newsletter #4

Editorial header: Historians’ curious relationship to Wikipedia 

This week in the wikihistories newsletter we consider Roy Rosenzweig’s classic article, ‘Can History be Open Source?’ Wikipedia plays a strange role in history. Academic historians are theoretically the authorities on which Wikipedia historians rely, and yet the emphases and style of Wikipedia history are quite different to those of academic history.

In broader project news, last week saw the launch event for UTS Data & AI Ethics Cluster, spearheaded by wikihistories’ own Heather Ford. You can read more at the Cluster’s substack. Speakers at the event raised issues of crucial importance to Wikipedians, who face a formidable threat from deep learning technology. How will Wikipedia’s human-centred governance structures cope with new kinds of writing and imagination machines?

We also announce a change in the wikihistories team. Michael Falk has recently begun a new post as Senior Lecturer in Digital Studies at the University of Melbourne. He will continue to work on the wikihistories project as a Co-Investigator. We are delighted to announce that Francesca Sidoti will be commencing as Research Associate on the project. Francesca is a qualitative social scientist who recently submitted her PhD at the Institute for Culture and Society of Western Sydney University.

Michael Falk Avatar

Michael Falk
wikihistories chief investigator

Tamson on Roy Rosenzweig: Who gets to know?

Roy Rosenzweig’s article ‘Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past’ was published in 2006.  As readers here will be aware, during the first decade or so after Wikipedia launched the response of academic scholars to it was cool to say the least. Students were counselled not to use it in research or essay writing, though of course they all did. Rosenzweig not only made an argument for the accuracy of the platform, in comparison to other encyclopedic sources, but he challenged academic historians both to participate in the project by becoming editors, and – more radically – to learn from its collaborative, distributive, open-source model of scholarship. By publishing this article in the American Historical Review, Rosenzweig took this argument to the very heart of the scholarly establishment. The journal was founded in 1884 by the recently established American Historical Association and chartered by Congress in 1889 to serve the interests of the entire discipline of history. Today it is one of the very top-ranking global journals in the field.  

Fifteen years on, the skepticism and anxiety underpinning Rosenzweig’s defense of Wikipedia as history has abated. Academic historians do participate as editors, collaborative and crowd-sourced approaches to history-making have emerged (the National Library of Australia’s TROVE newspaper database is a great example), and students are no longer told that the platform is untrustworthy and dangerous. But there are aspects of Rosenzweig’s discussion about the way Wikipedia constructs knowledge that are abiding. Perhaps the real challenge that Wikipedia posed for academic scholars is one that it continues to pose – one that concerns its mode of verifying knowledge. While Wikipedia officially “welcomes experts and academics,” wrote Jimmy Wales in the platform’s ‘No Original Research’ rule, “such experts do not occupy a privileged position” (in 141). For Wikipedians, as Rosenzweig goes on to say, “the most important community of authors” is not the wider community of ‘historians’, but rather the “authors of other Wikipedia entries” (143). These authors “understand the culture of Wikipedia” and part of understanding that culture is understanding the “style of operation and principles” that underpin how the platform works (in 134, 121). In other words, it is not academic experts, but the community of Wikipedians that determines what counts as legitimate knowledge on Wikipedia. 

Conflicts over the social production of knowledge are not unique to Wikipedia. They are embedded in the history of knowledge. In the last newsletter I mentioned Steven Shapin’s discussion of the variety of individuals that labored to produce scientific knowledge in Robert Boyle’s seventeenth century workshop. That article grew out of a bigger project that Shapin had undertaken with the historian of science, Simon Schaffer. Published in 1985 as Leviathan and the Air-pump, Shapin and Schaffer examined the historical controversy surrounding the experimental demonstrations of the vacuum pump conducted by Boyle and his assistant Robert Hooke. They show that Boyle’s effort to establish the credibility of his new way of producing knowledge through systematic observation, measurement and repeatability, relied heavily on the social position and reputation of those other men who were performing experiments and observing them. The legitimacy of Boyle’s way of warranting knowledge claims depended on the gentlemanly status of the community who were assessing them. The parallels with Wikipedia seem striking. Questions about who gets to know have only become more pressing since Rosenzweig’s article appeared. Seeing the platform as a site in which this politics of knowledge plays out helps us understand not only history on Wikipedia, but also its place within the history of knowledge.

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Tamson Pietsch
wikihistories chief investigator

Michael on Roy Rosenzweig: Writing and bureaucracy

Tamson picks out a key theme of Rosezweig’s article: for Wikipedia historians, historical expertise is less important than expertise in the platform’s rules and politics. Wikipedia challenges academics of all disciplines to justify their knowledge in a new way. We (the academics!) cannot simply arrive on the platform and assert our knowledge in the usual way. 

An academic historian asserts their authority by mastering the tools of historical narrative, argues Rosenzweig. The academic historian has ‘a deep acquaintance with a wide variety of already published narratives and an ability to synthesize those narratives (and facts) coherently’ (141). This rhetorical authority doesn’t cut it on Wikipedia. To make facts stick in a Wikipedia article, you need to integrate the right sources in the right way, using the right arguments and templates and policies, with the support of the right users.

Why does Wikipedia have such different standards to academic history? Wikipedia does, after all, officially defer to academic knowledge through its verifiability principle. Why does it not defer to academic practice also?

The crucial factor according to Rosenzweig is bureaucracy. Wikipedia requires bureaucracy to coordinate its hundreds of thousands of contributors. Bureaucracy requires explicit rules and procedures that can be appealed to in case of dispute. It is basically impossible to write a set of rules and procedures that will generate the kind of ‘deep acquaintance with historical narratives’ that Rosenzweig observes in academic history. It is quite possible, however, to write rules and procedures that assert what kinds of sources can be used to justify discrete factual assertions. Wikipedia almost inevitably favours styles of thought and writing that can be easily codified in public policies.

The ‘bureaucratic’ character of Wikipedia has been long debated. Some more idealistic scholars have claimed that Wikipedia is an anarchic ‘ad-hocracy’ quite different to the corporate and state bureaucracies of classical bureaucratic theory. This ‘ad-hocracy’ thesis is analysed in depth by Nate in Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness.

Rosenzweig’s analysis does provide support for the view that Wikipedia is essentially bureaucratic. He carefully compares the prose of Wikipedia articles with the prose of academic history, and demonstrates the ‘factualist’, ‘anecdotal’, and ‘colourful’ style of Wikipedia history, by contrast with the more synthetic and explanatory style of academic history. The Wikipedia historian’s focus on discrete facts reflects the fact that it is easier to write rules about permissible facts than rules about compelling historical interpretations.

Michael Falk Avatar

Michael Falk
wikihistories chief investigator

Heather on Roy Rosenzweig: 

Rozenzweig asks a question that has plagued studies of Wikipedia since it first started dominating the encyclopedic universe. Is it any good? How is it better or worse than traditional ways of making knowledge? He asks this question because the next one is right on its heels: should we be changing the ways that we make knowledge? Should history, he asks, be open source?

What follows is a beautiful exposition of the ways in which Wikipedia is unique. It may “mimic” encyclopedic writing, but it resembles a kind of “popular history poetics” that follows different rules from conventional professional scholarship. Rosenzweig finds that whether Wikipedia is more accurate than other encyclopedias or reference works is perhaps not as relevant as what kinds of history is made. By comparing historical biographies on Wikipedia and other reference works, he articulates the ways in which Wikipedia may be as accurate but can also be “incomplete”, “capricious”, “waffling” and “choppy”.

Has Wikipedia “created a good historical resource? Are Wikipedians good historians?” (p125) asks Rosenzweig. Here comes my favourite lines in the essay: “As in the old tale of the blind men and the elephant, your assessment of Wikipedia as history depends a great deal on what part you touch. It also depends, as we shall see, on how you define “history”.” (125) As Tamson writes, the question of who gets to decide what constitutes historical knowledge is being determined here, and Wikipedians are clearly playing a dominant role. History, realizes Rosenzweig, is being produced by this massively popular encyclopedia whether we (as academic historians) think it is good or not. What should historians do about this? What, asks Rosenzweig, are the implications for the historical profession?

One option is to join forces with Wikipedians. “If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible.” (140) But Rosenzweig is “tentative” about this option. “(T)he ban on original research (and original interpretations)… seemingly limits professional historians’ role in Wikipedia.” (140) It is here where he sets up exactly the conflict between Wikipedia historians and professional historians. It is not about whether one has a better knowledge of a set of “obscure set of facts” (141). Rather, it is about a fundamental disagreement about how to discover the truth. Wikipedians and professional historians synthesise the past differently. Rozenzweig finds that “the problem of Wikipedian history is not that it disregards the facts but that it elevates them above everything else and spends too much time and energy (in the manner of many collectors) on organising those facts into categories and lists” (p142). Professional historians, on the other hand, select what is historically significant out of a “deep acquaintance with a wide variety of already published narratives and an ability to synthesise those narratives (and facts) coherently.” (p141)

Out of these seemingly incommensurate epistemologies, Rosenzweig comes to another option – to use open source principles in the historical profession. To “open source” history. It is here where Rosenzweig is on firmer ground. What is salient in his examples of peer-production to inspire professional historians (the Ames Clickworkers project that helped volunteers to classify craters on Mars or volunteer genealogists who digitize documents or Project Gutenberg where volunteers proofread public domain books) is that they position professional historians in the synthesising role and delegate the “data labour” of digitising, collecting, proofreading data to the masses. As Tamson notes, it is the practices of open source in professional history that have flourished 18 years on, rather than professional historians joining the ranks of Wikipedia editors. The “rocky” encounters between Wikipedians and professional historians have resulted in intermittent controversies. It seems to follow, then, that Wikipedia will independently continue to write popular history and change the ways in which history is defined. Tracing this change and what it means for who gets to represent the past is a key challenge for those in the wikihistories network. 

heather Avatar

Heather Ford
wikihistories chief investigator


If you’d like to contribute to our next book club, we will be reading “Pump and circumstance: Robert Boyle’s literary technology” by Steven Shapin in 1984. Tamson’s reflection made us realise that it might be interesting to compare our Wikipedia moment to that great epistemic shift documented by Shapin in the Social Studies of Science journal article (as well as his great book written with Simon Schaffer, “Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Send 200-300 words to

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