Sunday, March 30, 2014

Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past

Roy Rosenzweig, "Can history be open source? Wikipedia and the future of the past," Journal of American History (2006)

The article "Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past" by Roy Rosenzweig sets out to answer the titular question, and confirms in a somewhat surprised manner that historical scholarship can be constructed by an online collective. However, this construction is not without its flaws, and Rosenzweig explores both the benefits and the drawbacks of such popular collaboration.

By propping his argument up with the origins of Wikipedia, Rosenzweig establishes a background for how the professional culture of historical writing can be similar in nature to open source sites. In a thorough chronology of Wikipedia, the author discusses how the site has grown exponentially since its earliest incarnation in 2001 (pg. 5). Guided by the principles that all entries must present encyclopedic information which avoids bias, does not infringe on copyrights, and fosters an environment of respect between contributors, Wikipedia incorporates scholarly notions within a much more informal delivery system (pg 9). While these similarities are positive, the notion that users have degrees of anonymity, do not need to be credentialed, and can continuously edit entries have created needs for a system of checks and balances (pg.11). But even these problems are accounted for, as Rosenzweig points out, the many impassioned users have created an enterprise in which misinformation is quickly edited (pg 21).

After exploring how Wikipedia functions as a system, Rosenzweig delves into whether or not open source collaboration is useful for creating historical resources. In answering this, the author first presents many of the failings of open source culture. Even though Wikipedia hosts a large breadth of topics, many of its entries contain gaps or biases. The laundry list of events left out of the entry for "United States from 1918 to 1945" contains many standard historical topics, including the Red Scare, rise of the radio, and the prevalent unionism (pg. 12). Along with gaps, much of the information that gets edited is biased towards users' locations, which counteracts the goal of all contributors presenting information with objective points of view (pg. 19).

On the flip side of such oversights, Rosenzweig provides examples of how Wikipedia can be used to successfully create historical resources. In comparisons to both the American National Biography Online and Microsoft Encarta, Wikipedia comes out surprisingly strong. While falling short of the comprehensiveness and multi-million dollar budget of the American National Biography Online, the unpaid volunteers behind Wikipedia have created more content and coverage than Encarta (pg. 13) While Wikipedia's extensive coverage is often attributed to the multitude of entries based on contributors' interests in science fiction obscurities, Rosenzweig points out that the writing in the historical biographies is fairly effective (pg. 13). And while Rosenzweig claims that shared writing is "the Achilles' heel of Wikipedia," it is interesting to point out that much of the his research into the accuracy of entries yields positive results. When looking at 25 historical biographical entries, Rosenzweig found only 4  factual errors (pg. 15), which supports the idea that a community of fact checkers exists.

There are many who refute the validity of Wikipedia in creating historical resources. Misinformed fact checkers can overpower the truth, and outside sites who cite misinformation from Wikipedia may never be corrected,  which lends credence to those who are wary of the site (p. 23). But Rosenzweig offers suggestions for concerned historians. To improve the historical resources on Wikipedia, Rosenzweig urges historians to educate users on the limitations of wikis, make scholarly resources available for free, and to actually edit the site themselves (27). Noting that Wikipedia is an "optimistic" endeavor, and that volunteers have benefited historical research many times over, Rosenzweig believes that open source creation could lead to the creation of something as useful as a free U.S. History textbook for all students (pg. 37). However, as with anything online, "the barriers to success in such a project (as Wikipedia) are more social than technological" (pg. 37).


-Based off a 2000 project called Nupedia by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, which only published 20 articles in 1.5 years.

- Switched to wiki software, the site grew exponentially: by the end of the second year, it had 100,000 articles in the English edition.
How it Works
  1. It is an encyclopedia.
  2. Avoid bias- articles should be written with neutral point of view (NPOV).
  3. Don’t infringe on copyrights.
  4. Respect other contributors.

Resources are “free-to-use” (p.9)

Rules eventually extended to keep users respectful (ex: banning)
Can it create good historical resources?
Broader topics may have gaps.
Ex: US History from 1918 to 1945 leaves out The Red Scare, KKK formation, woman suffrage

May be better for biographies, because they are more clear cut.

Comparison with American National Biography- Wikipedia did not have the comprehensiveness. (p.13)

Comparison with Encarta -Exceeds the number of articles, and words per entry. (p. 13)

Breadth of materials covered could be attributed to “geek priorities.” (p.14) But only 4 flat out factual errors found in sample of 25 biographical entries. Even challenges Encyclopedia Britannica.

Weaknesses and Strengths
- Writing is its “Achilles Heel,” because committee writing may be disjointed. Writing has the blandness of mere information. (20)
- Bias towards subjects, especially when people write about their hometowns. (19)
- Falsifications have a lasting effect: Sites that take info from Wikipedia, such as and retained the wrong info.
+ A blogger inserted errors: 13 were purposefully inserted, and corrected within 2.5 hours.
+ Can see edits that have been made
+ Helps create discourse, encourages historical fact checking (p.30)
+ free labor has helped historians before, ex: Latter-Day Saints  (p.36)
+,- Instant updates
Why Should we Care?
- Propagates misinformation
- May be the only site students consult.
  1. Teach the limitations of wikis
  2. Historians need to make better information sources available for free.
“Wikipedia embodies an optimistic view of community and collaboration that already informs the best of the academic enterprise.” (p.35)


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