For many years, I was conflicted about the use of Wikipedia in the academic setting. My students were strongly warned never to use it as a source in their papers. I strongly discouraged them from looking at Wikipedia as a starting point for their papers because they might be led astray by incorrect information. Looking back now, I am not sure why I was so resistant to Wikipedia. Unconsciously, I found myself turning to it for quick and basic factual information. Thanks to Google for always ranking the Wikipedia page highly. If the factual information I needed was for any scholarly activity, I was never satisfied with the answer Wikipedia gave me. For example, in my attempt to find out when the first Labour Party formed a minority government in the United Kingdom, Wikipedia gave the answer as 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald. I could not bring myself to trust that answer. They were no direct scholarly sources that the article linked that I could use to confirm the date. It however pointed me to Ramsay MacDonald whom I easily searched using the library databases. This search revealed many sources that confirmed the date.
My attitude toward Wikipedia has evolved over time. My own experiences using Wikipedia as a starting point to find factual information convinced me that Wikipedia may not be that dangerous after all. As one who has edited articles on Wikipedia, I will never take any fact or source on Wikipedia on its face value. I will always verify it. This is because I have seen errors that have actually been supported with bogus sources. As Roy Rosenweig argued in his article, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” the newer entries tend to have more errors than the older entries. This is because for the older entries, someone would have caught the errors and corrected them.
I am convinced that it is a futile effort to stop my students from using Wikipedia for their papers. They are history students and if there is one thing Wikipedia is very good at, it is history. A substantial number of my students are often interested in war history (World War I and World War II). The Wikipedia entry on World War I is big and has more than three hundred citations and many references. While I still do not allow them to use Wikipedia as a source, they can use it as a first step in their research to have a general direction what they want to write on and some of the sources that might already be available for that topic. There is no harm letting the students do this because people who edit these articles are usually passionate about the topic and bring perspectives to it that neither the student nor the professor may have thought about. Also these articles are sometimes written by professionals. This is not limited to history but other fields as well.
As at the present time, my research interest is in the Digital Humanities. I looked at the Wikipedia page on Digital Humanities and I can say that the article is good, well sourced and directs the reader to other vital resources. Should you just take my word for it? Perhaps not. The interesting thing is that Wikipedia does allow you to look at who has edited the article and how the article has evolved over time. It even shows you the date each change was made and what kind of change was made to the article. It so happens that this information is actually very easy to find. All you need to do is to hit the “View History” tap on the top right of the page and you will see an overview of all the changes that have been made. When you view the history of the Digital Humanities page, what you will discover is that the entries and edits have been made by well respected scholars in the Digital Humanities such as Elijah Meeks, John Unsworth, Willard McCarty, Gabriel Bodard and Simon Mahoney. What this means for me is that I can trust what I see. This is also a challenge for us scholars to engage the platform. We are never going to stop students or people from using Wikipedia as a basis for their information. At the minimum, we can make sure that the information they get is accurate.
A tool which has also become very useful in finding out how materials are used on Wikipedia is Linkypedia. This tool allows you to see how your materials or those of an institution are used on Wikipedia and it even allows you to connect with the people who are using that material. For example, I was able to look and see how material from the institution, History and Policy is used on Wikipedia. People writing historical articles that were connected to the UK were using links from this institution as a source. Sometimes the data itself which is on a Wikipedia page is lifted directly from another credible institutions such as the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress. While Wikipedia will remove any copyrighted material that is added to the site, there is so much valuable materials from institutions that is not under copyright. Perhaps when people are able to use linkypedia to discover the source of a particular article as being from the Smithsonian, they may have more trust for what they are reading.
Wikipedia provides the kind of public service to the world in terms of impacting knowledge that we as scholars are unable to. We only reach so few students each semester. If we are in the job of spreading knowledge, perhaps it is time to free our academic journal articles from the prisons of “pay walls” that they are under and make them available to the general public. It is true that a good number of journals are now open source but the problem is that these articles are incomprehensible for the non-expert in the field. Unfortunately, as scholars we find ourselves writing for ourselves. I think it will be worthwhile if journals ask writers of accepted articles to also submit a 1-2pages summary of their article in written form that an eight grader would comprehend. This summary is thereafter posted on Wikipedia after the article is published. We will be amazed at the millions of people around the world that will read these articles. If the MOOCs and Wikipedia have taught us anything, it is that there are so many people around the world that desire knowledge.