“Wikipedia” has largely become a household name, giving worldwide, free Internet-based access to information in areas as diverse as Aerial reconnaissance in World War I, Pizza Farms, Fainting goats and World Toilet Day. But as a project developed by crowdsourcing (anyone in the general public can create or edit the contents), many people are weary of its accuracy. Because of this, many teachers and professors ban their students from citing Wikipedia as a source in their research. In actually, there is nothing wrong with students (or anyone else for that matter) using Wikipedia as a starting place for their research. In fact, according to research conducted by Roy Rosenzweig, some professional or commercial encyclopedias have factual errors in similar proportion to Wikipedia. The danger lies in using Wikipedia as an final authority and and failing to consult additional sources. Nevertheless, when Wikipedia is approached with an analytical approach and mindset, it can generally be a helpful resource. In addition to the page of text that you normally sees when visiting a Wikipedia article, there are also several additional tabs in the left and right hand corners which give you a better idea of how this particular page has come into being.
In the top right hand corner, there is a tab for “View history.” This is probably one of the most important parts of the article. By clicking this tab, you can see a list of every change (called an edit) that has ever been made to that particular article. You can see the name (or IP address if they prefer to stay anonymous) of the person who made the edit, what date and time they made the edit and what content they added, deleted, moved or edited. By clicking on the date the change was made, you are linked to an older version of the article which shows how the paged looked immediately after that edit was completed. You can use these older versions of the article to trace the development of the article. It allows you to ask: When was this page first published? In what order was the content added? Was it organized differently at the beginning than it is now? Who added or edited what content? Were any large sections of content permanently removed?
For example, I looked at the Wikipedia article on Digital Humanities. Under its “View history,” I found 560 edits since its creation on January 30, 2006 at 11:16 pm. By viewing the edits and the old revisions, I was able to see the progression of the page. It started out as a very sparse page, only including a very basic definition of DH and two external links (one of which went to another Wiki page). Next the page got a table of contents with subheadings such as “Toolset,” “Lens,” “Document,” and “Themes.” Then the page was merged with the page about Humanities Computing and a “Standards” subheading was added. Then the “Toolset” heading was changed to “Objectives.” Next, a list of “Humanities Computing Projects” was added at the bottom, referencing the The William Blake Archive and the Walt Whitman Archive. In April of 2009, the bottom section was changed to “Digital Humanities Projects” and many more examples had been added. Much of the article’s content had stayed relatively the same. By March of 2010, the heading were down to three categories: Objectives, Document and Standards. The list of DH projects had been removed. By February 2012, the headings had changed again to: Objectives, Standards, Terminology, Organizations and Institutions, and Problems and Limitations. By July of 2014, the amount of textual content had expanded. In July of 2015, the fact that DH has many definitions was added, along with a link to a online list of definitions. By the end, the headings had changed to: Areas of Inquiry, Environment and Tools, History, Organizations and Institutions (kept from before), Methods and Criticism and controversies.
Another critical aspect to observe when trying to asses the accuracy of an article is to see who are the key contributors to the article though the “View history” tab. As mentioned earlier, Wikipedia is crowdsourced, so anyone can become a contributor. The Digital Humanities article was created by a user called Elijahmeeks. There are several contributors who made multiple edits over the years including SimonMahony, Gabrielbodard, ARK, and Michaelpidd. While there is no user data for Michaelpidd, by clicking on the names of SimonMahony and ARK (Rudolf Ammann), you can see that they are both DH professionals working at University College London’s Centre for Digital Humanities. Because at least two professionals in the field regularly seem to read this page and make updates when needed, I personally tend to place a higher value on the quality and truthfulness of this article than I would if it was only edited by random people with unknown credentials.
An additional important tab is located on the main article page in the upper left had corner. This is the tab for “Talk,” which shows you a discussion board for the article. There you can see what people are saying about the information on the page or the revisions that were made. This page can be used to assess what issues have generated the most controversy on the page. For example, on the Digital Humanities article there were several points of contention. There was some discussion about wether DH and Humanities Computing were the same thing and if they should have separate or different pages. There was also some controversy about including a quote from Melissa Terras, which had been cited though her blog. People were arguing over wether a blog was a reliable source to use in a Wikipedia article. In Terras’ case, since she is professional digital humanist with tenure at a recognized university, her blog (which was a reprint of a speech she gave a a conference) seemed to be deemed as acceptable. Finally, there was also some discussion about the “Methods” section and what content should be included there.
Finally, you always want to look at the references or link provided in the article. What sites are they taking you to? Are they reputable? Are they sponsored by an educational institute? Or even better yet, are they professional peer-reviewed books or articles? Looking at the sources that are cited is critical. These show where the editors got their information, which, according to the Wikipedia guidelines, has to come from a published source. But keep in mind, even professional encyclopedias written by Ph.D.s do contain a few factual errors; one or two minor errors should not cause a user to discount the article entirely.
Recently, there has been a big push from libraries, museums, and archives to add links to their collection to relevant topics in order to drive users to their own content. For example, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum might have links on pages with aeronautics and aviation topics. Sometimes these are added by the institutions themselves, but a fair amount of them are added by normal editors. Sometimes these links proved more information about the topic or link to a digitized database of artifacts that relate to the article’s topic.
In summary, in order to master the art of analytical Wikipedia reading:
- Come to the article with the mindset of investigation.
- Use the “View history” tab to see the article’s progression from creation to the present.
- Look at who the key contributors are and weigh their credentials.
- Use the “Talk” tab to assess what issues have generated the most controversy on the page.
- Check the sources and links to see where the information is coming from.
- Draw your own conclusion about the reliability of the article based on what you have read and observed.
Source for Roy Rosenzweig’s Research:
RRCHNM. Rosenzweig, Roy. “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” Originally published in The Journal of American History 93, no.1 (06, 2006): 117-46.