The Digital Historian
Improving Wikipedia: Notes from an Informed Skeptic
As an American historian who studies the political economy of the antebellum period, I have always been fascinated by the panic of 1837—a financial cataclysm that is, according to one recent book, deserving of the term “America’s First Great Depression.” During the 2012–13 winter break, I typed “Panic of 1837” in the Wikipedia search field and found a disjointed entry listing only a few secondary sources. This was vexing, to put it mildly. The editors of Wikipedia had flagged the entry for biased or incomplete information and solicited a “specialist” in US history for improvements.
I took it upon myself to improve the entry, and in the process I discovered important details behind Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy, the ideologically charged subcultures that often tamper with these entries, and a potential explanation for why I was able to rehabilitate the entry successfully. As recently as two years ago, I was a strident Wikipedia critic, having become frustrated by too many Wikipedia-derived answers on student exams. But as I’ll show further, I have grown more optimistic about Wikipedia’s mission and believe that it embodies many of the values that academics hold dear.
Among scholars there is a diverse spectrum of thought on Wikipedia’s utility. Former AHA President William Cronon saw mostly positives in encouraging historians to contribute more to Wikipedia, while Timothy Messer-Kruse’s ordeal underscores the pitfalls of a website that does not distinguish between expert opinion and that of the layperson and whose policy of verifiability precludes content based solely on inaccessible primary sources—making him a vocal Wikipedia critic.1 My position falls somewhere in between.
As I examined Wikipedia’s Panic of 1837 entry more closely, I noticed that practically all of the authors cited in the reference section were hard-line libertarians. The lone “external reference” was an informally written, selectively sourced paper written by an obscure historian who did not list his credentials and which was delivered at a conference hosted by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute (LVMI), an Alabama-based think tank unaffiliated with any university or independent process of peer review.
Named after the Austrian School economist, Ludwig Von Mises (1881–1973), the organization sponsors research fellows who tout laissez-faire economics and the business-cycle theories of Friedrich Hayek. Various Von Mises fellows have eviscerated Abraham Lincoln, championed the gold standard, and romanticized the Old South while glossing over slavery. The group categorically rejects, according to its website, all forms of state regulation as dangerous to “the science of liberty.” This seemed simplistic. Most historians recognize that “liberty,” in fact, has multiple meanings. Access to health insurance, environmental protection, and civil rights all provide “liberty” but rely on state involvement.
I spent several days of my winter break adding content and references to the site, and the editors of Wikipedia, presumably having approved my alterations, took down the flag that referred to bias and incomplete information. As to why this experience proved successful, the answer may lie in Wikipedia’s policy on neutral point of view (NPOV): contributors should strive to “not give a false impression of parity, or give undue weight to a particular view.”2 However accomplished Hayek was as an economist, the Von Mises interpretation was still in the minority.
The manner in which I edited may have also explained why I did not find myself immersed in a time-consuming editorial war. I more than doubled the number of monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles in the reference section and deleted very little of the preexisting text even if I deemed it suspect. Instead, I restructured the prose to make it more readable. This formula may not always work, but historians should try as much as possible to write in a descriptive manner on Wikipedia, not an analytical one, though admittedly this is counterintuitive to much of our training and the lines between these categories are not discrete.
Wikipedia skeptics make many valid points. There is no editor-in-chief who makes a final call on content. Collective wisdom may reinforce certain innate biases or prove erroneous over time. This was the problem that Messer-Kruse rightfully exposed in his deep explorations into the Haymarket Square bombing—even when an expert contributor, like Messer-Kruse, crafts a sound argument based on solid evidence, Wikipedia’s volunteer editors still might stonewall or downplay the new “minority” viewpoint. Then there is the potential for the very existence of Wikipedia to devalue the artistry and labor of teaching and publishing. A few years ago, I wrote an entry for an encyclopedia project on American slavery with a well-known reference publisher. The editor informed me, after I had completed the piece, that the project would be discontinued indefinitely, in part because of competition from Wikipedia.
Perhaps no other issue has proved more controversial than Wikipedia’s foundational pillar of neutrality. Skeptics wonder if this goal is even possible or desirable.3 In describing its policy, which dovetails with the interlocking emphases on “verifiability” and “no original research,” Wikipedia states that it aims to describe debates, but not engage in them. Here is where historians balk. The moment we select a research topic and array certain facts together in a particular order, we have unwittingly engaged in a debate. In addition, facts themselves are never truly neutral since they are always understood within a larger ideological context.4
What is most surprising among Wikipedia’s policies, however, is how the site takes a sophisticated approach to many of these philosophical issues. Wikipedia editors emphasize that neutrality is not the same as objectivity. The site eschews pseudoscience, avoids false equivalency and upholds the standards of peer review, and in assessing the validity of competing arguments, it considers the argument’s prevalence in scholarly sources, not among the general public. Wikipedia’s policy even recognizes that we cannot take neutrality to its fullest possible extent because attempts to eliminate bias completely may sacrifice meaning.5 These are all standards that academics should applaud. Wikipedia’s editors eventually responded positively to Messer-Kruse’s complaints, and while it may never adequately incorporate the latest, cutting-edge research known among scholarly circles, the beauty of the site is that it contains the tools for its own improvement.
With the recognition that some of these issues will never go away entirely, I call on historians to dedicate their precious few hours of spare time to improving Wikipedia; as an incentive, I call on administrators to integrate Wikipedia contributions into the publication requirements for tenure. Recently minted PhDs currently face an existential job crisis with the vaunted goal of obtaining a full-time, tenured professorship proving more and more elusive. And here might be a way to enhance one’s CV in preparation for the next job interview. The specifics may require fine-tuning. Perhaps historians could identify themselves publicly on Wikipedia, save their contributions, and be credited if Wikipedia maintains their corrections. Publishing openly might reduce trolling since anonymity often shields Internet users from the repercussions of nasty comments. Wikipedia entries should be a supplement, not a replacement, to traditional monographs and articles, and tenure committees might consider a certain ratio of digital articles to traditional ones—maybe four or five successful Wikipedia entries for every traditional journal article. One of the long-standing criticisms of monographs is that they suit only a narrow, specialized audience, gathering dust on quiet library shelves. Perhaps Wikipedia is the ideal venue for broadcasting our own research expertise to a larger public, which, theoretically, should improve public discourse and historical thinking. Many in the hard sciences already take electronic publications into account, and as others have suggested, we risk being marginalized as a discipline if we do not join in.6
At the time of this writing, approximately a third of the text and half of the citations on the Panic of 1837 entry are mine. I had to shelve this valuable project because the new semester was starting, which was unfortunate because the entry could still use tinkering, but at least I had provided some scaffolding for other experts. The site has 58 “page watchers,” and the “view history” section shows many deletions that have been reinserted—perhaps an indication of the persistent, incorrigible nature of Wikipedia partisans. Students, economic history enthusiasts, and the general public, however, will hopefully obtain better historical information as Wikipedia continues to improve.
Stephen W. Campbell is a lecturer at Pasadena City College. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 2013 at UC Santa Barbara, analyzes the intersection of newspapers, financial institutions, and state-building in the antebellum era.
1. William Cronon, “Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World,” Perspectives on History, February 2012, accessed April 23, 2013, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1202/Scholarly-Authority-in-a-Wikified-World.cfm. On The Media, “The Professor Versus Wikipedia,” March 9, 2012, accessed February 27, 2014, http://www.onthemedia.org/story/191440-professor-versus-wikipedia/transcript/.
2. Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View, accessed December 26, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view.
3. Jeremy Brown and Benedicte Melanie Olsen, “Using Wikipedia in the Undergraduate Classroom to Learn How to Write about Recent History,” Perspectives on History 50, April 2012, accessed April 23, 2013, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1204/Teaching-Tiananmen.cfm.
4. Martha Nichols and Lorraine Berry, “What Should We Do About Wikipedia?” Talking on Writing, May 20, 2013, accessed December 27, 2013, http://talkingwriting.com/what-should-we-do-about-wikipedia.
5. Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View.
6. Lori Byrd Phillips and Dominic McDevitt-Parks, “Historians in Wikipedia: Building an Open, Collaborative History,” Perspectives on History, December 2012, accessed April 26, 2013, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1212/Historians-in-Wikipedia.cfm.
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