Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wikis and Academia

Rosenzweig, R. (2006, June). Can history be open source: Wikipedia and the future of the past. The Journal of American History, 93(1), 117-146. Retrieved February 4, 2007, from http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42

Like many articles that examine the wiki phenomenon, and the proliferation of Wikipedia, specifically, this piece by Rosenzweig begins by outlining what it is and how it works. Because the author's message is targeted at historians, he explores how wikis can be part of the historian's toolkit. He does this by comparing historical entries in Wikipedia to comparable ones found in more "traditional" encyclopedias - American National Biography Online and Encarta to name a couple. Based on his comparison, Rosenzweig concludes that Wikipedia is roughly equivalent to Encarta, but lacks in comparison to the American National Biography Online. However he does note that the authors who have contributed entries to Wikipedia are not representative of the general population. Instead, the contributors tend to be English-speaking males; hence the criticism that Wikipedia has been shaped by "geek priorities."

Rosenzweig goes on to make a case for why historians should care about Wikipedia. For one, he points out that you don't have to look to the Internet to find bad history; it's also found in the library stacks. [I can attest to this. When I was working in an academic library, we found a book in the stack stating that there is not evidence to suggest that smoking is bad for your health. Our records indicated that the book had been recently checked out so you know that a student included that little factoid in her paper.] Next, instructors generally do not want their students to rely on any encyclopedia entry for their term papers. The impact of Wikipedia alone is yet another reason why historians should care. Also, the peer review process for the featured article section is another Wikipedia characteristic that Rosenzweig highlights.

Despite the fact that there are difficulties implementing a Wikipedia-style model in academia, Rosenzweig nonetheless suggests that a publication that relies on volunteer labor would not be foreign to scholars. In fact, scholars are already spending numerous volunteer hours on journals and conferences. The discussion about the possibilities for history scholars to become actively involved in a tool, like Wikipedia, reminded me of the Pronetos project: "a global think-tank of the leaders in your field". Pronetos was launched at the end of October 2007, and members can post work for peer feedback, remix content posted by others, and produce new custom publications based on the resources found on the site. Will this catch on? Maybe with a group of pioneers (and those who have tenure) who are willing to try a model that runs counter to the traditional system. Until the tenure and review process changes, though, it will likely be difficult for Pronetos to obtain a critical mass.

1 comment:

Chanitra said...

I think it is important for people to remember that information in print is not always correct. As you pointed out, you can find books with incorrect information. The advantage of Wikipedia is that the information can be changed quickly. If a book has incorrect information there is nothing that can really be done to correct it except issue another book. Once the book is made available making an updated book available may not do much to correct the damage done.
It is also important for people to remember that an article written in a traditional encyclopedia is supposed to be neutral but often reflects the bias of the author. Therefore, users should be skeptical of the information provided. For the Reference class I took last fall, we had to review articles in two encyclopedias on Melvil Dewey. One of the articles painted a much nicer picture of Melvil than the other article which included information on the scandals surrounding Dewey at various points in his career.