Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Yes, scholars SHOULD contribute to Wikipedia!

I find myself convinced by Erik Olin Wright's arguments that scholars should actively contribute to Wikipedia. Wright is a sociologist, a productive senior scholar and current President of the American Sociological Association. His views are set out in a clear and concise article in the ASA's newsletter, Footnotes (from November 2011). He has initiated a Wikipedia initiative at the ASA. Here are some quotes from the newsletter article:

"I like to think of Wikipedia as an example of a "real utopia." It embodies ideals of equality, open access, participation, and deliberation in a domination-free environment. It has created a public good available to all."

"Wikipedia has become an important global public good. Since it is a reference source for sociologically relevant ideas and knowledge that is widely used by both the general public and students, it is important that the quality of sociology entries be as high as possible. This will only happen if sociologists themselves contribute to this public good. The basic goal of the new ASA Sociology in Wikipedia Initiative is to make it easier for sociologists to do this. (See the ASA homepage for more information at The heart of the initiative is the creation of a Wikipedia portal connected to the ASA website."

**NOTE: Here is the current link on the ASA website for the "ASA Wikipedia Initiative." I would guess that this is a provisional site that will be improved at some point.

Wright has a great website - many of his publications are available for download, and all sorts of other things. It includes other material related to his Wikipedia initiative, such as a document, "Writing Wikipedia articles as a classroom assignment."

I was struck by two points made by Wright that go against common practice in archaeology. First, he celebrates a broader concept of knowledge than we are accustomed to in archaeology. He says,

" It [Wikipedia] encourages a demystification of credentialism as a source of authority. It softens the boundary between producers and consumers of information, making everyone who uses Wikipedia a potential contributor as well. It is part of a broader movement that challenges exclusionary forms of intellectual property and treats knowledge as a vital commons. It celebrates contributions rooted in motivations of intellectual curiosity and the pleasures of collaborating with a far-flung network of interested people."

Many archaeologists are hesitant to push in this direction, perhaps because there are so many lunatics with supernatural, racist, and other negative agendas writing about archaeology. Participatory knowledge creation is great if you can leave out the diffusionists, the ancient-alien types, and other fringe writers. But sociology certainly has its own fringe elements, promoting racism, exploitation, and other negative and false doctrines. In archaeology, we use credentialism to distinguish valid scholars from these fringe writers. I'd be interested to see how sociology deals with this issue.

My second observation concerns Wright's notion that sociology as a discipline, and the ASA in particular, have the responsibility to create and maintain high quality sociological knowledge in public discourse. While various archaeological societies do promote "public education" (e.g., see the SAA's Principles of Archaeological  ethics, #4, "Public education and outreach"), the emphasis in archaeology seems to lie less on improving public knowledge than on communicating of the results of our fieldwork to the public. I have trouble imagining the SAA undertaking an initiative of this sort, perhaps because the organization has so little intellectual content. It is dedicated to professional goals, which do include journal publication, but the organization seems to rarely take on intellectual issues or pursue intellectual goals. The SAA can publish quality journals, but it doesn't discuss much the content of those journals. Maybe I'm wrong here, but I haven't seen much concern among colleagues for stewardship (a big SAA term) of public archaeological knowledge.

So, personally, I think I may give Wikipedia another chance. The time investment is one of the main drawbacks; should I drop my blogs and start working on Wikipedia? I must admit that i am intrigued by the notion of incorporating Wikipedia into my early cities course. Many Wikipedia entries on ancient cities stress their spectacular and tourist-oriented aspects. Perhaps my students could help give these entries a broader context and ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree they should, but what about 'could'? Wikipedia has become a war-zone with loud ignorants deleting the changes of the educated. My experience with Wikipedia has been a waste of time and entering a long argument. I agree with this:

- It has become harder for casual participants to contribute.

- Accurate contributors can be silenced.

- The contributor with an agenda often prevails.

- Individuals with agendas sometimes have significant editing authority.

- There is little diversity among editors.


I do give wikipedia a quick look, but is it worth the time and grief to edit it?