My hate affair with Wikipedia

In all my first blog posts, I was confronted with the problem of wanting to link to people or to literary works which most of the people interested in the technical aspects of this blog would not have known. I remember reluctantly linking to the English wikipedia page on August Boeckh that perpetuates a century-long mistake on his first name. When I do so, I know I am linking to vague or even erroneous knowledge. But I still did it, and I have to admit I have done it less and less recently. Because if my readers want to get some additional, basic information, they might as well open their own wikipedia tab. And maybe (hopefully) they will open a google tab and get more search alternatives than just the wikipedia entry.

In class too, it is obvious that the students do all their research with wikipedia. And I know it, because I consult the same pages in the two hours that precede the class, to check on a date for instance. I tell myself it is OK if I do it, because I have enough background knowledge to sort out the relevant information and ignore what is irrelevant and wrong. But what I can organize into a hierarchy, my BA-students can’t, so they should not do it. Should there be an education level required to be authorized to consult wikipedia, I would be tempted to say it is the point when you would be able to make an appropriate contribution to wikipedia yourself.

Now define “appropriate” – this is still a problem to me and the reason why I overreacted to Christof Schöch’s tweet of this morning that went:

Ch. Schöch: Warum beteiligen sich Wissenschaftl. nicht an Wikipedia, obwohl diese Humboldts “Kosmos”-Projekt realisiert? #wikipedia

(translation: Why don’t scholars participate in wikipedia although it realizes Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos project of a total and universal science?)

Without even taking the time to read the article, I answered:

AnneBaillot: weil immer hinterher jemand “überprüft” und fehler wieder einfügt!

followed by a somewhat more elaborate (english) answer not even an hour (and having read the paper) later:

AnneBaillot: seriously: I really think it has to do with authority (Autorisierung und Autorschaft). did you ever write articles in wikipedia?

I had started wondering why I was being so defensive about wikipedia when Christof’s answer came, and I was not the only one he had to justify himself against. Obviously, there are other people around here with metaphysical issues about wikipedia.

I re-wrote the Solger article in the German wikipedia a few years ago because I was giving a class on Solger and wanted my students to at least not think he was “the romantic philosopher who theorized irony” (or the similar sentence that was there before). I managed to put a more accurate formulation. But they had to change the “Berlin University” I am sure I wrote into “Friedrich-Wilhelm-University”, which is absurd and irrelevant, since the University only carried this name long after Solger was dead, and has stopped carrying it after world war 2. But I gave up correcting that, which is pretty much the standard reason the paper quoted by Christof considered responsible for scholars not to pursue contributions to Wikipedia: at some point, you don’t have enough energy to get involved in the details of the article production process.

The problem with Solger is the following: there are 5 Solger experts in the world and I am one of them, so I can’t admit that what I write about him could be re-written without even asking the other 4 people (who, although they are philosophers, know about the University denomination thing) or myself. I am the authority on that subject. What was wrong from me was in fact to assume that the way I would write the text would make my authority point obvious and would prevent anyone from daring touch my holy text.

This does not have to do only with the fact that you have to write anonymously or in a participatory way (done it too, was not a problem!). The problem for me is (I guess) the idea that the procedure is, in fact, hierarchical, that there is a web controller patrolling somewhere, correcting me in the face of the world (and of my students). So maybe, in fact, you should not write wikipedia papers on what you know best, but on things you don’t mind being corrected on. And maybe you should only read wikipedia papers you don’t actually need. Maybe you should just consult the links in wikipedia.

Anyway: sorry, Christof – and I promise to read what you link to before answering the next time.



Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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2 Responses

  1. Christof Schöch says:

    When Wikipedia made it to the title page of “Le Monde” last weekend (cf., I was reminded of this little debate. So, althouth this comes a bit late, I would still like to reply here, not primarily because I agree with some of your points and disagree with some others, but simply because I fell strongly about the issue, and because I think you are raising important issues concerning the relations between Wikipedia and the Academia.

    The first issue you raise is whether or not our students have the conceptual tools, education or intelligence to make the most out of articles from Wikipedia that are not perfect. If they can’t do it (and I agree that many of them don’t, digital natives or not), we have to teach it to them! If we just tell them to leave Wikipedia alone they will ingore this well-intentioned advice, continue to engage with Wikipedia in a superficial way and never learn how to use it properly. In my experience, the best way to teach students to understand the potential flaws of any Wikipedia article is to have them write articles for Wikipedia and experience how difficult it is to write a good one. This also needs to include teaching them how Wikipedia works, what mechanisms for quality assurance there are, for instance. There are more than most of us imagine!

    The next issue I see is what can be done about content that is not sufficiently developed to be useful for our students. If anyone is wondering whether Wikipedia (as an encyclopedia of relevant knowledge for everyone) can be an appropriate place for highly specialized knowledge of the type we are producing as humanities scholars, just have a look at some of the articles pertaining to other disciplines. You will be amazed at how much specialized, seemingly very complete, well-documented and (at least to my mind) quite complicated information there is about things like “Phagocyte” ( or the “Distributed Element Filter” ( Admittedly, these are rare “featured articles”. Still, why can’t we do the same and be happy about what our students can learn in Wikipedia?

    This leads me to the last issues, that of why we humanities scholars are not contributing to Wikipedia. Yes, there is the issue of authority. Things we may care about do occasionally get changed by others. But do we really want to transfer the kind of authority that is linked to our position in the academic hierarchy to Wikipedia? That authority which, however high or low, stable or instable it may seem to us, certainly puts us firmly above our students (at least in their perception) and many of the contributors on Wikipedia, at least in the domain of our specific subject area(s)? I don’t want this kind of authority on Wikipedia, and I am ready to defend my point of view, with good arguments and a knowledge of how Wikipedia functions, against anyone who is planning to introduce some (in my view) nonsense into a Wikipedia article I care about. And if I can’t make myself be understood, then it is probably as much my fault as the other person’s.

    Generally, I guess my point is that it all boils down to everyone’s need of something like Wikipedia-related information competency. Students need to be trained to use Wikipedia in an appropriate way, and we academics need to understand Wikipedia better if we want to be less frustrated about contributing to it. If you know the rules, your stuff is much less likely to be deleted by some administrator or stubborn contributor. At least this is my experience, and this is certainly something I learned the hard way.

  2. jonathan says:

    although i agree that wikipedia has some major issues with obscure and especific subjects, for exemple, if you choose carefully the time of the day and the article you want , you can put whatever you want and no one will ever notice.

    i think that if you are one of the 5 especiallist in X, that just mean it’s not really the realm of wikipedia. No offense i think you (and many people) miss the point of wikipedia:

    wikipedia stands for neutral knowlege spreading based on a “Heterogeneous Open Community” wikipedia is not meant to provide highly especialized content, but acessibilitty to general knowledge.

    it’s an open community so you have to make a big effort to be trusted and that counts a lot.

    Many scholars , intelectuals and educators raging against wikipedia come from a narrow elitist point of view that is pure misunderstanding of its function. Crowd collaboration has its problems but any system has.

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