What Is Wikipedia ... And How Does It Treat History?
Mr. Bosworth is an HNN intern. He graduated with a degree in history from Whitman College in May 2004.
History, the old cliché goes, is written by the winners. This is decidedly untrue in the case of Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia. Wikipedia lets anyone pen an article or edit an existing article from the comfort of their own home. The website offers 198 free encyclopedias, each one in a different language. The largest encyclopedia is the English-language version at 400,000 entries, but twenty encyclopedias have more than 10,000 entries.
Authors are free to write whatever they want. Recently however, a discussion board has been set up to discuss entries on politically sensitive issues such as Israel, Palestine, and the Iraq war. Wikipedia requires all entries to be neutral. This stipulation is not always obeyed, but a group of administrators search out and re-edit biased articles.
HNN took a look at how Wikipedia covered American politics, historians, historical scandals, and fringe views in its English encyclopedia. HNN also looked at what the Spanish, French, and German encyclopedias had to say about George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
Wikipedia lists well over three hundred historians, dividing them into “ancient,” “medieval,” “early modern,” “modern,” and “unsorted” categories. It is possible to find a list of historians according to their nationality – e.g. “United States Historians.” Due to the fact that Wikipedia relies entirely on submissions, the strength of the articles vary widely. For instance, the article on Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is only a couple of sentences long.
Because there are so many articles, organization can become a little confusing. Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, for example, is not in Wikipedia’s List of Historians, even though there is an article about him.
Overall, Wikipedia’s “free-content” format allows for a much greater range of information than a traditional encyclopedia. The history section should continue to grow and improve as readers notice shortcomings and correct them.
In “Historians on the Hot Seat,” HNN lists sixteen recent cases of scandals involving historians. Wikipedia users haven’t deemed many of the cases news worthy. Only Stephen Ambrose’s case is discussed in the encyclopedia.
A recent New York Times article noted the dangers of Wikipedia’s format. During the past election cycle, the entries for John Kerry and George W. Bush were constantly edited and re-edited by supporters and detractors. At one point, President Bush’s photograph was replaced with Hitler’s. After Kerry’s defeat, the senator’s biography was edited to read in its entirety: “John Kerry is a girl.” Such polarity in political views led Wikipedia administrators to “lock down” many of the pages.
Despite this lockdown, topics concerning American politics are still at the center of a tug of war between conservatives and liberals, with any English speaking foreigner free to jump in. There is a clear disagreement when it comes to American actions in the Middle East. One author, on the topic of"American Imperialism," took a shot at the current neo-conservative administration. He noted that “most people” see the irony of America following an “imperial” policy when the U.S.A. “originally defined itself by its independence from an imperial power.” A more traditionally conservative view can be found under"Islamic Fundamentalism," which lists the ways in which adherents to Islamic fundamentalism have condoned behavior in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Liberal and conservative views are most prominent in Wikipedia’s “External Links,” a collection of unaffiliated websites that relate to the topic under consideration. The External Links for Donald Rumsfeld, for example, include a website that describes Rumsfeld as “sometimes insulting,” “undiplomatic,” and a “backstabber.” Another link leads to an article written by the liberal organization, MoveOn. Wikipedia’s External Links for Tom DeLay include an article written by the conservative American Spectator, entitled, “Texas Smear Machine Targets DeLay.”
The vast majority of Wikipedia articles are written in an unbiased tone. Articles whose neutrality is questioned are adorned with a warning sign at the top of the page. Wikipedia often attains neutrality by providing a variety of points of view, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. On the topic of gun control, for example, Wikipedia provides pro and con arguments under External Links.
Wikipedia’s policy of neutrality works to the advantage of fringe groups. “Historical Interpretation of the Holocaust” includes an article on Holocaust Deniers. The article explains that Holocaust Denial is not given credibility by historians. But more extreme views can be found under External Links. Wikipedia provides links to sites that both support and refute the arguments made by Holocaust Deniers. Each site is clearly labeled.
Likewise, External Links for the Brady Bill include the Brady Campaign website, a website run by Hand Gun Control Inc. and a website specifically opposed to Hand Gun Control Inc.
On a bright note, Wikipedia’s inclusive format allows smaller third parties to get much needed exposure. One contributor recently added the 2004 candidate for President, Clay Oliver Hill of the “Populist Democratic Viking Party.”
The French and German encyclopedias provide plenty of evidence that America’s popularity in Europe has plummeted. The French article on George W. Bush, for example, warns readers that the article might not follow Wikipedia’s policy of neutrality. The author goes on to criticize Bush for both national and international policies, including increased military spending, rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, passage of the Patriot Act, and support of the death penalty. Bush’s close ties to oil companies are raised as a possible motive for the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s re-election, the article concludes, was met by despair among many French.
The German encyclopedia includes Bushisms such as: “fool me once shame on me. Fool me twice - you can’t fool me again.” It also refers to Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9-11. The Spanish encyclopedia notes that the invasion of Iraq was met with opposition by people all over the world. All three foreign encyclopedias emphasized that Bush and the Iraq war are unpopular outside of America.
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Kandou Loring Borswill - 9/2/2010
"This is illustrative of another point--the people who have the skills to write the best articles for an encyclopedia will not contribute to Wikipedia because there is no incentive to do so when anyone can change your article."
No. People who have the skills to write the best articles want to work with others and collaboratively write the best articles. Just because one has the skill to write the best article doesn't mean he/she wants to do it all by himself or herself. It is called cooperation.
". Only if the 10 year old made a blatant error--like changing the American Civil War to occur in the 20th century or committed what Wikipedians call "vandalism" and inserted profanity etc. might an "edit" like that come to the attention of site administrators."
While there are some sneaky ways attempted to add bad info, there are people who watch articles who can tell when the information is wrong, and they can revert it.
"but 5 minutes after submitting it, a 10 year old without any knowledge on that topic for any reason whatsoever anywhere around the world could edit that article." And you can revert it and leave a note on the 10 year old's talk page and say "Hi! Your edit was wrong because..." and if he doesn't budge, you can open a Request for Comment. Really, it's not difficult countering uninformed edits.
Dalek Dukat - 5/22/2009
" can contribute an "article" to Wikipedia in my specialty as Ph.D. student in American history; it might be the most well-researched, documented, accurate article on a particular topic the website has seen, but 5 minutes after submitting it, a 10 year old without any knowledge on that topic for any reason whatsoever anywhere around the world could edit that article. He or she could edit anything from my prose to the facts contained within the article itself. Unless I was willing to keep a close eye on the article, the article might stay as the 10 year old edited it, if the topic wasn't one in which many people were interested. Only if the 10 year old made a blatant error--like changing the American Civil War to occur in the 20th century or committed what Wikipedians call "vandalism" and inserted profanity etc. might an "edit" like that come to the attention of site administrators. This is illustrative of another point--the people who have the skills to write the best articles for an encyclopedia will not contribute to Wikipedia because there is no incentive to do so when anyone can change your article."
This is true of Wikipedia as a whole. They do the exact same thing with adult industry performers: http://forum.adultdvdtalk.com/forum/topic.dlt/topic_id=112336/forum_id=1/cat_id=1/112336.htm
They also maliciously publish performers' real names.
Randll Reese Besch - 4/23/2007
Instead of a haphazard lockdown on some articles but freely open to vandalize why not have initial articles open to people to comment and or write then have an editorial process for professional and ameture alike and lock down the final....with credit to the person[s] contributing. Updates and modifications go through the same process to frivilous changes can't be made. Proofreaders are also necessary. Hypertext links to original/other sources would also help. Conservapedia on the other hand is a grotesque exampe of reich-wing
nationalism and sectarianism.
Doreen Ann Hauge - 5/3/2005
The free encyclopedia of politically incorrect non-information http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/Uncyclopedia. The other Wiki.
Doreen Ann Hauge - 5/3/2005
The free encyclopedia of politically incorrect non-information http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/Uncyclopedia. The other Wiki.
Dennis W Johnson - 2/3/2005
I enjoy the concept of Wikipedia, but see there are potential problems. In Larry Sanger's article he suggested they should include specialists, but was forced out of Wikipedia. I think there should be a rival Wikipedia that does defer to specialists as Sanger suggested. Or create an intranet version at university that can only be edited by the specialists.
Andrew D. Todd - 12/31/2004
Andrew D. Todd - 12/27/2004
To: Jonathan Dresner
I'm going to ask you to answer a big question: should there be encyclopedias?
The 1911 Britannica is sometimes called "The Scholar's Britannica." It was the last general encyclopedia to make a plausible claim of intellectual legitimacy. Subsequent editions of the Britannica deteriorated, as the old material was weeded out to make room for new, and the new material failed to command a comparable sense of authority. New encyclopedias did not recapture this authority. The World Book Encyclopedia and Comptons were simply mediocre. As for the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, it may or may not be the prototype for Orwell's "Ministry of Truth." Encyclopedias were customarily sold by the worst kind of door-to-door salesmen. I have in front of me a little three-volume paperback encyclopedia vended by Time Magazine in 1982. It was a repackaging of the Concord Desk Encyclopedia, or University Desk Encyclopedia. I looked "Physiocrats" up in this, and found that the compilers seemed to have confused the Physiocrats with Henry George. This is the sort of error which might be made by someone who knew nothing at all about the Physiocrats, but hastily started rewriting the entry from the 1911 Britannica, using it as a royalty-free starting point for a new encyclopedia. By comparison, the Wiki entry is a beau ideal. When, in the 1990's, Microsoft came to produce a CD-ROM encyclopedia, it did not recruit a board of editors. Instead, Microsoft bought the rights to a cheap children's encyclopedia, one which had no popular following, a kind of remainder book at the corporate level. Microsoft then employed recent college graduates to cut the thing down to about half of its original length in order to make room for video clips and suchlike. Wiki is an attempt to revive the general or universal encyclopedia from a century's decline and fall. If it fails, there is no alternative candidate.
Twentieth century encyclopedists produced specialist encyclopedias, thousands of them, limited in scope by what a single chief editor could know. When I talk about the limitations of Wiki, I am ultimately comparing it against the relevant specialist encyclopedia, for example, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968, 17 vols.), which is very strong on miscellaneous "isms," such as the Physiocrats. It is available in university libraries, or, if you want your own set, the going rate on Bookfinder seems to be somewhere around $200-300. A "follow-on" edition has been produced, with an electronic version, (see the entry in the Harvard library website), but that is not freely available. The going rate for the paper version is about $9000-$10,000.
This is an illustration of what is wrong with copyright. A work which was overwhelmingly funded with government money, at a whole series of levels, ought to be in the public domain thirty-five years after it was written, but that is not the case.
Ed Schmitt - 12/27/2004
Here are the URLs -
Jonathan Dresner - 12/26/2004
The point is not that wiki is the primary source of plagiarism, but that wiki's myth of reliability creates complacency among students untrained in proper secondary source use. Whether it's plagiarism or just citations, wiki is taken way too seriously.
Andrew D. Todd - 12/26/2004
In the first place, wiki-copying is only one source of plagiarism. Fraternities have kept files of stuff since time immemorial. Let the professionals at Turn-It-In worry about finding the sources of plagiarism (unless, of course, you want to make a profession of it yourself). A blanket announcement about the existence of Turn-It-In should be enough to make your point in undergraduate classes.
Here is a specimen notice. Regard the fine ambiguity of language:
Here is a student protest letter dealing with Turn-It-In:
In a larger sense, I suspect that the tendency of the internet is to force college faculty to confront their customary self-delusions about the nature of students. If you succeed in stamping out plagiarism, students may very well start paying more attention to the writing requirements when choosing courses-- and make a beeline for the course with true-false exams graded on the curve. In an organization the size of a university, there will always be someone who is willing to grade easy.
Luther Spoehr - 12/24/2004
Could you post the web addresses for the Iowa and Berkeley sites that deal with online resources?
Ed Schmitt - 12/21/2004
This is a very helpful piece. The topic of Wikipedia came up in my Sources & Methods course this semester and it amazed many students that internet sources can be unreliable. I think most students, would turn to the web exclusively if they had their choice, and they do not realize the value of editorial review. There are a few good guides for critical thinking about websites out there, including one from the University of Iowa Department of History and one from UC-Berkeley.
Lisa Roy Vox - 12/21/2004
Wikipedia is a particularly heinous form of internet misinformation; it is very popular and its owners, users, and contributors have created an aura of undeserving legitimacy about it by arguing that Wikipedia tends to be less biased because of its democratic nature. While the site also admits weaknesses related to that same strength (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Researching_with_Wikipedia--note: this "research guide" is in a rather hard-to-find FAQ), from personal experience, I can attest that hard-core Wikipedia users are more likely to tout Wikipedia's accuracy and neutrality than confess its drawbacks.
It has been commonplace for persons in the media to comment upon today's youth's cynicism and questioning attitudes; this theory, however, is not borne out when seeing how willy-nilly students use websites. In addition to requiring students to obtain my written permission for any website used for a paper, I also now have to specially point out Wikipedia as website that students should *not* use for any type of study or research purposes. Here is just an illustration of the problems Wikipedia presents. I can contribute an "article" to Wikipedia in my specialty as Ph.D. student in American history; it might be the most well-researched, documented, accurate article on a particular topic the website has seen, but 5 minutes after submitting it, a 10 year old without any knowledge on that topic for any reason whatsoever anywhere around the world could edit that article. He or she could edit anything from my prose to the facts contained within the article itself. Unless I was willing to keep a close eye on the article, the article might stay as the 10 year old edited it, if the topic wasn't one in which many people were interested. Only if the 10 year old made a blatant error--like changing the American Civil War to occur in the 20th century or committed what Wikipedians call "vandalism" and inserted profanity etc. might an "edit" like that come to the attention of site administrators. This is illustrative of another point--the people who have the skills to write the best articles for an encyclopedia will not contribute to Wikipedia because there is no incentive to do so when anyone can change your article.
In universities Wikipedia may be causing more damage than just providing bad information. I had a plagiarism case in which a student copied verbatim phrases from a Wikipedia article. After the evidence was shown to the student, the offending phrases "disappeared"--that is they were edited out of the article. A novice user of Wikipedia will not know a few important things about the source which could help in this case: 1) the "history" of an article (previous versions) do not show up in search engines 2) previous versions are, however, still available on the Wikipedia site and 3) Wikipedia articles are copied all over the internet onto other sites. Out of luck and persistence, I was able to find the original article with the offending sentences on another site even though at that point, as a newbie to the site, I was unaware that "histories" were available on Wikipedia's site.
I'm not sure if academics realize how popular Wikipedia is; often, if one "googles" a topic, a Wikipedia article on that topic will be the first to come up in the search results, and therefore most likely for an internet user to click on. There has not been enough from the media but also from scholars whose role it is to expose questionable resources about how much Wikipedia is mis-educating its users. Much more needs to be written about this source--and a in much clearer, decisive style.
Andrew D. Todd - 12/20/2004
I think you have to make a sharp distinction between literary and technical subjects in dealing with Wiki. In literary subjects, I have found that Wiki articles are simply not very good. Most of the better prose seems to be more or less directly lifted from standard sources such as the copyright-free 1911 Britannica-- except that you don't know what uninformed changes might have been made to it. Better to go back to the horse's mouth. I can usually find something better on the open internet.
Let's take the Physiocrats, the school of early French economists.
I would not call myself an authority on the Physiocrats. I don't have the French, and was only able to read the 500 pages or so of Quesnay and Turgot which were available in English translation the last time I researched the subject (in pre-internet time). There were some Victorian translations, and some of Ronald L. Meek's translations (The situation may be better now because people can use babelfish, post-edit, and simply post translations which would not have been publishable under the old dispensation). At any rate, my impression is that the Wiki article is fairly simplistic.
In literary subjects, the customary mode of instruction consists in writing essays, and the Wiki is essentially a set of rhetorical training wheels for people who are not good at writing. This means that someone who is well informed about a literary subject, such as history, can generally bash out a couple of thousand words about it without any great effort. These can then be posted on a blog, such as HNN. The idea is to use the internet as a whole as an encyclopedia, rather than trying to create encyclopedias within it.
Technical subjects, that is, science and engineering, are different. Freshman English is typically the most advanced writing course a science or engineering student will ever take. He will meet the rest of his liberal education requirements with low-level survey courses that rely on multiple-choice exams. The student is not lazy in the ordinary sense of the word, but merely very concerned to do well in mathematics. The result is that there is a profession of technical writing, that is, ghost writing for scientists and engineers. Here Wiki performs a useful function. It scavenges bits and pieces of text from people whose literacy is basically mathematical rather than verbal. The single most useful Wiki article I can recall was about Universal Serial Bus. It didn't really contain anything that wasn't available on the official USB website, but it provided a clear explanation which enabled me to understand the material on the official USB web site.