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Linking In: How Historians Are Fighting Wikipedia's Biases

Sadie Bergen, September 2016

A promotional poster for a women’s history edit-a-thon at the Berkman Center at Harvard University that reads "We Can [edit]."If you’d visited Josephine Diebitsch Peary’s Wikipedia page before March 2016, you would have learned that she was a turn-of-the-century “American author and arctic explorer.” If you’d made it to the end of her seven-sentence entry, past the descriptions of her father, brother, and husband, you would have discovered that she won the National Geographic Society’s Medal of Achievement. But you probably wouldn’t have have understood why.

Visit Peary’s page now, however, and an expanded biography makes the medal unsurprising. Peary was valedictorian of her college class, and along with her Arctic explorer husband, she “traveled farther North over the ice fields than any white woman had before.” In fact, one of the three published works about the “First Lady of the Arctic” is called The Snow Baby, because her first child was born within 13 degrees of the North Pole.

Peary’s new entry was the work of a student in University of New England professor Elizabeth De Wolfe’s Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course, written as part of a project that sought to make some headway in an uphill battle—changing the way history is written and represented on the seventh most trafficked website in the world. Over the past few years, Perspectives on History has published several articles encouraging historians to accept and even embrace Wikipedia by using it in the classroom and contributing to it themselves (see, for example, the May 2007, February 2012, December 2012, and May 2014 issues). Following this advice, however, is easier said than done—there are deep challenges facing historians who want to engage with the site.

The first is the entrenched homogeneity of Wikipedia’s editors. A Wikipedia user survey reports that the average “Wikipedian” on the English-language version of the site is male, formally educated, and from a majority Christian, developed country in the Northern Hemisphere. This lack of diversity, according to a Wikipedia essay on systemic bias, reproduces imbalances on the site that extend (in the realm of history) to a lack of women’s history, the histories of people without access to the Internet (primarily “people in developing nations, the poor in industrialized nations, the disabled, and the elderly”), and the histories of minority demographic groups, which in the United States include African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

Edit-a-thons are a popular model for highlighting these topical weak spots and encouraging broader participation in editing the site. Often hosted by libraries and museums around a particular theme, edit-a-thons provide participants with both the in-person training and the sources needed to create entries. But even the most successful edit-a-thons are no match for the second, more treacherous set of barriers that are built into the site and hinder its representation of history.

Wikipedia’s policies and website architecture support a version of the past that Rosemont College associate professor Michelle Moravec, who has written extensively about the site, compares to “a bad high school history class.” Wikipedia propagates a “great man” and “great woman” version of the past—a history made up of firsts and bests—from which historians have largely moved away. Wikipedia’s three “core content policies” stipulate that articles be written from a neutral point of view, be verifiable, and contain no original research. These standards can discourage historians from participating in the site because scholars often want to contribute their own research or interpretive claims about topics they are experts in.

Wikipedia propagates a “great man” and “great woman” version of the past, from which historians have largely moved away.

But Wikipedia is not designed to showcase expertise, and for good reason, explains Moravec: “The Wikipedians recognized early on that they were going to end up with academic wars if they allowed academics to edit entries that they themselves are the field expert in.” However, Wikipedia’s alternative to expertise—consensus—introduces its own biases. In theory, “if enough people weigh in you’ll eventually reach un-bias,” says Moravec. “But anyone with a brain would realize that’s nonsense. You’ll get the most persistent opinion winning.”

Founded in 2013, the Wiki Education foundation seeks to bridge these gaps between Wikipedia and academia by facilitating partnerships between them. The foundation provides online training and guidance for classroom projects designed to counteract some of Wikipedia’s weaknesses while working within the strictures of the site’s core policies. University of Texas at Austin associate professor Daina Berry worked with Wiki Education to develop a project for her Black Women in America undergraduate class. Berry says that she used the tension between Wikipedia’s standards and those of historical scholarship to teach her students about the false ideal of “neutral writing” and “the challenge of researching women and people marginalized from the historical record.”

Berry also drew her students’ attention to Wikipedia’s standard of “notability,” which poses an additional hurdle to creating and promoting diverse content on the website. Wikipedia’s guideline on notability states that in order to warrant a unique page, a topic must have “received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject.” Of course, constructing the histories of underrepresented people means ­uncovering the stories that reliable, independent sources—which for Wikipedia include newspaper articles, monographs, reviews, and textbooks—have overlooked. As one of Berry’s students, Crystal Smith, says, requiring independent secondary sources and “not being allowed to use primary sources” prevents “certain people from being documented in [Wikipedia], where they can become more widely known.”

“Historians have a lot to say about notability,” says Moravec. In her estimation, “Wikipedia does a poor job of matching ‘historical significance’ and what historians think is significant.” In other words, the standards that Wikipedia editors use to determine whether a figure or topic is notable do not necessarily correspond with a historian’s estimation of that figure or topic’s importance.

The problem of notability is compounded by Wikipedia’s use of internal wikilinks, which connect articles to one another and aid in search engine results. For historically underrepresented figures, the internal links that characterize a good Wikipedia article are often absent. As Berry explains, when she searched for Wikipedia pages of historians of black women’s history, “Even if I found a scholar who had a weak page, I couldn’t link it to anything they wrote about.” In other words, the pages she found didn’t contain internal links, because the topics that those historians wrote about did not have their own Wikipedia pages.

Even when a Wikipedia article for a notable woman does exist and does contain links, a 2015 study revealed gendered differences between pages about men and women.1 Backing up Moravec’s observation that women on Wikipedia “tend to be connected to prominent men,” the study found that articles about women are more likely to include wikilinks to articles about men and are more likely to include gendered terms such as wife and mother. In a similar vein, De Wolfe notes that several of her students found that “their subject was spoken about only as the wife of or assistant of someone when in fact they were the more predominant scientist, author, achiever.”

In response, De Wolfe had students not only create new pages for women, but “go back and edit the man’s entry to make it more balanced.” This is the kind of corrective to Wikipedia’s biases that Moravec believes historians are especially well positioned to implement. By capitalizing on their understanding of “linkages between people, places, and events,” she thinks, historians can build up the networks between Wikipedia pages that determine how users move through the architecture of the site and therefore how they understand historical connections.

The work Moravec, Berry, and De Wolfe have done models a nuanced historical engagement with Wikipedia that improves the site’s rendering of the past and uses the site’s shortcomings to teach powerful lessons about historical representation. The way historians tell history is in some basic ways incompatible with Wikipedia—an encyclopedia will never be a source for cutting-edge historical scholarship. But Wikipedia is here to stay, and as long as it remains the default reference tool for students and scholars alike, historians would do well to follow Berry’s advice: “We can complain about it or we can try to make a change.”

Sadie Bergen is assistant editor at the AHA. She tweets @sadiebergen.

Note

1. Claudia Wagner, David Garcia, Mohsen Jadidi, and Markus Strohmaier, “It’s a Man’s Wikipedia? Assessing Gender Inequality in an Online Encyclopedia,” Cornell University Library, last revised March 2015, http://arxiv.org/abs/1501.06307.


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