The Signpost


These Texans are on a quest to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of their state’s revolution

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By Ed Erhart
The following content has been republished from the Wikimedia Blog. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author alone; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. For more information on this partnership see our content guidelines.
The Alamo became a symbol for all Texans after most or all of its defenders were killed by the Mexican army.

Students in the United States and Mexico are often required to learn about the history of the Texas Revolution, the outcome of which foreshadowed a much larger war and the loss of a significant portion of Mexico’s territory in what is today the American Southwest. The tales of individual actions and the Battle of the Alamo—the symbolically pivotal event in the conflict—have persevered in the nearly 180 years since the conflict.

For those less familiar with this narrative, a hurriedly assembled rebel army was able to separate themselves from Mexico in large part due to the crucial Battle of San Jacinto, when they captured the Mexican president. They used this advantage to force an end to the conflict.

Wikipedia editor Karanacs grew up in Texas and is therefore well-acquainted with this tradition. "During a family vacation to see the Alamo Mission in San Antonio when I was 10, we watched the film Alamo: The Price of Freedom," she says. "For the first time, I understood the impact that war had on ordinary people. I cried for a little boy who lost his father in a battle fought 150 years before I was born." Two decades later, this interest manifested itself on Wikipedia. Like many editors of the world's largest encyclopedia, she was browsing the site's articles and found that they were of relatively poor quality—and that the traditional narrative she'd learned was not necessarily accurate.

Sam Houston was a general in the revolution and, later, the president of the fledgling republic.

The real descent down the rabbit hole, however, began when a group of volunteer editors called for collaborators to rewrite the article on Texas A&M University, Karanacs' alma mater. She joined them "even though I had no idea what they were talking about." It wasn't long before this snowball grew larger: she was soon "in love with Wikipedia—the research, the writing, the teamwork, the satisfaction of knowing that something I helped create would help assuage someone else's curiosity, and hopefully dispelling some of their misunderstandings of the topic."

Between 2006 and 2010, Karanacs wrote 23 featured articles, the highest article rating on the site and only reached after a rigorous peer review process. She branched out from Texas history at times with articles like Irish Thoroughbred, Nora Roberts' first romance novel, or Gumbo, a Louisianan soup. Still, the grand majority focused on her home state, such as the French colonization of Texas, and its revolution against Mexico, like the Grass Fight or the Battle of the Alamo. She was "most fascinated by the human elements", she says, "and the people on both sides who made decisions that cumulatively led to the place I live."

Still, the challenges proved daunting. The host of editors who enticed her to join Wikipedia in 2006 had dwindled by 2011 to just her. When combined with the amount of work required and three young children at home, Karanacs made the difficult decision to quit the site. "My Wikipedia time turned into 'chase-the-toddler' time," she said.

More than three years went by before Karanacs was tempted back to the site by an email from fellow native Texan editor Maile66—who started editing Texas-related articles in 2006. She alerted Karanacs to an enticing offer: the History Channel's then-upcoming Texas Rising wanted the article on the Texas Revolution to run on the English Wikipedia's main page on the day of the show's premiere. In return, the channel would point viewers and interested fans to the page for more information.

Karanacs' reaction was two-fold: she was intrigued by the opportunity, which offered outside interest and a long deadline, but cautious. Readers of Wikipedia may not be aware of the struggle of writing wide-scope articles; many editors are quick to espouse that articles on a war, for instance, are more difficult to write than articles on the individual battles and skirmishes that occurred during that war. Karanacs told me that her research for these battle articles would require reading three to four books on the general topic—the war, in our running example—and anywhere from five to twenty articles on the battle itself. The actual writing could take anywhere from twenty to forty hours and could be done alone.

A big picture article, on the other hand, requires a great deal more effort and people. "I have been researching the Texas Revolution off and on for seven years," Karanacs said. "There have been literally thousands of books written on that topic, and I likely spent more than eighty hours just identifying appropriate sources to consult." The actual reading of these sources took a good deal longer—and most didn't make it into the article. Karanacs believes that covering these works was important, if only to "establish scholarly consensus and ensure that I wasn't missing any of the more focused angles scholars delved into."

The last major battle of the revolution was fought near San Jacinto, seen here in an 1895 painting by Henry Arthur McArdle

And there were a lot of them. Karanacs recalls that many of the books she could acquire were written by American and Mexican scholars, as one would expect, but there was also one written by a German (albeit translated into English) and one by a Scottish researcher. Her local librarians were an invaluable resource, as they were able to point out monographs that she missed and put in dozens of inter-library loan requests, as was the relatively new Wikipedia Library, which helps connect editors to outline journal and reference databases that Wikipedia editors can cite. Karanacs called the latter a "tremendous resource"—"I am blown away by how much easier it is now to do some of the research."

Karanacs also undertook a physical journey to several of the areas where significant events occurred. "It made it all just a little more real," she told me. "Both sides fought for something they believed was important, and it was important to me to present each of their perspectives fairly and with respect."

Over a three-month span, Karanacs and Maile66 worked together to develop the Texas Revolution article itself. Their plan of attack included scrapping the entire existing article, all 5,243 words of it, and starting anew. This allowed them to not worry about where existing content had come from and instead concentrate on including facts and views from the principal sources on the topic. They had to decide how much weight each view should receive, similar to when an academic historian evaluates a topic's place in historiography. This differs from primary source research in that it evaluates historical narratives that have emerged from the event. Using the Texas Revolution as an example, historians once portrayed the Texans as white, from the US, and universally in support of the rebellion. Contributions from Tejanos (native-born Texans of Spanish or Mexican heritage) were overlooked. Time often plays a significant role in historiography, and this is no different: here, the revolution's traditional narrative, upheld by many of the television and film productions of the last fifty years, has since been been superseded with the recognition that a good percentage of Texans actually supported the Mexican government, not the rebel side, and that Tejanos featured in many significant roles.

National narratives came into play as well. Supporters of the revolution portrayed themselves as fighting for a just cause against an oppressive overlord, while Mexicans, after the Mexican–American War of 1845, thought that the region was stolen from them by the United States. After their initial assessments, Karanacs and Maile identified areas that required more research and each returned to the library.

When satisfied the article was comprehensive and balanced, Karanacs and Maile nominated Texas Revolution for featured status. Having already received comments from three editors, ten more editors commented during the review period. "It really did take a village," Karanacs told me, and estimated that she personally spent an estimated three hundred hours on the article, underlining just how difficult it can be to write these sorts of big-picture articles. Finally, Texas Revolution became a featured article on April 18—more than a month before the deadline requested by the History Channel.

Santa Anna—the commander of the Mexican forces—surrenders in this 1886 depiction by William Henry Huddle.

The History Channel's historians suggested only minor changes in the article's wording; overall, they were very pleased with the article, which has now doubled in size to over 10,000 words. It ran on Wikipedia's main page on May 25, and about 54,000 people read the article over a four-day period—and possibly thanks to the popularity of Texas Rising, more than a thousand people per day viewed it for nearly all of the first half of June.

For Karanacs' part, she told me that "I am extremely proud of this project. First, that we created one of the best short(ish) yet still comprehensive overviews of this topic that exists anywhere on the web, in my opinion. Second, that we brought an article that is on a broader topic—an entire war, rather than a single battle—to featured status. Third, that real paid historians thought we did a good job, and fourth, that we achieved this through a collaboration, rather than as individual editors." When asked why they are so important in the greater context of North American history, she replied:

Perhaps most importantly, Karanacs' interest in Wikipedia is now rekindled—and it's for the "same reasons" from her the first time around: "pride in a job well done, the joy of teamwork, and pure nerdiness." Maile has already started a new collaboration with Karanacs with the Battle of San Jacinto, although the former is taking the lead role this time. They hope to have all thirteen Texas Revolution-related articles at featured status by next year.

Karanacs and Maile wish to thank the many editors who helped them get this article featured, including—but not limited to—Mike Christie, Dank, P.S. Burton, and Iridescent.

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Here's to the Texans! TomStar81 (Talk) 03:43, 5 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]

  • Great stuff, & good to see a piece that goes into detail on the process of article writing. Johnbod (talk) 12:27, 5 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Re:

    Their plan of attack included scrapping the entire existing article, all 5,243 words of it, and starting anew. This allowed them to not worry about where existing content had come from and instead concentrate on including facts and views from the principal sources on the topic

    I'm really curious how prominent this practice is for most serial FA contributors. (I.e., I'd love to see a Signpost piece on it.) I know I do it myself. How else can you stand by an article's quality without personally verifying every citation? And you might as well start from scratch with all of the rephrasing and citation reformatting. Also would like to echo Johnbod—great topic, great piece – czar 20:25, 5 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Agree that the best way to take an old article up to FA, is to essentially gut it. At least gut the existing sourcing, and whatever prose you keep, make sure you have your own verification sourcing to back it up. I just failed a GAN that was a classic example, an article that was begun in 2001. Looked fairly decent until I noticed the first copyvio. One examination led to another, and it was like pulling a loose thread on a sweater.— Maile (talk) 23:54, 5 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
I agree. To try to track down sources for all of the information in the article would be incredibly time-consuming. It's much easier to do the research, which you'd have to do in any case, and write from scratch. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 07:38, 6 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • One point this blog makes that needs to be kept in mind is that contributing to Wikipedia currently requires doing research. Serious research. In my own experience, it can take someone between 6 months & 2 years to learn enough about a subject to improve the articles about it; improving an article so that its content is usable -- bringing it to roughly C or B class -- requires effort equivalent to writing an undergraduate term paper. (And as this blog notes, writing a FA class article requires even more effort & research.) While in the early days anyone could edit, that was because Wikipedia's coverage was so spotty & shallow; now that Wikipedia is far more comprehensive & detailed in its coverage, not everyone can edit. And no amount of fancy new software or improved contributor behavior is going to allow more people to edit Wikipedia. -- llywrch (talk) 02:20, 6 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
    Not convinced. Yesterday I found the following four people who have been covered by the ANB since April have no article.
    1. Josephine Casey (1 January 1878?-27 January 1950), labour organizer and leader, women's rights advocate
    2. Emily Borie Hartshorne Mudd (6 September 1898-2 May 1998), sexual and marital counsellor, birth control advocate
    3. Elias Neau (1662-7 September 1722), religious educator
    4. Joy R. Simonson (16 January 1919-24 June 2007), women's rights advocate, federal government official
    The situation is much better (or worse - if you are looking for uncreated articles) than in October 2010, though I don't have the figures to hand.
    All the best: Rich Farmbrough, 18:11, 7 July 2015 (UTC).[reply]
Note; I am putting stubs in, please do contribute to the articles even though the links are turning blue! All the best: Rich Farmbrough, 18:23, 7 July 2015 (UTC).[reply]
Maybe we need better ways to steer editors towards missing articles. Gamaliel (talk) 18:16, 7 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
My point wasn't that it wasn't hard to find articles in need of creating; I've created two new ones over the last month. My point was that a potential contributor might be tempted to add to or improve on an existing article, discover just how much research is required in order to do that (not all potential contributors will just happen to have a proper reliable source at hand), & be discouraged from even making a first edit. For example, through personal experience I've come to learn an awful lot about adoption & being a foster parent, but due to the lack of reliable sources I know better than to try to add anything to the relevant articles. Unless I take the time to do the research to find reliable sources, which may take 6 to 36 months -- which is the result of making Wikipedia more comprehensive & more reliable. -- llywrch (talk) 07:22, 8 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]


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