Do you edit Wikipedia?

      11 Comments on Do you edit Wikipedia?

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, 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 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:

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.

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11 thoughts on “Do you edit Wikipedia?

  1. Ian Milligan

    Great post, Jim. I used to be a far more active editor on Wikipedia than I am now (I once hoped to use Wikipedia as a foil in a conference paper until I realized that the text I was hoping to make fun of had been written by me three years earleir!).

    Another roadblock I’ve encountered amongst professors and graduate students is an active expression of antipathy towards wikipedia. They’re occasionally disdainful towards people who even use wikipedia. This might be diminishing a bit, but it’s still out there.

    I agree that we need to engage with Wikipedia more!

  2. Ian

    I agree, great post Jim. I think the ‘no Wikipedia’ rule is becoming increasingly problematic and that, as teachers, we need to engage more directly in how we want our students to use resources like Wikipedia. Our own participation is definitely a good first step in that direction but we could even start giving our students assignments that include updating Wikipedia entries based on some of their own readings of relevant peer reviewed academic books and articles.

  3. Ian

    Yikes! I just realized that the last paragraph didn’t show up on my RSS feed. Even better post than I originally thought. Thanks again, Jim.

  4. Fred Bauder

    Thoughtful post. Actually, your record of editing Wikipedia can be used for references and for credit towards tenure. Every edit you made is preserved as a record of your contributions which can be linked to with a url. Exemplary work such as improving articles to featured status is very obvious and should be pointed out in your curriculum vitae. Every edit you made is there for a fair-minded person to see, including your, hopefully, helpful comments on talk and policy pages.

  5. Ian Milligan

    As Fred Bauder points out, the information of edits, etc. is all available. A forward thinking Tenure and Promotion (T & P) committee would easily be able to see one’s record and probably even infer the contributor’s impact to advancing wikipedia.

    Unfortunately, I think T & P committees often narrowly construe their criteria due to the individuals involved or, more likely, the guidelines they have. At least in Canada, where our universities are all generally focused on research, the only standard seems to be peer-reviewed publications. If book reviews are generally considered to be of little value, I suspect wikipedia contributions are not.

    Then again – all this means is that the next generation’ll have to change these archaic and restrictive policies.

  6. Bruce Douville

    As a T.A., I adhered to the “no citation of Wikipedia rule.” But I advised my students to use Wikipedia for research, because it provides very helpful overviews, and serves as a springboard to dive into primary and secondary sources (available in the footnotes and external links). What is crucial, however, is understanding Wikipedia as a “springboard.” There’s a difference between a diving board and a pool: bouncing up and down on the diving board doesn’t make you a swimmer; writing your essay based on Wikipedia doesn’t make you a researcher either.

    So, yes, I think it’s important to teach students how to use Wikipedia. At the same time, there are reasons why academics are exasperated by Wikipedia. It is structured to prevent the publication of original research. So, if you create a Wikipedia entry based on your doctoral research, it won’t meet the criteria for Wikipedia. Even if you cite your sources, chances are, if those sources are something obscure (primary sources or not widely available secondary sources), then some Wikipedia moderator will flag your entry, or remove it. But if you cite low-quality online sources (e.g., recent newspaper or magazine articles), it’s all good.

    A friend of mine once told me of his own frustrations with Wikipedia. He has a doctorate from Cambridge in early church history, and wrote a Wikipedia entry on his research topic. In the course of it, he cited his own blog. As a result, a Wikipedia moderator censored him, because it violated Wikipedia policy: you cannot cite a blog (even if it’s a blog maintained by a specialist with a PhD). If that wasn’t enough, my friend discovered that the Wikipedia moderator who censored him was fourteen years old, and had been a Wiki mod since he was twelve (he had written the Wikipedia entry on “quarks”).

  7. Ian Milligan

    As somebody who was once a precocious and energetic youngster, I think that Bruce has hit one of the strengths of wikipedia: there’s a strain of meritocracy that runs through it, where you can get rewarded for the effort and thought you put into something than the credentials that you necessarily bring to the table. Sort of the people’s encyclopedia, if you will.

    The policy document is interesting:

    I guess I can understand the perspective. If an article is drawn on primary sources, it’s generally hard to verify the information (an exception appears to be made for widely available and easy-to-access primary documents). It’s a nod towards systems of knowledge to want peer-reviewed or at least vetted (i.e. a newspaper) material over unpublished research. I might be able to write a killer article on Canadian youth in the 1960s, but it would be hard for anybody other than an expert to know if I’m just pulling stuff out of thin air or if the archives really exist like I say they do.

  8. Laura Fraser

    I recently attended a session at OHASSTA on engaging in the War of 1812 teaching through Wikipedia. As professors had always blasted and warned against Wikipedia, I was pleasantly surprised to learn more about the rigorous process and community editing around many of the articles.

    I agree with Bruce – Wikipedia has served me and students I’ve worked with very well in engaging with primary and secondary source material. A springboard as it will. Wikipedia should almost become the new library catalogue. Look up a subject, find out the basics and where to search further for information.

    I can see it being ill-used at the Intermediate (grades 7-10) level, simply because teachers tend to have lower expectations on citing and using a variety of source material. An entire project, in that instance, could come solely from Wikipedia and involve little to no research skills. But is that Wikipedia’s fault, or the teacher’s fault for not engaging them more deeply in the research process?

  9. Dan

    I have found this article and it’s comments highly enlightening. I come from the IT perspective where it’s normal to take/borrow/use other people’s code/scripts, a relationship that I see similar to the use of wikipedia. I do not however support the notion of solely using wikipedia or copying research word for word. The ‘springboard’ concept is a nice way to put it. Unfortunately, the risk is that the majority don’t use it as a springboard and I believe that is purely an education issue.

    The point…

    I am working with the Rachel Carson Center (Munich) to develop the environment and society portal. We have some talented people and some great plans, but I worry that we are missing the point. We have a large amount (currently 200 ready of 1000) of small, hand crafted entries on historical aspects with references and further reading (wiki style). Thus, we are somewhat creating a lot of content while not really enabling access to existing content. One solution to this problem would be to directly include wikipedia content in our search results and interactive timeline to create a more complete picture (FAR greater than our current 200 items). We could flag/brand the entries as wikipedia vs (refined/checked) ‘E.S.P’ articles to help users understand that the wiki items are an external source.

    The problems:

    1 – mixing our high quality content with the (perceived) poor wiki content (despite branding efforts)
    2 – users not using our search results or timeline as a springboard and instead interpreting the results as factual pieces (inc. wiki results)

    I’m curious as to what the opinions of others are on these issues. Especially regarding the encouraged use and acceptance of wikipedia display/content.

  10. Wikipedia References

    I’ve stopped by this page more than once as of late and just wanted to say just how much I have really enjoyed a number of your articles. I usually go along with most of what you have to say and I anticipate checking more of your thougths in the near future. Superb website in my respectful viewpoint!

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