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Source Wars

Wikipedia is good for academia

The History Department at Middlebury College last month banned students' citation of Wikipedia, saying the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit "suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation." In The New York Times, a professor explained that the policy would help students "escape the consequences of errors."

But if, as the Middlebury history professor Amy Morsman said, "Middlebury College students ... are beyond making Wikipedia the starting point of their research," they must also have advanced beyond believing that Wikipedia suffers by comparison with other encyclopedias: evidently, it doesn't--not in science nor in history. What's at stake here isn't error. It's how we in the professional knowledge business greet our new overlords--the plain people of the Internet. Right now, we're lobbing fibs at them of just the kind the Internet is good at puncturing--and, indeed, of just the kind the losing side used the last time our civilization endured a revolution in the ownership of knowledge.

Wikipedia's founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales agreed with the Middlebury historians. "Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested--students shouldn't be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn't be citing Encyclopaedia Britannica, either." All encyclopedias stand several degrees of separation away from the events on which they report, saying in effect "he said she said he saw a document that described it."

But, "by ... barring Wikipedia citations without mentioning other encyclopedias," as the Middlebury American Studies professor Jason Mittell said, "it would seem that their problem is with the Wiki- not the -pedia." Indeed, the History Department's policy says so, and so does Morsman in her debate (video) with Professor Mittell: "It suffers from inaccuracies due in large part to ... its open source nature." Nor do Middlebury historians stand alone in decrying Wikipedia for this reason. The newest edition of Mary Lynn Rampolla's Pocket Guide to Writing in History for students says, "Wikipedia ... allows any reader to add or edit entries. Consequently, its entries cannot be assumed to be accurate."

On examination, this argument has itself proved inaccurate. As Roy Rosenzweig wrote, "Wikipedia for the most part gets its facts right," and contrariwise, "[y]ou can find bad history in the library." In pitting Wikipedia against the Britannica, Nature found that:

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

If you care about accuracy, you don't want to take up the cudgels against Wikipedia. Nor should you if you care about the free production and promulgation of information.

Wikipedia lets anyone write or edit it, which of course makes it vulnerable to vandalism--as when a picture of the evil Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars briefly adorned the entry for the new Pope. But Wikipedia relies on this very openness to defend itself. Its (mostly) upstanding citizens don't take kindly to rotten kids ruining their encyclopedia, and they stop it right quick.

In contrast to this reliance on openness, consider Britannica, whose editor picked his fight with Wikipedia on a site run by a lobbying firm that specializes in producing fake grass-roots sentiment. Nature critiqued Britannica by conducting a peer-reviewed comparison of the reference works, acting as academics are supposed to--by getting expert opinion and then getting other experts to go over the conclusions. Britannica's response was to buy ad space in The New York Times lambasting Nature. "[I]t shifted the argument and debate away from the peer review / editorial context into one of rhetoric and public relations," as one observer wrote.

People with money, reputation, and control over public information have historically used their power to retain control over the means of producing knowledge, as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas noted. To crudely reduce Habermas: In the Middle Ages, the only public things were the symbols of authority, displayed to the people by kings and the Church, who told them what to think and do. As market towns arose, so did a new public culture. Now information didn't just move down from above, it moved horizontally and, by the seventeenth century, vigorously: in print journals and coffee houses and also (as my former colleague Peter Thompson would point out) in taverns where political and literary discourse flourished.

As Habermas noted, the rise of public opinion annoyed the experts. "The conflict about lay judgment, about the public as a critical authority, was most severe ... where hitherto a circle of connoisseurs had combined social privileges with a specialized competence." But, once public, knowledge became so cheap to make and spread that it demanded attention. Everyone who was anyone was reading and listening. And, throughout the period of liberalization in the West, the great and good, the ambitious and the worthy, learned to reckon with "the sense of the people."

The rise of the modern state and the expensive apparatus of modern media undid this revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Al Gore noted, borrowing from Habermas, it meant a "refeudalization of the public sphere."

Now the Internet is defeudalizing it again. There's no point romanticizing what's going on--defeudalization doesn't mean democratization. Like the coffee-house culture, the Internet's public sphere is noticeably male, crude, and given to the concerns of the rich middle class. But it's not subject to the control of press barons, either.

Professors can no more undo the public sphere of the Internet than the embattled experts of the early modern era could undo the coffee houses. That doesn't mean our days are numbered (although Britannica's may be). As Habermas noted, deft politicians learned to use "the knowledge of the millions." And scholars still have a role to play in the world of Wikipedia. It needs us: "Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought." Articles need to cite "reliable sources," which are those that use "process and approval between document creation and publication." In other words, academic work: Wikipedia is on our side.

By Eric Rauchway