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Leading scholar hails Wikipedia, historians urged to contribute while PR pros remain shunned

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By Skomorokh

Leading historian hails Wikipedia, urges colleagues' engagement

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

President of the American Historical Association William Cronon, who celebrated Wikipedia as "the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known" in an editorial exhorting scholars to greater engagement with it

William Cronon, a renowned environmental historian and President of the American Historical Association, wrote an editorial for the February edition of association's encyclical Perspectives on History in which he expressed his admiration for Wikipedia and his desire to see more of his colleagues engaging with the project. "Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality", he wrote, "I don't believe there's much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history".

Acknowledging the dramatic reach of the encyclopaedia, Cronon declared it to be a gateway to knowledge for millions, replacing tools traditionally compiled and maintained by credentialed professionals while maintaining comparatively minuscule number of paid staff. This has cast the role of professional scholars in the future of knowledge dissemination and public education into question, Cronon argued, considering that the "overall quality of Wikipedia content is remarkably good", particularly for quick consultations and general overviews and with "a breadth and intellectual scope that put even the largest traditional encyclopedias to shame." Its particular strengths for the historian are articles concerning scientific and technical information, current events ("Wikipedia has a nimbleness that even newspapers have trouble matching"), controversial topics prone to edit wars – whose synthetic compromises on neutrality he considers an achievement worth commending, and most notably, niche or fringe topics "long marginalized by the traditional academy".

That said, the crowdsourced encyclopaedia is for Cronon no replacement for scholarship, as he cites the professionally written Encyclopaedia Britannica as superior at least in respect of its "traditional excellence in scholarly nuance and quality of writing", indicating that traditional models of knowledge production retain some cultural importance. Wikipedia, he argued "is at its best when presenting simple descriptive summaries and linear narratives broken down into predictable taxonomic subsections that can be composed and edited in modular units." What is beyond the abilities of the amateur encyclopaedians, he confidently declared, are "[l]ong, complicated interpretations exploring subtly interacting historical causes in carefully contextualized analyses or beautifully flowing narratives—these one will never find on Wikipedia."

Touching upon the endless debates over what constitutes knowledge worth covering and which viewpoints deserve prominent attention, Cronon called for a recognition that the "boundaries of academic respectability" were "no longer possible to police" in the network culture of which Wikipedia is emblematic. He exhorted his audience to "embrace this new openness without losing the commitment to rigor that the best amateurs and professionals have always shared". Citing scientists and musicologists as ahead of the game in terms of this embrace, dominating in his view much of the Wikipedia coverage of their topic areas, the historian called upon his colleagues to commit themselves to similar engagement. He proposed that Wikipedia had much to gain from greater historical context in its articles, greater scholarly involvement with its history articles, and, rebuking those who flippantly consider the important article creation work to have already been done, declared the absent historical entries to be "myriad". "All one needs", for a scholar to get involved, "is to open oneself to the possibilities and give up the comfort of credentialed expertise to contribute to the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known". Cronon finished his editorial with a simple question: "Any volunteers?"

In its coverage of the piece, The Atlantic situated it within the context of a growing acknowledgement of Wikipedia's virtues and staying power by an academic community once skeptical to the point of dismissiveness of the user-generated encyclopaedia. Associate editor Rebecca Rosen was enthusiastic about Cronon's call for acceptance and engagement, concluding "We all stand to benefit from this shifting tide as academics warm to the collaborative vision. After all, they won't be just consumers but creators."

In brief

Bombay House in Mumbai, where Wikipedian photo scavengers successfully resisted attempts to dissuade their efforts at expanding the projects' stock of freely-licensed images of Mumbai landmarks. For more, see the dedicated Commons category.
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  • "... he cites the professionally-written Encyclopaedia Britannica as superior at least in respect of its "traditional excellence in scholarly nuance and quality of writing ...." Time for a WP/EB project: Review EB from page 1 to the end and make sure WP has an article on every subject covered by EB. While that wouldn't guarantee the same quality of writing, it would be something to build on. Tom Reedy (talk) 14:43, 8 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
    • An effort on these lines has existed for about seven years, Wikipedia:WikiProject_Missing_encyclopedic_articles (formerly Wikipedia:2004 Encyclopedia topics). We have to be cautious about a formally systematic effort to do so, as the list of Britannica's articles is itself a copyrighted item. In any event we're years past playing catchup with Britannica, and a great deal more mileage is to be had comparing our coverage against non English-language and non-Western encyclopedias (and other reference works) to ameliorate the under-representation of subjects to do with particularly asia, africa, and south america. -- Finlay McWalterTalk 18:04, 8 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
      • He's probably right about Wikipedia lacking, "long, complicated interpretations exploring subtly interacting historical causes in carefully contextualized analyses or beautifully flowing narratives." But how often is this needed for describing bus stations, Pokemon characters or football matches? Where Britannica remains ahead is in the consistency of their quality. Wikipedia has some brilliant material, plenty of decent quality articles, and truck loads of absolute rubbish. Will we ever approach the consistency of a commercial encyclopedia? Is it even possible with a "crowd-sourced" work? Regards, RJH (talk) 23:39, 14 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • "That said, the crowdsourced encyclopaedia is for Cronon..." Could you avoid using this insulting word "crowdsourced"? This adjective implies that the subject it modifies is created by exploiting an agglomeration of strangers, to whom no responsibility or affiliation is acknowledged. Unless that is the official position of the WMF, that it has no interest in the well-being or interests in the contributors to its projects. -- llywrch (talk) 16:46, 8 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • I was surprised to read this comment and a consultation of the dictionary definitions at hand ([1], [2], [3]) confirms why – the word has no such negative connotations in its general use. The implication of exploitation seems idiosyncratic; only in your mind does the fire burn. Skomorokh 21:32, 8 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • I'm afraid your dictionaries are in error on this point. (All reference works have errors in them, just as all software has bugs. This does not mean either is unreliable, but that the best anyone can do is to minimize mistakes in one's work as much as possible; some people are able to make notably fewer mistakes than others -- which is why they are considered experts. And why experts can be wrong.) My assertion of the pejorative connotation of "crowdsourcing" comes from this comment by Evan Prodromou at SXSW, as recorded by Angela Beasley a few years back. Unfortunately, Angela has taken down her blog, forcing me to rely on its mirror at, which may indicate an even larger problem a work. What was once a pejorative term for exploiting the good will of others has now come to be an accepted business practice: the offloading of work a company is being paid for upon online volunteers who will do it for negligible or no cost. The ideal of online communities has thus been overrun by the drive to maximize short-term profits over long-term benefits. No wonder it is getting difficult for non-profit or charitable groups to attract online volunteer help! -- llywrch (talk) 23:06, 8 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • There's certainly interesting arguments to be made about the ethics of adopting a model whereby volunteers do the work previously done by paid professionals, and there are certainly cases where the word used to describe such models are irrevocably tinged with negative connotations – big society comes to mind – but I don't accept the charge that crowdsourcing is toxified.
  • These are just the first few relevant stories from the past fortnight, but all of them seem either neutral or complimentary of crowdsourcing as a model. You're going to need to do better than one six year old speech to convince me that this is one of those rare cases where the dictionaries are all wrong and the truth has only been revealed to online newspaper article commenters... Skomorokh 23:28, 8 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Prompted by llywrch's comment: "What is beyond the abilities of the amateur encyclopaedians, he confidently declared, are '[l]ong, complicated interpretations'"... Could you avoid the sardonic use of this word "confidently"? Earlier, you wrote "Cronon declared it to be a gateway to knowledge for millions"... are you saying Professor Cronon was less confident when he complimented our efforts at Wikipedia? :-) (talk) 19:04, 10 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Paid editing

  • "Despite the editing community's consistent rejection of efforts to prohibit paid editing (cf. Wikipedia:Paid editing)" ...?!? I think the writer got lost in the double negatives there, because the link actually shows consistent support of prohibitting paid editing. DreamGuy (talk) 18:01, 11 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Further parsing of the sentence suggests that the line wasn't just poorly written but is claiming something as factual that the link provided shows to be false. DreamGuy (talk) 18:59, 11 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
(ec)I also thought that this sentence was rather strange, but I did think the writer's intention was to state that paid editing per se has not been prohibited. It's a strange view IMHO because the community has consistently limited the type of things that paid editors do, e.g. spam, POV and COI editing. The only reasonable argument that I've heard against limiting paid editing, is that all the types of obnoxious behavior that we associate with it are already limited or prohibited. At the same time, I've never heard anybody who was not in PR say that we should actually encourage paid editing. While I might have the reputation here of being a hard ass against paid editing - I actually would like rules that distinguish what types of PE we'll accept and how other paid editors might be able to submit their work here. But the PR folks are not that subtle in their view - they just seem to want "(almost) all paid editing is acceptable." That's a view I simply don't accept, and I don't think the community does either. Smallbones (talk) 19:11, 11 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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