Given our prior talks re: information accuracy and accessibility on the internet (recall our copyright discussions on e-book content and authorship rights, editing practices, open access, etc.) it seems natural that Wikipedia would, at some point, make its way onto our long blog radar.
As both an English professor and future information professional I’ve used, and instructed students on how to intelligently use, Wikipedia. A question that’s frequently posed to teachers by students, as well as to reference librarians by students, is as follows: Can I cite Wikipedia as a resource? The consensus: no. The site’s content is too easily edited, some of its information may be inaccurate, and the judgment of site gatekeepers has frequently been called into question. That said, is the site a good starting point for getting familiar with, and formulating ideas about, an unfamiliar topic? Absolutely. We’ve discussed this issue—one of user-generated content and its pros/cons—in class, and in February 2012 it became a widely discussed topic yet again (at least for a little while).
Enter Megan Erickson’s “Truth or Truthiness? How Wikipedia Decides” via The Big Think. In her post, Erickson presents and considers the story of Timothy Messer-Kruse, a historian (and professor at Bowling Green State University) who’s spent more than a decade researching the Haymarket riot and its subsequent 1886 trial. When Messer-Kruse attempted to correct what he called “a misleading assertion” about Haymarket on Wikipedia, his changes to the Haymarket entry on the encyclopedia were quickly deleted. And when Messer-Kruse looked into why the deletions were occurring, he was informed by a Wikipedia gatekeeper of the site’s undue weight policy, which states “If a viewpoint is held by an extremely small (or vastly limited) minority, it does not belong in Wikipedia (except perhaps in some ancillary article) regardless of whether it is true or not; and regardless of whether you can prove it or not.”
The problem: Messer-Kruse’s viewpoint wasn’t held by an extremely small minority—it was widely acknowledged to be truth, especially by other historians. Even after providing Wikipedia with reliable sources for his attempted changes, and after his book on the Haymarket riot was published, Messer-Kruse was met with tisk-tisks from the Wiki police.
Messer-Kruse’s Wiki plight no doubt raises questions about the site’s accuracy, as well as questions about its policies and governance. Simply put, who’s in charge of the information that’s set forth and allowed through on Wikipedia? And who has final say-so re: what’s considered worthwhile?
Let’s look at the site’s fundamentals. Wikipedia’s principles are called the Five Pillars. Per the site, those pillars are as follows: 1) Wikipedia is an encyclopedia; 2) Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view; 3) Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute; 4) editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner; and 5) Wikipedia does not have firm rules. As noted in Messer’s case, yes, anyone can modify Wikipedia, but that modification might not amount to much (if anything) in the long run. As Wikipedia notes in the text for its third pillar, “…all of your contributions will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.” Messer-Kruse’s were mercilessly edited, though they weren’t live for long. And at a couple junctures in the process, Messer-Kruse’s manners were called into question. Also merciless.
These practices may have something to do with why Wikipedia’s regular contributor numbers have dropped. In The Economist’s “Wikipledia: The promise and perils of crowdsourcing content,” the publication notes that “The number of regular contributors to Wikipedia’s English-language encyclopedia dropped from around 54,000 at its peak in March 2007 to some 35,000 in September 2010.” One of a couple things could be going on here: the drop in regular contributors could be due to the fact that content is slowly but surely being rounded out at Wikipedia. In other words, there’s nothing left to add for many of the entries on Wikipedia. Or, given Messer-Kruse’s struggle, gatekeepers are pulling the undue weight policy card more often.
In “The Wisdom of the Chaperones” Slate’s Chris Wilson writes, “Of course, Wikipedia requires some level of administration…. But that doesn’t explain the kind of territorialism—the authorial domination by 1 percent of contributors—on the site’s pages. Is this a necessary artifact of operating an open-access site? Or is it possible to build a clearinghouse for high-quality, user-generated content without giving too much power to elite users and secret sauces?”
Clearly, Wilson’s 2008 questions and assertions stand in opposition to Messer-Kruse’s later experience with Wikipedia. Rather than “authorial domination by 1 percent of contributors,” it seems Messer-Kruse encountered a situation more along the lines of extreme gatekeeping and stubborn editing practices. Which leads me to ask: how might “undue weight” be framed in different terms?
It seems that asking that type of questions about Wikipedia and the editing of its content may no longer be a good line of inquiry. Or that’s the case according to Rebecca Rosen’s “Does Wikipedia Have An Accuracy Problem?” at the Atlantic. Rosen writes, “We don’t want Wikipedia to be just as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica: We want it to have 55 times as many entries, present contentious debates fairly, and reflect brand new scholarly research, all while being edited and overseen primarily by volunteers.”
In her post, Rosen argues that the process of revising and teaching history is a very slow process—so why should Wikipedia’s editing of history be any different? She also asks, “How is Wikipedia to recognize when the status quo is wrong?” The rub with Rosen’s thinking is that Messer-Kruse’s attempted edits to the Haymarket Wiki entry were attempts to give clarity to history that was already there—the Haymarket entry was huge long before Messer-Kruse saw an error he thought to correct. The fact that his corrections were repeatedly denied because he was “an extremely small minority” puts the neutrality that Wikipedia so often congratulates itself for to shame. Again, Messer-Kruse is an expert in his field, repeatedly sent verifiable resource cites to Wikipedia, and waited years before trying to re-submit his changes.
Wikipedia does have an accuracy problem. Though its fifth pillar clearly states that there are no firm rules behind the site, it seems that there are, indeed, very firm rules in regard to editing. At this point, should subject experts decide to create a better open-access encyclopedia, it would be a welcome addition to the state of our current internet “reference” tools.
For further/future reference and listening, here’s Timothy Messer-Kruse’s February 2012 interview with NPR’s All Things Considered.