Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia? Then stop it!

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Day 80

How popular is Charlemagne?

How many visits, per day, do you reckon the English Wikipedia entry for Charlemagne gets? 150? 400? 2000? I’ve been asking lots of (medievalist) friends lately and these tend to be the sort of guesses they give. (Though they ranged from 5 to 3,000,000, so perhaps the main conclusion is that no-one really has a clue!) It’s actually 4,000: about 3 per minute; 130,000 visits per month. And no, it’s not because people are hoping Charlemagne will run for the EU parliament: Charlemagne has a steady track record (with a slight dip on weekends: even Holy Roman Emperors need time off!).

To me, 4,000 visits per day is quite a lot. Infamously, I once wrote a book about elves, which for an academic book has sold pretty well (even though you can download it for free here and here): about 900 copies over seven years. The English Wikipedia entry for elf, however, gets 950 visits per day—and unlike my book is also available in 48 other languages. Obviously an encyclopedia is a different sort of thing from an academic monograph, but as Dorothy Kim writes in her ad for the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In at Kalamazoo, Wikipedia has become the way to get feminist (or any other) scholarship into the mainstream.

Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia?

But you didn’t need me to tell you that Wikipedia has revolutionised access to information. If you’re reading this blog, there’s no question that you use the sixth most visited site in the world, that runs on a smaller income than the Faculty of Arts at the University of Leeds. And even if you somehow never read Wikipedia itself, you read journalism, information on Google Maps, books, or a heap of other things that are all better because of the information it provides.

If you’re an academic, you also won’t need me to tell you that it’s annoying when students lift chunks from Wikipedia instead of getting educated. Nor that despite their ostentatious Guardian-waving, academics are generally a conservative and occasionally reactionary bunch, and often take pride in dissing Wikipedia (while, of course, using it all the time). I don’t generally bother arguing with these people: while I would love it if they contributed to Wikipedia, it’s continually getting bigger and better without them. And while I also wish they would publish their research free-access, ultimately they are harming themselves by keeping it locked away.

Last week, though, I was checking Facebook and what should I see but a fellow scholar proudly posting a screencap showing how a colleague of theirs—a well established academic at an elite institution—had anonymously vandalised a Wikipedia entry with a puerile ‘Queen Eliabeth, also known as Lizzy’ type comment. The lecturer had made this edit in front of their students to demonstrate that any old idiot can edit Wikipedia. Six minutes (and perhaps twenty views by innocent encyclopedia-readers) later, of course, some upstanding member of society fixed the page (which to me is the real take-home point for this individual’s students). But what the Facebook post and my subsequent conversations (online and real-life) revealed was that several other academics at this elite institution and others like it have also vandalised Wikipedia to demonstrate to their students that any idiot can write crap on it.

I’m used to Wikipedia being vandalised by, for example, mischievous schoolkids, bigots, or agencies trying to hide the bad press deservedly accruing to certain rich people and companies. These are all serious problems, but no cause for surprise. Moreover, on the whole, Wikipedia proves better equipped to resist capture by propagandising oligarchs than large-scale print media. But I was shocked to find academics—people whose job is supposed to be the promotion of knowledge—messing it up. This is not big and it’s not clever.

Some of the people I’ve talked to suggest that it’s okay to vandalise Wikipedia to make a pedagogical point: that the ends justify the means. Implicitly the inconvenience to a few (or, as the case may be, more than just a few) readers and editors is legitimate collatoral damage in the pursuit of the lofty goal of undergraduate education. I have a few objections to this, but my main one is the selfish solipsism this view implies—one which I see around me, in different forms, every day in UK universities. When it comes to accessing scientific knowledge, being a native-speaker of English with internet access already puts you in a pretty privileged position, but being at a UK or US university with a decent library (in hard copy and subscriptions to online resources) means you have better access to knowledge than almost anyone else on the whole planet. How is it ethical to degrade a source of knowledge for everyone in order to benefit these few? Moreover, of course, vandalising Wikipedia in front of students encourages not a sense of critical engagement, but a sense of disrespect for the efforts of millions of hard-working, mostly anonymous editors (4,000 in Charlemagne’s case); people like the late, fantastic feminist editor Adrianne Wadewitz.

So stop it.

Wikipedia as part of the research-writing process

I could go on about the discussions I’ve had about academics vandalising Wikipedia (further arguments for this practice have included ‘it’s okay to vandalise Wikipedia because Wikipedia makes it possible for me to’ and ‘seeing obvious mistakes reminds people that there may be hidden lies’), but I hope I’ve made my point.

I would, however, also like to talk about how integral Wikipedia-editing has become to my research.

I made my first Wikipedia edits in 2005, just after I put my PhD thesis online, before I even had an account, on a few small points where I was confident I had finally become a world expert. One of the first entries I created, ‘History of mentalities’, has since been edited by 26 people, and gets 25 hits per day—perhaps 20,000 over the life of the article. It’s no Charlemagne biography, just a little explanation of what the term means, but I hope it does a reasonable job.

Once I’d learned how to do it, of course, my compulsion to correct every bit of bad punctuation I ever see was gloriously fulfillable. (If only I could do it on the Guardian website…) Then, when there was a fact I was looking for but couldn’t find on Wikipedia, I’d add it once I found it: not much extra effort for me, but it saves people (usually including me) effort later. (Mostly this happens when I’m preparing teaching or doing research, but I’m perhaps most proud of adding the data on the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft). As I started to learn about Wikipedia’s systemic biases—a lack of coverage of women, and the non-Western world, for example—I started making a habit of creating new entries for women if I found one missing (e.g. Mrs Brown of Falkland or Ida Gordon), and in the last year or so have developed a bit of a hobby of making biographies for Arabic-language women writers. I’ve even decided to teach about a few of the medieval ones next year (e.g. Ḥafṣa bint al-Ḥājj ar-Rakūniyya and Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulai’iya). Haukur Þorgeirsson is now one of my research collaborators (and generally favourite people), but he is someone I first encountered via his online teaching resources—and he first got to know me via my Wikipedia edits.

My point here is to explain how, without me noticing it, editing Wikipedia became an integral part of my research-writing process. This was an accident, but it was a happy one, and I wouldn’t go back.

So here I am, working on the Icelandic financial crisis and trying to get my head around various issues, people, and texts: businessfolk like Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his son Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson or Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and his wife Ingibjörg Stefanía Pálmadóttir; historical figures like Thor Jensen and Tony Jonsson; authors like Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl and Bjarni Harðarson; phenomena like Islam in Iceland, Iceland–Palestine relations, and Icelandic constitutional reform, 2010–13; novels like Gæska; and lots of other things that I haven’t done entries for yet! I could just be storing notes on all these on my computer (or even on pieces of paper), and obviously I still have lots of notes that aren’t appropriate to Wikipedia entries (but don’t worry! I’ve been putting them online since about 2006). It certainly takes extra time to make notes in a presentable and balanced format as encyclopedia entries. But I find that I save time in the long run, because editing encyclopedia entries pushes me to organise my thoughts and references properly, and because they’re easy to find again later. And because on a good day my efforts attract the efforts of others, they’re even an investment.

Meanwhile, I know I’m helping other people; maybe not very many, but a lot more than none (and more than 900!). Very often I’m making information available that’s only accessible in subscription-only journals, or making available in English information that’s only accessible in Icelandic. One example is my entry for Iceland’s (probable) first person of colour, Hans Jonatan.

I’ve been making all my scholarly publications available free-access for years now (cf. blogpost), increasingly by publishing in dedicated free-access journals, and whatever I publish from my current research will be no exception. I haven’t quite worked out how I’m going to do it yet, but I’m planning to make the citation of (selected stable versions of) Wikipedia entries a pretty central part of the referencing in this work. Very often they are the best encyclopedia entries on these subjects in existence; they have also been central to my research. They deserve citing as much as any other work that I or others do. And who knows, maybe it will nudge a few people into paying a bit more respect to the efforts of all those people.

Hey, this sounds useful! Or at least worthwhile. Can I do it?

See a typo in an article? Just click ‘edit’ at the top and fix it! And little by little, you’ll get used to being a Wikipedian.

To make editing REALLY, even-your-granny-can-do-it easy there are a couple of simple steps to take first. These are available out of the box in some languages (like Swedish), but not presently in English.

1. Go to Wikipedia and click ‘create account’ top right.
2. Then, when you’ve created your account, either follow this link or click on ‘preferences’ top right and choose ‘Beta features’.
3. Tick the box on ‘VisualEditor’ to enable it.
4. Scroll to the bottom and click ‘save’!

This ‘Visual Editor’ option makes editing Wikipedia as easy as writing a Word document. Now when you want to edit a page, don’t click ‘edit source’ but click ‘Edit beta’ and, lo and behold, you can just click on the entry and fix those typos just like you’d fix a Word document you were writing.


Are you a white, western, male Anglophone techie who prevents people from working on Wikipedia? Then stop it.

If you’re wondering why this even-your-granny-can-do-it option isn’t available automatically in the English-language Wikipedia, it’s Wikipedia politics. The problem with running an encyclopedia democratically is that (a) most people don’t like change and (b) the people who in this case don’t like change are mostly white, western, male, anglophone techies, who’ve found a mode of knowledge dissemination that suits them and don’t want other people to start disrupting it. Sound familiar? Yeah, ironically they are in their way the same kinds of people as academics who smugly vandalise Wikipedia because they already have a mode of knowledge dissemination that suits them and don’t want other people to start disrupting it.

So if you’re one of those people, stop it!

And if you aren’t one of these people, start editing Wikipedia!


About alarichall
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7 Responses to Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia? Then stop it!

  1. Psychonaut says:

    If I ever attend a university class in which the lecturer demonstrates vandalising Wikipedia as proof that it shouldn’t be trusted, I am going to get up from my seat, walk down to the chalkboard, and write some vandalistic graffiti of my own on it.

  2. alarichall says:

    Edit: this article previously mentioned ‘right-wing bigots’. It was pointed out to me that not all bigots are right-wing and that not all right-wingers are bigots.

    Certainly ‘right-wing bigots’ is a glib phrase. For this reason alone it was worth changing my phrasing to include all bigots. It would be nice to say that the phrase leaves it open to be right-wing and not a bigot, but it’s a fair point that this phrase comes as a package often enough to imply an equivalence.

    Not that I want to pretend that, at least in the UK, there’s an even spread of bigotry across the political spectrum. At least looking at the public rhetoric and policies of mainstream UK parties (say, those represented in the EU parliament at the moment), it seems abundantly clear to me that the more right-wing ones (notably UKIP and my own local representatives the BNP) are far more racist and sexist both in their language and their policies than the more left-wing ones. Indeed, the Green party (the closest we have to a mainstream left-wing party) strikes me as the only one that’s trying to stand up to this seriously.

    Although I haven’t made any major revision at this stage, I also wouldn’t want my passing comment about bigots to detract from the main and more important point of the article, which is that actually a lot of the gender, racial, national, and social bias of Wikipedia is very much not because of shock-horror bigotry, but actually because these biases are pretty integral to our own societies, and particularly to the sections that tend to edit Wikipedia. When John Pack started recategorising female American novellists as ‘women novellists’ but leaving the male American novellists just as ‘novellists’, he wasn’t doing anything unusually misogynistic. He was just unreflectively following the categories which are the norm in US society (and, for that matter, UK society). I wouldn’t want spotting outright bigotry to distract us from much more powerful but much less obvious systemic forces at work here, which is a fault in my writing.

  3. alarichall says:

    In happy news, the blog prompted Matthias Ammon to spot that I hadn’t found a date of death for Ida Gordon. He duly hunted the information down. As far as I’ve discovered, this under-praised woman medievalist and mother never received an obituary (unlike her husband) so I hope the Wikipedia article does some of that work.

  4. Juan says:

    “If you’re wondering why this even-your-granny-can-do-it option isn’t available automatically in the English-language Wikipedia, it’s Wikipedia politics.”

    Woah there, you have gotten an immensely distorted view of this. The Visual Editor is widely supported by the community, the idea that editors are opposed to it is absurd, although it is true that some editors feel its importance in gaining new editors is overstated. The reason VE isn’t default is because it’s in beta, it isn’t even compatible with Internet Explorer at the moment making it inaccessible to the people who need it most. Since you edit Wikipedia I presume your familiar with all the bugs that VE had when it was first released and made default, editors using VE couldn’t add references to articles, it was literally impossible, and simple edits made in VE such as removing an unnecessary comma resulted in VE breaking the wikicode of the entire page by inserting tags everywhere. There are still many, many technical problems with VE, if you’re looking to blame someone blame the WMF for not being able to implement it better.

    • alarichall says:

      Thanks for the post, Juan—a useful point of view. I’d also like to believe it was actually this simple! I was taking my cue partly from the article linked in the post: The analysis here sounds convincing to me, but you’ve probably followed the debate much more closely than I have. I’d be interested to know why visual editor is still the default in the Swedish Wikipedia? Anyway, thanks for the comment!

      • Juan says:

        I don’t know why they have it as the default in Sweden, perhaps it’s because IE isn’t as popular of a browser in Sweden than it is in the US, and generally speaking smaller Wiki’s roll out beta features sooner than the larger ones. I take issue with this claim from the article:

        “Many opponents of Visual Editor dispute the idea that it will help Wikipedia”

        While it is true that there is a sentiment that people who can’t learn Wikicode are unlikely to useful editors, it is not true that their is any opposition to the idea of the Visual Editor. VE is one of the few things that I feel has had wide-ranging support. The controversy surrounding VE primarily comes from:

        1. It was made the default setting for new users while it was still in alpha mode, and provided users with an incredibly slow, glitchy experience that commonly broke pages and couldn’t perform basic features such as adding references(currently VE can add references although it’s support for references is limited). I was doing glitch testing for VE, but after awhile I just couldn’t take it anymore because it was so incredibly slow(it is much better now).

        2. The longer running issue of tension between the community and the WMF. Much of the community feels as though the WMF was unresponsive to their pleas to rollback VE until it was no longer breaking pages as users were spending an inordinate amount of time trying to fix technical errors introduced by VE while trying to preserve the intentional parts of edits. Also many feel that the WMF 1) hasn’t been adequately bug testing themselves before releasing new features and is instead lazily using the community as guinea pigs to find bugs, 2) has been unresponsive in dealing with bugs, 3) has been poorly implementing VE in general.

        I personally believe that the implementation of VE is the single most important thing the WMF can do, and wish it would devote less of its finances to charters and more of it to getting VE up and running as well as solving other technical issues. I am not a techy, but those who I know that are all believe it is ridiculous that Wikipedia hasn’t been able to implement a smooth, functional WYSIWYG editor. I haven’t used VE in over 4 months, so I don’t know how well it functions at the moment, but at the very least it probably won’t be made default until it can function on IE.

  5. Pingback: A Bestiary of Political Animals - The Public MedievalistThe Public Medievalist

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