If I were “You”: How Academics Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “the Encyclopedia that Anyone Can Edit”
By Daniel Paul O’Donnell (University of Lethbridge), in: The Heroic Age May 2007
§19. If I am correct in thinking that attempts to create alternatives to the Wikipedia by combining aspects of traditional academic selectivity and review with a wiki-based open collaboration model are doomed to failure, then the question becomes what “we” (the professional University teachers and researchers who are so suspicious of the original Wikipedia) are to do with what “you” (the amateurs who contribute most of the Wikipedia’s content) produce.
§20. It is clear that we can’t ignore it: no matter what we say in our syllabi, students will continue to use the Wikipedia in their essays and projects—citing it if we allow them to do so and plagiarising from it if we do not. Just as importantly, the Wikipedia is rapidly becoming the public’s main portal to the subjects we teach and research: popular journalists now regularly cite the Wikipedia in their work and the encyclopaedia commonly shows up on the first page of Google searches. While it may not be in any specific scholar’s individual professional interest to take time away from his or her refereed research in order to contribute to a project that provides so little prestige, it is clearly in our collective interest as a profession to make sure that our disciplines are well represented in the first source to which our students and the broader public turn when they want to find out something about the topics we research and teach.
§21. But perhaps this shows us the way forward. Perhaps what we need is to see the Wikipedia and similar participatory sites less as a threat to our way of doing things than a way of making what we do more visible to the general public. The fictional romance between LonelyGirl15 and DanielBeast on YouTube did not threaten the makers of commercial television. But it did give prominence to a medium that makers of commercial television now use regularly to attract audiences to their professional content in the traditional media. In our case, the Wikipedia is less an alternative to traditional scholarship (except perhaps as this is represented in print encyclopaedias) than it is a complement—something that can be used to explain, show off, and broaden the appeal of the work we do in our professional lives.
§22. In fact, the important thing about the Wikpedia is that it has been built almost entirely through the efforts of amateurs—that is to say by people who are not paid to conduct research in our disciplines but do so anyway because it is their hobby. While it can certainly be disheartening to see the occasional elementary mistake or outlandish theory in a Wikipedia entry, we should not ignore the fact that the entry itself exists because people were interested enough in what we do to try and imitate it in their spare time. Given the traditional lack of respect shown scholarly research by governments and funding agencies for much of the last century, we should be rejoicing in this demonstration of interest—in much the same way scientists judging a science fair are able to see past the many relatively trivial experiments on display and recognise the event’s importance as a representation of popular interest in what they do.
§23. This recognition of the extent to which the Wikipedia has engaged the imagination of the general public and turned it to the amateur practice of scholarship suggests what I think may prove to be the best way of incorporating it into the lives of professional academics: since the Wikipedia appears unable to serve as a route to professional advancement for intrinsic reasons, perhaps we should begin to see contributions to it by professional scholars as a different type of activity altogether—as a form of community service to be performed by academics in much the same way lawyers are often expected to give back to the public through their pro bono work. A glance at almost any discussion page on the Wikipedia will show that the Wikipedians themselves are aware of the dangers posed to the enterprise by the inclusion of fringe theories, poor research, and contributions by people with insufficient disciplinary expertise. As certified experts who work daily with the secondary and primary research required to construct good Wikipedia entries, we are in a position to contribute to the construction of individual articles in a uniquely positive way by taking the time to help clean up and provide balance to entries in our professional areas of interest. In doing so, we can both materially improve the quality of the Wikipedia and demonstrate the importance of professional scholars to a public whose hobby touches very closely on the work we are paid to do—and whose taxes, by and large, support us.
§24. And who knows, maybe “we” could even join “you” in accepting Time Magazine’s nomination for person of the year.