When I was teaching freshman writing this last year, I got several student papers that cited Wikipedia for opinions about gender, race and economic issues, and I found myself in a full body cringe (almost as much as when I hear Wikipedia referred to as just “Wiki”). Though I am a Wikipedia evangelist, I never want to see any encyclopedia, much less the crowd sourced encyclopedia, as the foundation for academic research: the whole point of teaching students college level research and writing is so when they enter their next career able to engage with specialist research – adequately communicating that specialist knowledge and its interpretation. Encyclopedias are anything but specialist! That being said, there are a number of reasons why Wikipedia matters for academia. In an earlier post, I talked about the misconceptions many academics bring to the table when thinking about Wikipedia, and here I will follow that conversation up with reasons Wikipedia matters for Academia. Below are just a few that I find important:
Wikipedia for research
First, and foremost, like any encyclopedia Wikipedia offers a vast collection of citations and useful links to get anyone’s research started. This appears to be the most common advice given by academics, professors and students and is the first thing people say when I tell them I want to talk about Wikipedia. It seems that the years of bad press about Wikipedias quality and the popular pressure to use it has forced this conversation without Wikipedian intervention.
Gateway to Shaping Public Knowledge
Second, as science fiction writer and internet thinker Cory Doctorow points out, Wikipedia is an “an infinite supply of gateway drugs to engagement” with knowledge, its distribution, and its construction (Minute 1:00 of this recent interview from him supporting London Wikimania 2014). Wikipedia offers openly to everyone the opportunity to find a topic and shape public knowledge about it. Does everyone do it? No, but clearly the possibility is there to create public individuals who don’t shy from asserting themselves in public spaces. Take myself for instance, I started editing because I noticed a big gap in coverage of contemporary fiction from around the world, and now I am engaged in literary studies and digital humanities. Academia’s desire to cultivate quality researchers and knowledge shapers can start with Wikipedia. Many of our students from the Wikipedia Education Program, find themselves impacting much larger communities then they ever thought they would be able to (take, for example, these case studies from the Wikimedia Foundation blog at Rice University or the University of San Fransisco ). When I helped professors run editing assignments at James Madison University, a number of students told me that their experience with Wikipedia helped them become more confident in their knowledge and even helped some of them do better in internships over the summer! Wikipedia allows students and other interested individuals to meaningfully and thoughtfully shape public participation in the knowledge they care about.
Gateway for academics to access the public
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Wikipedia is the only one of the top ten websites that is aligned with what we do in Academia. Above is a screenshot from a Prezi I use when talking about Wikipedia . In the image, I attempt to show just how small digital academia is in the grand scheme of the World Wide Web (the little circle lost between Google, Amazon and Wikipedia). A large fraction of internet users choose to negotiate the internet through one of these top ten websites, and if you want someone to discover a piece of knowledge or information, you need to be present through these venues (this is a basic principle of Knowledge Management). Unfortunately for academics, many of these organizations also stand for commercial values, and their activities are meant to draw more customers. Wikipedia is clearly not commercial, and it’s customer base, though always expanding, does not really factor into the everyday concerns of most contributors. For the Wikimedia Foundation, whose job it is to build readership, projects like Wikipedia Zero are designed to create opportunities for the underprivileged to access knowledge, not for building a customer base. Thus an external link or citation on the academically aligned Wikipedia allows interested individuals to discover high quality academic work about the subjects they care about without anyone benefiting commercially. This is precisely why GLAM-Wiki projects are so successful: GLAM resources become linked to the relevant topics on Wikipedia and interested users get a direct path to the authoritative resource! And beyond that simple access, the GLAM invested resources primarily benefit the public and Wikimedia volunteers instead of creating more money in the pocket of big business.
I hope this was a helpful. This conversation about the importance of Wikipedia in Academia happens in a number of contexts (for example this recent blog post on Simply Sociology), and I am sure their are plenty of other reasons why Wikipedia matters for Academia. However, these seem to be the ones that most tellingly show how Wikipedia influences the academic space. What do you think? How else does Wikipedia benefit academia?