Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-05-14/Academic journal coverage

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Academic journals multiply their analyses of Wikipedia

By Michael Snow, 14 May, 2007

Coverage of Wikipedia in academic and peer-reviewed publications has proliferated in recent weeks, as researchers continue to take an interest in studying the project and its implications, both for the Ivory Tower and the general public.

First Monday, a peer-reviewed electronic journal focusing on Internet subjects, has covered Wikipedia before, but its April issue included three (out of eleven total) articles devoted to the project. HP Labs researchers Dennis M. Wilkinson and Bernardo A. Huberman wrote Assessing the value of cooperation in Wikipedia, a statistical analysis of article quality based on the number of edits and distinct editors. They concluded that on average, Wikipedia articles improve in quality over time, with increased edits and collaboration between participants.

Also included were a pair of pieces from Anselm Spoerri: Visualizing the Overlap between the 100 Most Visited Pages on Wikipedia for September 2006 to January 2007 and What is Popular on Wikipedia and Why? Spoerri, a Rutgers University professor who developed the searchCrystal visualization tool, used this and data about the most visited Wikipedia articles to consider the popularity of different subjects over time. He pointed out that entertainment topics tend to be the most popular overall, and that a handful of topics related to sexuality have a "timeless" appeal while the popularity of other topics fluctuates.

Meanwhile, articles in the May issues of two more journals took on the challenge of arguing in favor of Wikipedia, despite its dubious reputation in some academic circles (such as the questions about the suitability of citing Wikipedia in student papers). In keeping with their contrarian stance, both articles were titled with allusions to the subtitle of Dr. Strangelove. The American Historical Association journal Perspectives included Christopher Miller's Strange Facts in the History Classroom: Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wiki(pedia), while The Heroic Age, a journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, carried If I were "You": How Academics Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love "the Encyclopedia that Anyone Can Edit" by Daniel Paul O'Donnell of the University of Lethbridge.

Miller wrote about his experience using Wikipedia as an instructional tool for a history course he taught at Carroll College. In this he took a different approach from many other instructors, who might assign their students to edit Wikipedia articles directly and evaluate their efforts based on the record this creates. Instead, Miller wanted his class to compare Wikipedia articles with other encyclopedias and ultimately consider how the process of creating encyclopedic content relates to knowledge. While surprised that many students were largely ignorant of Wikipedia at the outset, he expressed satisfaction that their understanding matured over the course of the semester.

O'Donnell riffed on Time magazine's designation of "You" as the Person of the Year for 2006, to focus on the tension between amateur and professional participation. He concluded that alternatives to Wikipedia are unlikely to gain much traction, and that academic professionals therefore should feel an obligation to use their expertise in improving its content, as a sort of community service. O'Donnell argued that "Wikipedians themselves are aware of the dangers posed to the enterprise by the inclusion of fringe theories, poor research, and contributions by people with insufficient disciplinary expertise."

Another recent Wikipedia-related feature was an interview of Jimmy Wales conducted by National Endowment for the Humanities chair Bruce Cole, appearing in the NEH journal Humanities. Cole also explored the amateur-professional issue, like O'Donnell, among other topics. One of his comments mentioned that he had been a contributor to the Encyclopædia Britannica; in contrast, Wikipedia illustrated how, "There are probably lots of people out there who know as much about my subject, who may not be in the academy."


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