Reading Wikipedia

Although most people use Wikimedia like a traditional encyclopedia to answer factual questions, not many are familiar with how each entry is created and what this may mean in terms of its accuracy, bias, and reliability.   Many have heard the term “crowdsourcing” but may not understand that it can have different meanings depending on the formal and informal rules and regulations used in its implementation.

Although Wikipedia was founded on the idea of “crowdsourcing”–that each entry would be written and revised by its users–there is a good deal of policing of the site that occurs through a group of editors and guardians who enforce certain organizational rules that have evolved over time.  There is also a good deal of sensitivity to weed out spammers or those promoting a specific bias or point of view, particularly those who may be promoting their own work.  This has led to controversy as some newer users accuse the “old garde” of limiting their contributions.  Users can even be blocked from the site by site editors if they feel they are not following the rules.

Nonetheless, Wikipedia does offer a good deal of transparency to the editorial process, mostly through the ability to examine the “History” of each entry.  Taking the Digital Humanities entry as an example (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_humanities), the user can track the history of the entry back to its origins in 2006 when it was begun by DH librarian at Stanford University, Elijah Meeks.  Each change made over time can be examined individually, with the ability to compare the changed text with the previous version.   This is most illuminating in this entry as it shows how–not surprisingly in a new field–the definition of what constitutes DH has expanded over time and this has led to many new types of projects and approaches being embraced by the field.

Another key feature of Wikipedia is you can find out the background of many of the contributors by clicking on their name in the history tab.  Some choose not to create a biography or never “log in” as users, but many at least offer a generic biography that points to their background.  Not surprisingly, in this field that is dominated by academic discord, most of the major content providers to this entry are academics themselves who work in the DH field.

Another key feature is the requirement that all factual information be sourced.  The DH entry offers 94 footnotes and an extensive bibliography.  This encourages the reader to go beyond this entry to engage more fully in the discussions and debates in the field.

This type of analysis is most appropriate for those who are seeking to expand their study of a topic beyond the basic “just the facts” approach that is offered by Wikipedia–and indeed any encyclopedia.  Encyclopedias are best for answering basic factual questions–although even simple facts like birth dates can be contested–but are not be-alls and end-alls for research.

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