Two recently published pieces have me reflecting on Wikipedia and the role scholars can play in the project. The first was Barbara Johnstone’s (2011) “Making Pittsburghese”, which we mentioned on the SLA facebook page last month after Jenny Cheshire summarized it at Linguistics Research Digest. The second was Timothy Messer-Kruse’s opinion piece, “The ‘undue weight’ of truth on Wikipedia”, which appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Johnstone’s evaluation of Wikipedia is mostly positive, while Messer-Kruse’s is quite negative.

Johnstone’s article describes the treatment of “Pittsburghese” – a linguistic variety that local people associate with Pittsburgh – in local newspapers, an online forum, a website called “Pittsburghese.com” and the Wikipedia page Pittsburgh English. As Johnstone describes it, newspaper articles about local ways of talking have tended to favor ‘man on the street’ type reporting, with local residents as a primary source of knowledge. One academic, University of Pittsburgh instructor Robert Parslow, was quoted in several articles from the 1960s and 70s, and academics have been quoted since then, though their claims to knowledge are usually not privileged as authoritative but treated as equivalent to the knowledge of other local people.

When Johnstone and Dan Baumgardt significantly re-wrote the Wikipedia entry for Pittsburgh English in 2006, they expected to face resistance from other contributors to the site. What they found, however, was that their new version, citing a wealth of sociolinguistic studies, was easily accepted. “That article has since been edited,” Johnstone says, “but the editing has only made it more technical and limited participation rights in the editing process to people familiar with the relevant scholarly literature.” In contrast to newspapers, which seem to put a premium on personal experience and ‘authenticity’, it is Wikipedia that appears to value technical expertise and the published record. Johnstone notes, “Ironically, the voice of ordinary Pittsburghers – unless they are linguists or can cite the literature of sociolinguistics and dialectology – is even less present [on Wikipedia] than it was in the least interactive of media, the pre-internet print newspaper report” (2011: 12).

Timothy Messer-Kruse’s experience with Wikipedia has received a relatively wide airing. In addition to his piece in The Chronicle, he has discussed his experiences on the Talk of the Nation and On the Media radio programs, and associate editor Rebecca Rosen has written about it at The Atlantic.

Messer-Kruse, an historian and an expert on the 1886 Haymarket Riots, “decided to experiment with editing one particularly misleading assertion chiseled into the Wikipedia article” Haymarket affair, according to his Chronicle piece. As of January 2009* the Wikipedia article said, “The prosecution, led by Julius Grinnell, did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing” that led to the death of eight police officers and numerous civilians. Yet the trial lasted six weeks and featured ground-breaking evidence, including one of the first uses of chemical forensics in a US court case.

Messer-Kruse changed the Wikipedia article to reflect his knowledge of the case. Within ten minutes, though, another editor removed the additions, calling them “good faith but wholly unsourced revisions”. On various Wikipedia editorial pages Messer-Kruse pointed to primary sources from the trial supporting his version of affairs, and referred to his own published articles. Other contributors argued, though, that Wikipedia articles are meant to reflect the majority view of published sources, even when that view may be inaccurate. As Wikipedia contributor Gwen Gale wrote at the time, “If most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”

In the On the Media interview aired this week Messer-Kruse noted, “[Wikipedia has] a culture that you need to be persistent. You need to suggest changes and if they’re rejected you need to go back at it again.” He is not the first to note that Wikipedia has its own particular culture (compare Amichai-Hamburger et al. 2008; Lam et al. 2011, inter alia), one that tends to discourage many people from contributing, including many whose knowledge or expertise could improve the online encyclopedia. Yet Johnstone’s experience suggests that expert knowledge is appreciated, at least when offered on Wikipedia’s own, sometimes prickly, terms.

Messer-Kruse argued at On the Media, “There are some types of information which simply don’t suit themselves to crowd-sourcing, and I would say that historical scholarship is one of those.” Yet Johnstone’s experience with the Pittsburgh English page shows that simple crowd-sourcing of data is not what Wikipedia is doing. As The Atlantic’s Rosen points out, what was at issue in editing “Haymarket affair” was not empirical data but scholarly interpretation. By Messer-Kruse’s own account, the ‘wrong’ interpretation – that the prosecutor did not tie the defendants to the bombing – has been accepted wisdom for more than a century. “The process of how history is taught and revised over time is a slow one, whether in a book, online, or in people’s minds,” says Rosen. “If Wikipedia hesitated to change its article ahead of the scholarly consensus, that is an artifact of academia’s own inability to quickly adopt a new consensus, not a failing of Wikipedia.”

 

*This or similar wording remained until 2012, but has recently been changed.

Amichai-Hamburger,Yair, Naama Lamdan, Rinat Madiel & Tsahi Hayat. 2008. Personality characteristics of Wikipedia members. CyberPsychology & Behavior 11(6), 679-681.

Johnstone, Barbara. 2011. Making Pittsburghese: Communication technology, expertise, and the discursive construction of a regional dialect. Language & Communication 31, 3-15.

Lam, Shyong (Tony) K., Anuradha Uduwage, Zhenhua Dong, Shilad Sen, David R. Musicant, Loren Terveen & John Riedl. 2011. WP:Clubhouse?: An exploration of Wikipedia’s gender imbalance. In Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration, 1-10. Mountain View, CA: ACM.

Messer-Kruse, Timothy. 12 February 2012. The ‘undue weight’ of truth on Wikipedia. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Rosen, Rebecca. 16 February 2012. Does Wikipedia have an accuracy problem? The Atlantic.