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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Who knows? Wikipedia, Teaching and Research

Anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and the occasional news story would all seem to indicate that students, particularly in the "first world," are increasingly using Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org ) as a source of information. Given the radical nature of the concept of the Wikipedia project, it would therefore seem opportune to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities for teaching and research in our field.

The Wikipedia Phenomenon
Wikipedia is a free, internet-based encyclopedia that is written by its own users. The term, should you wonder about that, derives from computer jargon: a wiki is a website that enables users to edit its content. Set up in early 2001, Wikipedia now exists in the form of over 150 independent projects in as many languages, the largest being English, German, Polish, French, Japanese, Dutch, and Italian (in that order). Anyone with computer and Internet access can contribute: no special software is required on the part of the user (the Internet browser will do), and there is no need to learn even mildly complicated markup code like HTML. Wikipedia has dispensed with the notion of the academic expert as the sole author, pushes the notion of collaboration of users/authors to its limits, and operates under a GNU Free Documentation Licence, thus allowing anyone to make use of the data generated.

Major Wikipedia projects have seen steady growth in the last three or four years. In January 2003, two years after its inception, the English Wikipedia project (hereafter: Wikipedia [en], http://en.wikipedia.org ) had about one-hundred thousand articles. Since then, the number of articles has roughly doubled every twelve months. To date (late September 2006), Wikipedia (en) offers more than 1,400,000 articles.[2] Although numbers can be deceptive (for example, many articles consist of just a single sentence), the considerable growth rate of Wikipedia gives some indication of the vitality of this project. Quite extraordinary for a project based almost entirely on the work of volunteers (not to mention funded by donations).

"In the beginning," users could edit any contribution as they saw fit, without any real restrictions; nor was there much by way of guidance, let alone policies. This has increasingly changed; today, there are extensive policies in place, though they seem to come into play only in case of conflict; e.g., writing from a neutral point of view (NPOV in wiki-speak), emphasis on summarizing diverse points of view rather than doing original research, or offering references to reputable sources.

Following the Seigenthaler controversy in 2005,[3] Wikipedia (en) began to require users to set up a user account before they could create new contributions; more recently, Wikipedia (en) has started to restrict certain pages from alteration by anyone with an account that is less than four days old (such as the entry on "Jesus"). Since each version is logged and stored, changes can easily be reversed; and while the content is dynamic and may change at any time, users can cite and view a particular entry at any particular moment in its history.

Assessing Relevant Articles
What will users tend to see when they use Wikipedia material for biblical studies? Evaluating Wikipedia properly would require a rather comprehensive (not to mention tedious) study, which I do not wish to undertake. Instead, I should like to offer some general comments based on wider reading during the past two years as well as a more indepth analysis of a small sample from the two largest Wikipedia projects, namely, the English and German Wikipedia projects.[4]

(1) While the quality of material is uneven, is has to be said that there are some appropriate and, at times, quite informative articles. I have not yet found any really outrageous errors, though there are many minor mistakes. However, the problem often lies not so much in what is said as in what is not said.

(2) Most articles tend to be short and are best compared with shorter, "pocket" Bible dictionaries rather than standard single-volume Bible dictionaries. There are exceptions, though: some articles are substantial, even though they may be rather descriptive. In part, this is due to an unresolved conflict in the Wikipedia concept: there is no agreement as to what depth and breadth one should aim for in writing an article. Also: Wikipedia is conceptually a general encyclopedia, not a Bible dictionary. The point of comparison is therefore hard to define.

(3) There is a tendency to list "information" rather than discuss material in its context, which is probably encouraged by the hyperlinked character of this kind of an encyclopedia.

(4) At times, the "tone" of articles in different Wikipedia projects can differ. For example, I frequently found that the style of writing in relevant Wikipedia (de) articles was rather more mature or sophisticated than in Wikipedia (en) articles. Still, both English and German articles remind me of student essays. One may also find that the tone or direction changes over time: a year or eighteen months ago, I had the impression that relevant articles in Wikipedia (en) often tended towards a more conservative theological agenda; I would not necessarily say that today. In many ways, both projects reflect what is prevalent in a given context or what might be considered "mainstream" in that particular environment.

(5) Referencing practices vary wildly. Both Wikipedia (de) and (en) have a policy requiring that articles offer references, and Wikipedia (en) in particular makes more of an effort to encourage this. In practice, references are often absent from articles in our field. Where they do exist, they tend to be to web-based sources of doubtful quality, and often to out-of-date public domain sources (Nave's Topical Bible and the like). Relevant Wikipedia (de) articles often do not have references either, but they tend to have appropriate bibliographies. Curiously, neither Wikipedia (de) nor (en) tends to offer references to subject-specific metasites like Mark Goodacre's NTGateway.com .

(6) Some articles start off as copies of material from venerable dictionaries now in the public domain (Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901-1906, etc.). This can lead to stagnation in the development of articles; see, for example, the article on Philo of Alexandria in Wikipedia (en).

(7) Some subjects find disappointingly little attention. For example, Wikipedia readers will not find much on feminist approaches to the Bible (a little more in the German project than in the English), which is perhaps related to the demographics of users/writers on both projects. A gender analysis of wikipedia projects would be interesting, but I have not yet found any substantial research on this.

Use and Abuse
Reasons for the increasing popularity of Wikipedia among students are not hard to fathom: it is free, available online, often written in a simple and straightforward language; and it makes its content easily accessible via its own search engine — though searching it with good search engines like www.google.com tends to give better results.

Some academics now take student use seriously enough to circulate advice to students on the appropriate use of Wikipedia; some even prohibit the use of Wikipedia altogether. In fact, Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikipedia project, recently seemed compelled to indicate that "college students . . . shouldn't use it for class projects or serious research."[5] At first, this assertion seems to stand in curious contrast to Wikipedia's proud reference to an article in Nature (2005), which suggests that the Encyclopedia Britannica sports almost as many mistakes as Wikipedia (en) does: forty-two expert reviewers "had picked up errors (the great majority of them minor) at a rate of about three per online Britannica item and about four per Wikipedia item."[6] This is not the place to evaluate that debate, but it is important to mention it here nevertheless. While the claims made in Nature were based on natural science articles and are therefore not all that relevant to our field, the debate that followed the Nature article did usefully highlight a number of points about the challenge posed by the Wikipedia projects. Before I discuss some of these issues, it would seem opportune to consider a range of other reactions to the use of Wikipedia in academia. Most of these are negative, but that probably relates to the nature of gathering my "data." Based on a brief and non-systematic review of Internet sources, as well as anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that academics tend to see Wikipedia negatively for a range of reasons, including the following:

Picking up on the findings of the Nature story again, academics often see Wikipedia as inaccurate, perhaps quite instinctively so because it is not written by experts. This involves much broader questions: how do users understand and use sources, what constitutes an "authority," and how do we use an "authoritative source"? One might argue that the use of Wikipedia without an appropriately critical attitude is more likely to lead to questionable student work than, say, consulting a professional encyclopedia with a similarly uncritical attitude. But this is an unhelpful shortcut: the fundamental problem is the lack of criticality. Some criticism of Wikipedia really stems from our concerns about how some students generally handle material. This also relates to our attitudes to research based on Internet resources, and indeed students' reading habits, as the current generation in the "first world" is increasingly shaped by computer screens rather than books. Some studies suggest that reading material on a computer screen, and in particular reading hyperlinked Internet resources, encourages bad research habits: web users tend to skim over texts on the Internet rather then read them indepth. Once again, this is a broader issue. The same goes for the reported increase in problems with plagiarism.[7]

Students in the "first world" who have grown up in the digital age are highly likely to use Wikipedia as a matter of course. Yet such matter-of-fact use of electronic resources does not imply competence in an educationally meaningful sense: a number of recent studies indicate that students' use of technology is often uncritical and naive.[8] This is, in my view, the main reason why we should adopt a pragmatic attitude to the use of Wikipedia, which tries to make positive use of it as a teaching tool rather than fret about its potential lack of accuracy. Instead of banning the use of Wikipedia, it would seem preferable to train students in the appropriate use of Wikipedia simply as part of training in the use of sources in general.[9]

Properly managed, working with Wikipedia as an example of a new media source may contribute to training in critical thinking as a vital and transferable academic skill: it could become a tool to illustrate how history (and indeed knowledge) is a contested process, how and why knowledge is power, and so on. Contributing to Wikipedia articles could become part of a learning exercise, which would also help improve Wikipedia itself.

The more adventurous technophiles among us might also want to explore the use of (free) wiki software itself, which enables us not just to create our own wiki projects, but, more to the point, use wikis as creative and collaborative writing tools. This is beginning to happen in all sorts of ways: once again, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.[10]

A fundamentally positive attitude towards Wikipedia projects does not preclude notes of concern, though.[11] Such concerns include the particularly "presentist'" nature of articles in Wikipedia, which can be more obvious in Wikipedia articles than in other forms of history writing. For example, while the Wikipedia (en) article on Genesis is largely a descriptive summary, it offers a substantially longer, broadly hermeneutical introduction than, say, the article on Matthew's Gospel.

Further critical concerns include the observation that Wikipedia writing has a tendency towards "listmania": it tends to conceive of knowledge not as making connections, but as a series of "facts," an accumulation of bits of information. Teaching with Wikipedia must actively tackle this tendency. A further concern is that, for the foreseeable future, much work in Wikipedia will not be systematic enough to offer a good overview; it will continue to have large gaps, and, as literary theory has taught us, gaps are rather significant for the creation of meaning. Related to this is the problem of community control, which is supposed to watch over misinformation and blatant bias. Articles in their early stages of construction, especially those on topics that are not popular, are less likely to benefit from this practice. Yet another concern is that most Wikipedia administrators, and indeed many contributors, tend to be technology-savvy, English-speaking people in "first world" countries. Wikipedia may be free and available anywhere in the world, but it is likely to reflect a point of view that relates to this key user group.

The fundamental concept of doing away with the "expert view" is both Wikipedia's strength and its weakness: strength, because that is what allows it to flourish and grow quickly; weakness, because it encourages what one might want to call "the revenge of the amateur": anyone with a grudge against "the experts" (teachers, pastors, whoever) can muck about on Wikipedia and admire his or her handiwork online. Of course, in most cases seriously problematic views will quickly be edited out of Wikipedia, but the principle remains. Finally, more cause for concern is the possibility for abuse of Wikipedia to create commercial or party-political advantages. Some people in marketing speak quite openly about the possibilities that Wikipedia offers to them. In other words, there are and there will be attempts to manipulate Wikipedia to sell a product, whether it be commercial, political, or indeed theological.

Writing for Wikipedia Ourselves?
Would it help if academics were to write for Wikipedia? After all, it is our job to communicate. Those of us who do this quickly encounter a number of problems, though.

For starters, writing for Wikipedia may be detrimental to our job prospects: our contributions are effectively anonymous and, more importantly, not subject to peer-review; therefore, they can hardly count in job applications, research assessment exercises, or tenure processes. It might help beef up a teaching-experience portfolio, but it is not going to contribute to the all-important research side of our CV.

More problems result from a culture clash: much of our knowledge of how to work the system, how to write and publish, is just not applicable. The rules of academic and subject-specific rhetoric and logic do not necessarily work here. The more popular the topic that I would want to write on, the more likely it is that I will have to negotiate and discuss the issue with a variety of people. Discussions about fundamental issues can be protracted, frustrating, and sometimes ill-tempered (as with e-mail, misunderstanding is common). One does not always want to discuss what feels like Remedial Hermeneutics 001 at Doonesbury's Walden College. On the other hand, it is precisely such a democratic debate that is a positive communication challenge for academics.

Writing for Wikipedia does raise yet more fundamental issues, which space does not permit me to develop here. Who creates knowledge? In fact, What constitutes knowledge? How do individual and collective processes of knowledge-creation work and interact? If history, for example, as Roy Rosenzweig has argued, is a "deeply individualistic craft,"[11] is it actually possible to write complex, larger arguments in this amorphous virtual collective? How do we understand the needs of popular versus academic knowledge? Is the author-less and owner-less work of Wikipedia ultimately commensurate with academic culture and practice? To what extent is the challenge to academic culture desirable?

Holger Szesnat, Eastern Region Ministry Course / Cambridge Theological Federation

Notes
[1] A much more detailed version of this article, including a detailed discussion of eight sample articles (English and German), is available at

http://www.biblicalhermeneutics.net/wikipedia2006longer.pdf .

[2] "Wikipedia," [accessed October 1, 2006]. Online:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia&oldid=81140710

[3] See "John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy," [accessed October 1, 2006]. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Seigenthaler_Sr._Wikipedia_biography_controversy&oldid=78722725

[4] Topics chosen were: Covenant, Cyrus II, feminist interpretation, Haggai, Gospel according to Matthew, Philo of Alexandria, redaction criticism, and two-source hypothesis. For a full discussion, see the reference provided in note [1].

[5] "Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation," Chronicle of Higher Education June 12, 2006 [accessed October 1, 2006]. Online: http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/1328/wikipedia-founder-discourages-academic-use-of-his-creation

[6] Summary in the editorial response: Nature 440 (2006): 582. Links to the relevant documents about this controversy are available at [accessed July 9, 2006].Online:http://www.nature.com/nature/britannica/index.html

[7] "Net students 'think copying ok.'" BBC News Online (June 18, 2006) [accessed June 19, 2006]. Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/5093286.stm

[8] E.g., Diana G. Oblinger and Brian L. Hawkins. "The Myth About Student Competency: 'Our Students Are Technologically Competent,'" Educause Review 41 (2006): 12-13. Accessed October 1, 2006. Online:http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erm0627.pdf ; Panagiotis Metaxas and Leah Graham, "Of Course It's True; I Saw It on the Internet: Critical Thinking in the Internet Era," Communications of the ACM 46 (2003): 71-75. Accessed October 2, 2006. Online: http://www.wellesley.edu/CS/pmetaxas/CriticalThinking.pdf

[9] A good example is the advice to students given by Alan Liu: http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/lists_archive/Humanist/v20/0080.html [accessed July 3, 2006]. See also the website of the library at Carleton College: [accessed October 1, 2006] Online: http://apps.carleton.edu/campus/library/for_faculty/faculty_find/wikipedia/

[10] E.g., Stewart Mader "Using Wiki in Education," [accessed October 2, 2006]. Online: http://www.ikiw.org ; Naomi Augar, Ruth Raitman, and Wanlei Zhou. "Teaching and Learning Online with Wikis," in Beyond the Comfort Zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (ed. R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dweyer and R. Phillips; Perth, Australia, 2004), 95-104. Accessed October 1, 2006. Online: http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/augar.html

[11] See also Roy Rosenzweig: "Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," Journal of American History 93 (2006): 117-46. Accessed October 1, 2006. Online: http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42

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Citation: Holger Szesnat, " Who knows? Wikipedia, Teaching and Research," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=603

 
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