate results for a real audience. Strong writers who support their articles with credible research will see their contributions survive, even flourish as others append or abridge their work. Conversely, poorly cited or plagiarized articles will likely disappear, often with a critical comment from another editor. Wikipedia is also a platform that can foster social activism, political engagement, and bring together geographically remote though philosophically similar individuals. In other words, it is more helpful to think of Wikipedia not as a faceless entity but as a community of users actively responding to the human condition.

In closing, academia needs to reassess its relationship with Wikipedia. Faculty are right to warn their students about its shortcomings, and students should heed those warnings, but we also need to recognize the potential Wikipedia holds for disseminating the research conducted at institutions of higher education. Call me an idealist, but we can all change the world for the better, and a good place to start is by editing the most extensive reference encyclopedia the world has ever known.

Jordan Howell is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Delaware.

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