I attended middle and high school in the early 2000’s, when high speed internet, public wifi, mobil devices and user generated content was all fairly new. I think anyone going to school at that time can remember lengthy lectures from teachers and librarians warning us against the pitfalls of Wikipedia. I was taught never to use it as a source. First of all, it is a general knowledge source, and like all encyclopedias shouldn’t be cited. But more importantly, the content was misleading, misinformed, badly written or just wrong. The text was written by ordinary people- not trusted PhDs.
To the first point, most high school students probably shouldn’t cite Wikipedia as one of their three internet sources. But as to the validity of the information, investigations have shown that most of the content is reliable1. As with any other source, Wikipedia articles should be read with scrutiny. The following is intended to be a guide to this end.
How to Read a Wikipedia Article: A Step-by-Step Guide
As an illustrative example, I’ll be using the article “Digital Humanities.”
1. Read the article. Sounds simple enough, but with all our history teachers’ warnings of the pitfalls of Wikipedia, sometimes just reading the article seems like a slander against our intellectual upbringing. We were taught better than this! But before we go throwing accusations around, perhaps we’d better give the accused their say.
As a result of this read-though you should be able to answer a few questions: “What is this thing?”; “Why is it important?”; and “Why is it interesting?” If, by the end of the article, you feel like you have a general grasp of what the thing is, at first blush the article is successful. In the example of the Digital Humanities article, I feel pretty confident that I could explain to a friend what DH using only the information provided.
The following two questions lead into the skeptical aspects of reading a Wikipedia article. They are questions about motive. There is no editorial board deciding what should be included (or not) in this encyclopedia. Individuals simply think, “This is a thing people would want/need to know about. So, I’m going to write this article.” In the case of our DH article, the author(s) seem to think it’s important because it’s a relatively new way of quantifying humanities research (at least that’s what I got out of the article). Now, the article about the “Heavy Metal Umlaut”2 many would probably argue is not particularly important (please refrain from long comments about intellectual and cultural relativism in the comments). It is, however, certainly interesting. After reading the article, I came away with the impression that it’s interesting because although there is no linguistic reason for the symbol in these metal bands’ names, there is a culturally significant reason.
2. Look at the author(s). At this point you might think to go directly to the revision history to see a stop-action film of the page’s development, complete with bloopers. Instead, I think a better approach is to look at the authorship, particularly those most engaged in editing to article. This information will give you an idea about just how “crowdsourced” this article is. I would argue that the more editors an article has, the better. A good deal of editors means that at the very least you’re not reading an opinion piece.
First, click on the “View history” tab at the top of the article, then the “Revision history statistics” link found near the top of that page: Upon clicking this link you’ll encounter a mess of data and lovely visualizations. The first item of interest is who created the article; in this case user Elijahmeeks. If you click the user name, you’re taken to a wikipage about the author where we learn that this is someone who is actively engaged in Digital Humanities at a university. At least in the case of this article, our fear that Wikipedia entries are created on the whim of bored teenagers is completely unfounded. I happen to know that Elijah Meeks is a major figure in Digital Humanities, but even if you didn’t you would understand from his page that he is an expert in the field. Not all contributors have anything in their link and some have very little information. In any case, we can begin to understand why Elijahmeeks was compelled to start this article in the first place- he was a Digital Humanist (and one that studied Wikipedia, according to his page) so he had a vested interest in making the field visible on Wikipedia.
The next bit of information the Revision history statistics page provides that is of particular interest is that of the top editors: After exploring the top ten users, we come to learn that 6 of the 10 are Digital Humanities experts. Three are unidentifiable. We’ll get to the last one in a moment. But first, the six experts. Knowing that actual Digital Humanists were prominent among the most active editors of the page is a credit towards the articles legitimacy, but what of it’s accuracy? From the article it is clear that many facets of Digital Humanities is hotly contested. So, might these various experts (knowingly or not) be trying to push an agenda? Perhaps, but the fact that there are quiet a few suggests that they’re policing each other and making sure that Wikipedia’s NPOV (Neutral Point of View) standard is enforced.
Now, to that one known non-Digital Humanist contributor, ElKevbo. Before we even learn who this person is, we are met with an interesting set of notes in their link: One from the editor and one from (presumably) Wikipedia administration:
“I’m taking a break from Wikipedia for an indeterminate length of time. I’m a bit burnt our and experiencing a general lack of support so I need to reevaluate whether this is a worthwhile project in which to invest time and energy.” To which the administrator replies, “Great idea to take an indeterminate length of time. If you do return, hope you understand the difference of censorship and source materials. Wikipedia needs to stay free from what you were doing and/or attempting to do to censor information submitted to Wikipedia.” That’s pretty serious claim. This casts a shadow of doubt on this person’s edits, and the article in general, since this editor is ranked third. Did ElKevbo censor anything on this page? But, before we jump to conclusions, let’s visit ElKevbo’s personal website.
Here we learn that ElKevbo is Kevin R. Guidry, a “scholar of higher education” currently working at the University of Delaware. Kevin’s interest in the Digital Humanities probably springs from an administrative lens. From his biography, I would consider him someone engaged in Digital Humanities, but not an expert. He certainly uses DH tools and methods, but seemingly to ends of exploring higher education. In any case, for the purposes of assessing the usefulness of the Digital Humanities article, a closer look at his edits would be enlightening.
3. View the editors’ revision history. To get a better idea about the kinds of edits a contributor made (adding information, formatting, grammar corrections, ect.), looking at the specific edits of major editors, especially those in question, would be helpful. To do this, navigate back to the “View history” page and click the link “Edits by user”, which is on the same line as the “Revision history statistics” link.2
After clicking this link, and entering ElKevbo’s (or the pertinent username) in the username field, we encounter a list of all ElKevbo’s edits. The date, number of characters added or subtracted, and a short description (provided by the author) is listed for each edit. I find the description the most helpful. A quick glance demonstrates that ElKevbo mostly removed content. According to the user, these edits were mostly made in compliance with Wikipedia guidelines. We can explore the changes by clicking the “diff” link on an edit. I was curious about the large subtraction he made on 4 April, 2012. Indeed, upon looking at the changes, the assertions the previous author had made were uncited. Upon a closer look at ElKevbo’s edits, it seems that, in regards to the trustworthiness of the editors, the Digital Humanities article is solid.
4. Look through the entire revision history. This sounds daunting, and it would be if I meant to meticulously go through each edit to scrutinize the development of the page in minutia. But this is not what I’m suggesting. Rather, look through for edits that either add a great deal of material or subtract it. The purpose is to get a general idea of how editors interacted with each other to write a trustworthy article that meet Wikipedia’s guidelines. If you see a lot of back and forth between authors, and citations in the edit descriptions of particular guidelines, that’s good. It means the editors are policing each other. I save this for the end because I think you can better gage individual edits if you know who the major players are. If you start with this tool, as I did, you’ll get pretty bogged down in details, like the exact moment “Controversies” changed to “Problems.”
*Words to the wise: One thing that my high school teachers never harped on, which I think is important to keep in mind, is that most Wikipedia articles are a work in progress. You are not looking at a finished product, but something that grows and evolves with time. And that is probably the greatest strength of Wikipedia. You’re seeing what the general consensus is about a topic at the particular second in time you click the link to the article. That being said, it’s always a good idea to quickly check the latest edits to be sure you didn’t happen to view the page in the few minutes between the edits of a bored teenager and a good-faith contributor.
1 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.
2 I discovered this page through the mandatory readings my instructor assigned leading up to this post. This isn’t so much a reading as a narrated movie of Wikipedia in action. It’s worth a watch both for the amusement and the scholarly discussion of the typical editing practices of Wikipedia: Udell, Jon. “Heavy Metal Umlaut: the movie.” Strategies for Internet Citizens (blog), January 22, 2005.
3 You could also view the user’s history on their wikipage’s “Talk” tab. For assessing the validity of an article, however, I don’t think this is necessary or a good use of time.