I started editing a few Wikipedia articles lately. While I’ve been interested in the project for years, I never seemed to have the time to become involved. Before this past week, I had created an account and fixed a few small details on pages directly related to my expertise, but I never added much content or actively followed pages to maintain their accuracy.
A few months ago I took part in the “Expert participation survey” and in doing so learned about the Wikimedia Research Committee‘s concern about the lack of involvement from scientists, academics and professional experts. The survey asked me to rank the importance of a number of reasons I did not edit Wikipedia more often. The major themes in these questions included lack of time, lack of professional credit/career advancement, and inability to include “original research”. I think the first two are interconnected. Should graduate students or early career historians spent time writing Wikipedia articles when they should be finishing their dissertations or working on their books/articles for peer-review?
I don’t expect job search committees put too much weight on editing Wikipedia when they consider a candidates academic CV. As a friend suggested in my question about editing Wikipedia on Twitter, she already spends enough time doing things that will not help get her a paying job. While none of us want to think purely about advancing our careers (if we all took a CV building mentality to its extreme we’d be terrible teachers and it would be hard to find people to blog for ActiveHistory.ca), we do all hope to get paying jobs some day and finishing the dissertations, books and article require a lot of time.
The third concern, about not writing article based on original research, is equally limiting. The easiest articles that I could edit are the ones on West Ham and the River Lea. I know a lot about this history, as I’ve completed a dissertation on the topic. Wikipedia, however, does not allow any information not found in reputable published sources. It is possible to reference your own publications, but they warn not to do so excessively, as it would raise red flags about self-promotion. So the lack of time, career advancing credit, and warnings against writing about our own research, together creates some high barriers against regular participation from academic historians (not to mention the historians who distrust the whole Wikipedia crowd-sources approach to creating an encyclopedia).
With all these road blocks, why should we bother with Wikipedia? The answer is simple. Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites on the web (currently ranked # 7, behind giants like Facebook and Google, but still ahead of Twitter and Bing). Google and other search engines direct millions of readers to Wikipedia articles daily. One of the goals of ActiveHistory.ca is to connect historians with policy makers, the media and the public. They all use Wikipedia. It is the first source of information for a growing proportion of the world’s population, so it is increasingly important that the information is both correct and expansive.
Other disciplines have recognized the importance of Wikipedia and are working on promoting a more active engagement. The Association for Psychological Science, for example, issued this statement to its members encouraging them to edit Wikipedia:
APS is calling on its Members to support the Association’s mission to deploy the power of Wikipedia to represent scientific psychology as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby to promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide. (APS Webiste)
They also have a good short podcast on their site about the topic.
After having been convinced of the importance of engaging with Wikipedia a few months ago, I’ve finally set aside some time to get started. Last week I decided to look at pages related to environmental history, which is a topic that I’ve read a lot of secondary sources for, giving me the expertise to add content, without relying on my own original research. First, I updated the list of key sources in British Environmental History and then I noticed the lack of attention to Canadian Environmental History. This led me to learn how to start a draft page for a new topic and I’m currently working with a group of Canadian environmental historians to write a new article on their topic. If you would like to help, please visit this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Cljim22/Canadian_environmental_history
You don’t, however, need to jump straight into writing new article for Wikipedia. Simply adding citations is one of the biggest and easiest contribution academic historians can make to improving Wikipedia articles. The process is simple. Click “Edit this Page” on any Wikipedia article and then put your cursor at the location you’d like to add a citation. Then click Citation on the top of the edit screen and choose the type of source from the templates (web, book, journal, news). This brings up a form for you to fill in the author, title, publisher, etc. Finally, add something in the “Edit Summary” box explaining you’ve added a citation and click “Save Page”. If all of us take five minutes to add a citation or two every few weeks, the quality of the history articles will increase and make them an even more useful source for students beginning research projects.
Teaching is the final reason it is important for academic historians to engage with Wikipedia. We need to stop telling our students to avoid it. After they leave university many of them will work in jobs where web searches will be the standard approach to research and information gathering. Instead of telling our students to never use Wikipedia, we need to show them how the articles are created and provide them with the critical skills to judge good articles from bad ones (the number of citations and type of citations and the number of editors are two easy tests to judge the quality of an article). Good articles are ideal for the first stage of research, as they provide lists of further resources on the topic (much like a text book) at the bottom of the page. I still warn student to not use Wikipedia article in their citations, much like my professors warned me to not use the Encyclopedia of Britannica articles in research papers during my first year of university (during the pre-Wikipedia late 1990s). A few history professors have gone beyond teaching students how to use Wikipedia for research and ask their students to write Wikipedia articles as assignments. You can read Frederick Gibbs’ blog post on the topic here. I think it is increasingly important that we teach our students digital literacy and I think a Wikipedia assignment could teach students a wide range of new skills. The site is ranked almost as highly as Facebook after all, so we should teach our students and ourselves how to use it well.
Please leave comments about your experience with Wikipedia.