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Wikipedia and the Academy

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 “” 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.

3 thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Academy”

  1. This is a very interesting discussion about the communicative processes of wikipedia and the cultural practices that are intertwined with such processes. I may be hopelessly behind the times, but whenever I think of editing a wikipedia page, the first question that comes to mind is whether or not it actually makes sense for scholars to be involved in such a project, based on time commitments and institutional lack of recognition of these sorts of efforts. Then there are broader questions, such as: what is the real impact of wikipedia? Are other open-source online formats more conducive to maintaining scholarly standards of peer-review? If so, can we think of a way to merge the popularity and ease of wikipedia with these standards?

  2. Wikipedia is a go-to site for many students, and, frankly, for faculty as well. One thing that I think scholarly participation offers is the inclusion, in many articles, of bibliographies, often with links to those peer reviewed sources which are available on-line. I tell students that it is fine to use Wikipedia as a source of sources in this way, as a jumping-off point, and I sometimes use it this way myself for unfamiliar topics.

    I’ll confess, I don’t go looking at articles on my own areas of expertise. I know I’d probably want to do revision and, as suggested above, I just don’t have time to do that right now. I do sort of envision weighing in on those topics at some point in the vague and misty future. I suppose it is a form of reciprocity, since I rely on other scholars going in there and messing about with their own topics.

    If wikipedia gives our students a sense of the discursive nature of the construction of knowledge, perhaps that is not such a bad thing? I’d love to think that they learn to read thoughtfully and critically, as a matter of course.

  3. I see Wikipedia as largely divorced from peer-reviewed research. The project explicitly eschews the presentation and review of new research, as Timothy Messer-Kruse found to his consternation. To suggest and analogy, Wikipedia is to introductory courses as peer-reviewed publications are to advanced graduate seminars.

    I therefore would view contributing to Wikipedia not as a part of scholarly output, but as part of community outreach or public communication.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a project to teach undergraduate would-be scientists to communicate with the public. The authors claim that even second-year undergraduates have difficulty communicating outside the specialist language of their fields in order to inform a broader public. I think scholars should contribute to that broader communication, and as Judy suggests, Wikipedia is a place with a built-in large audience.

    Contributions to Wikipedia can be seen as a contribution to public communication, on par with media appearances, and not comparable to research and publication. Of course, as Steven points out, how and whether employers or tenure committees should value such contributions remains as an important and difficult question.

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