rosenzweig on wikipedia 06.22.2006, 3:34 PM
posted by ray cha
Roy Rosenzweig, a history professor at George Mason University and colleague of the institute, recently published a very good article on Wikipedia from the perspective of a historian. "Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past" as a historian's analysis complements the discussion from the important but different lens of journalists and scientists. Therefore, Rosenzweig focuses on, not just factual accuracy, but also the quality of prose and the historical context of entry subjects. He begins with in depth overview of how Wikipedia was created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and describes their previous attempts to create a free online encyclopedia. Wales and Sanger's first attempt at a vetted resource, called Nupedia, sheds light on how from the very beginning of the project, vetting and reliability of authorship were at the forefront of the creators.
Rosenzweig adds to a growing body of research trying to determine the accuracy of Wikipedia, in his comparative analysis of it with other online history references, along similar lines of the Nature study. He compares entries in Wikipedia with Microsoft's online resource Encarta and American National Biography Online out of the Oxford University Press and the American Council of Learned Societies. Where Encarta is for a mass audience, American National Biography Online is a more specialized history resource. Rosenzweig takes a sample of 52 entries from the 18,000 found in ANBO and compares them with entries in Encarta and Wikipeida. In coverage, Wikipedia contain more of from the sample than Encarta. Although the length of the articles didn't reach the level of ANBO, Wikipedia articles were more lengthy than the entries than Encarta. Further, in terms of accuracy, Wikipedia and Encarta seem basically on par with each other, which confirms a similar conclusion (although debated) that the Nature study reached in its comparison of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The discussion gets more interesting when Rosenzweig discusses the effect of collaborative writing in more qualitative ways. He rightfully notes that collaborative writing often leads to less compelling prose. Multiple stlyes of writing, competing interests and motivations, varying levels of writing ability are all factors in the quality of a written text. Wikipedia entries may be for the most part factually correct, but are often not that well written or historically relevant in terms of what receives emphasis. Due to piecemeal authorship, the articles often miss out on adding coherency to the larger historical conversation. ANBO has well crafted entries, however, they are often authored by well known historians, including the likes of Alan Brinkley covering Franklin Roosevelt and T. H. Watkins penning an entry on Harold Ickes.
However, the quality of writing needs to be balanced with accessibility. ANBO is subscription based, where as Wikipedia is free, which reveals how access to a resource plays a role in its purpose. As a product of the amateur historian, Rosenzweig comments upon the tension created when professional historians engage with Wikipedia. For example, he notes that it tends to be full of interesting trivia, but the seasoned historian will question its historic significance. As well, the professional historian has great concern for citation and sourcing references, which is not as rigorously enforced in Wikipedia.
Because of Wikipedia's widespread and growing use, it challenges the authority of the professional historian, and therefore cannot be ignored. The tension is interesting because it raises questions about the professional historians obligation to Wikipedia. I am curious to know if Rosenzweig or any of the other authors of similar studies went back and corrected errors that were discovered. Even if they do not, once errors are published, an article quickly gets corrected. However, in the process of research, when should the researcher step in and make correction they discover? Rosenzweig documents the "burn out" that any experts feels when authors attempt to moderate of entries, including early expert authors. In general, what is the professional ethical obligation for any expert to engage maintaining Wikipedia? To this point, Rosenzweig notes there is an obligation and need to provide the public with quality information in Wikipedia or some other venue.
Rosenzweig has written a comprehensive description of Wikipedia and how it relates to the scholarship of the professional historian. He concludes by looking forward and describes what the professional historian can learn from open collaborative production models. Further, he notes interesting possibilities such as the collaborative open source textbook as well as challenges such as how to properly cite (a currency of the academy) collaborative efforts. My hope is that this article will begin to bring more historians and others in the humanities into productive discussion on how open collaboration is changing traditional roles and methods of scholarship.
Scott Walters on June 23, 2006 11:47 AM:
What I find interesting about the controversy surrounding Wikipedia is that there never seems to be an acknowledgement that, in many ways, the Wikipedia model of creation was piloted over a century ago by one of our most august and trusted reference books: the Oxford English Dictionary. Read The Professor and the Madman."
Eddie A. Tejeda on June 28, 2006 3:01 PM:
While some people think that finding an error in Wikipedia is a sign of its weakness, I am reassured that this is Wikipedia's greatest strength.
I found this quote in the essay particularly interesting:
The limited audience for subscription-based historical resources such as American National Biography Online becomes an even larger issue when we move outside the borders of the United States and especially into poorer parts of the world, where such subscription fees pose major problems even for libraries.
I was reminded that you do not have to look outside of the United States to find poor people in dire need of a credible knowledge base. There are many poor people in the United States who do not always have access to American National Biography.
For about two decades Jonathan Kozol has been reminding us of the injustice that still exists in America's education system. I think it's important to not idealize today's great wealth of knowledge, since access if often limited to the wealthy or academics. The potential service that Wikipedia will be providing in sharing knowledge to less fortunate is enormous, especially when considering where many people are starting from.
I found the following quotes in a press release by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) particularly concerning.
Why do students in our public schools not know that the Berlin Wall has fallen? Or that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and elected to lead South Africa? Why do they think Ronald Reagan is still President? Or that there are Soviet troops in Afghanistan and not U.S. troops? Why do their science books still brag that one day scientists will decode the human genome?
All across the nation, students are forced to use books that have long been out of date. In Fall of 2000, the Utah Education Association found elementary schools using maps from 1950 and encyclopedias from 1966. In Oregon's largest school district, students regularly use the same books, maps, and globes that their predecessors used more than 15 years ago. In Texas, teachers scramble to create their own worksheets and labs because their textbooks do not cover the material mandated by the new state curriculum standards. In California, students read books that devote entire chapters to countries that no longer exist. In Omaha, teachers can't assign homework because there are not enough books for each student to take home. And in New York City, many of the books are older than some of the teachers.
Sadly, Wikipedia, with all its mistakes, is often the most accurate source of information for many people, even within the United States. It's the role of the educated to support this infrastructure to ensure that information that millions will rely on is as credible as possible.