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Can you trust the historical accuracy of Wikipedia?

May 2014

2 Comments

Wikipedia is now the largest free online resource of historical writing. In fact, most of Wikipedia’s 3 million articles are history-related. Clearly, more people are turning to Wikipedia to learn about history. Should open-source content be used to teach students about history?

Wikipedia is written by a collaboration of unpaid volunteers without strong editorial control. Something Wikipedia freely acknowledges in its own page devoted to self-criticism. Understandably, historians and educators are questioning Wikipedia’s reliability over traditional encyclopaedias written and reviewed by academics, such as Encyclopædia Britannica, the Canadian Encyclopedia, Encarta, and American National Biography Online. Several studies have sought to compare the information on Wikipedia with more traditional resource material and the results may surprise you!

How accurate is Wikipedia?

A recent essay by American historian Roy Rosenzweig examined the effects of Wikipedia on historical writing and its credibility as a reliable source.  He compared entries in Wikipedia with more well-regarded resources and surprisingly he found a similar error rate! While Wikipedia’s anonymous, open-source system may cause concern about vandalism and misinformation, his tests have found that serious mistakes are not only much less common than one might expect, but are typically corrected within a matter of hours.

The largest complaint about historical writing on Wikipedia is that it is subject to the biases of its writers – which are for the most part English-speaking males from Western culture. Because writers for Wikipedia are volunteers, they typically write about what they are interested in, and popular interest is not necessarily the same as scholarly interest. As a result, some areas that attract a large amount of professional historical writing are barely covered on Wikipedia, while news events and popular culture get much more extensive coverage.

Should Wikipedia be trusted to teach students about history?

Another difference between historical writing and articles found on Wikipedia is that while professional historians value original research, Wikipedia “summarizes and reports the conventional and accepted wisdom on a topic but does not break new ground.” Historians may be critical of the little value that is placed on historical research and expertise; however, the same is true of encyclopedias in general. Indeed, the concern teachers have about students resorting to Wikipedia to learn about a topic extends to all encyclopedias, digital or print, written by professionals or otherwise. Encyclopedias by nature are not designed to give the whole story on a subject, and as such should not be the only resource a student consults in their research.

While Wikipedia’s ease of use and tendency to appear as one of the first results in a Google search on a topic makes it a popular starting point for many students, this is not necessarily cause for alarm. The information provided by Wikipedia is generally correct, and Rosenzweig concludes that “Teachers have little more to fear from students’ starting with Wikipedia than from their starting with most other basic reference sources. They have a lot to fear if students stop there.” The solution is not to caution students against using Wikipedia, but to teach them about the limitations of reference resources and the value of primary and secondary sources.

As to what Wikipedia means for professional historians, its popularity does not diminish the need for professional historical writing. Historical writing is valued not just for the accuracy of facts but for command of existing scholarly literature, critical analysis and interpretation, and concise and readable prose style. By these measures, professional resources will always be of higher quality than Wikipedia. Rosenzweig goes on to suggest that if historians believe free, open-source content such as Wikipedia to be low quality, it may be their obligation to make better information sources available online. As more people are turning to free, accessible online resources to learn about a topic, historians could help by ensuring that the information found online is “as good as possible.”

Museums offer a different type of service

Does Wikipedia threaten the important role museums play in society? Absolutely not! In fact, one could argue that the prevalence of open source websites like Wikipedia only reinforces the need for truly authoritative and reliable content. Wikipedia is merely an aggregator, and rarely acts as source for original research and historical insight. That’s why there will always be a place for trustworthy and culturally-significant authors with respected credentials. Luckily, museums have a vast supply of this type of primary information.

In addition, Wikipedia – while surprisingly accurate – is not immune to significant bias. For instance, the concentration of topics around pop-culture overshadows more historical significant events that are sometimes barely covered, despite their importance. And Wikipedia content offers a very American-centric view of the world, that might lack in Canadian content and/or perspective (obviously, Wikipedia doesn’t cater as well to minority communities – which is a particular concern given Canada’s two official languages and diverse cultural heritage).

Regardless, museums offer a unique perspective that is as important today as it was in the past. Museum findings may feed Wikipedia’s ongoing conversation with users, but the quality and source of the information still matters a great deal. The only thing that has changed is the method of communication; that is, younger audience will prefer that museum content be made available on the Web.

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2 Responses to Can you trust the historical accuracy of Wikipedia?

  1. Denton Keating says:

    This was a very insightful commentary on Wikipedia it probably tempered my former lack of respect. Thanks

  2. Bill Aird says:

    Wikipedia provides the possibility of linking to other relevant sources. If we want to have a source with more in-depth analysis then we need to create that source and establish it as a go to source for Canadian historical information. I’m all in favour of this.
    I think every author (submitter) should have to state all positions held, all grants that support the author, and a short biography explaining the author’s outlook on history. Everyone has a bias … we should just know what it is. And if someone doesn’t explain their bias then we should exclude their entries!!
    I’m the President of the North York Historical Society, we receive a HODG grant but I don’t think this has any influence on me. I am opposed to the ‘great-man’ theory of history. Anyone who wants to contact me can use this email address: bill.aird@sympatico.ca.

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