The Revolution that is: 
 Exploiting Wikipedia as a space for transformative scholarly communication | Dr. Mike Sosteric

Twelve years ago I spoke about the revolutionary potential of electronic scholarly communication (Sosteric, 1999;2001). At the time I suggested that electronic journals and electronic scholarly communication could solve the financial crises in library acquisitions, speed a frustratingly slow communication process, and open up access to a wide range of individuals outside of the bulwarks of higher academe. Twelve years later, things have changed – things have stayed the same.

The financial crises remains, with even universities as big as Harvard raising alarms and calling for revolutionary change (Sample, 2012). Some advances have been made in opening up scholarly activity to the world (specifically the Public Library of Science and the 2008 stipulation by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy which requires funded scientists to submit to PubMed (Bellardo, Burright, & Duggan, 2011), but scholarly communication itself remains ponderous and slow, partly because scholars are reluctant to give up an essential feature of the quality control process (i.e. peer review process), and partly because there is only so much you can do to speed up review by often busy peer reviewers.

Financial concerns have no doubt played a large role in the call for revolutionary transformation over the years, but so to have ethical, moral, and political concerns regarding access to quality information and to quality teaching and learning. Access to information leads to economic, political, and social advances (Sosteric, 1999a) and in this age of smart phone enabled access to the WWW, information is more accessible than ever. Moving into this space, exploiting this affordance, and creating high quality pedagogical and research resources capable of exploiting the technological potential for teaching and learning seems a nature arena for academics, scholars, and university teachers .

In this concern to bring revolutionary transformation to the communication process (teaching, learning, and research!), exploiting technology is key. Arguably our communication technologies now outstrip our ability to exploit them, but that doesn’t mean we can or should cease trying to use them in our scholarly activities as effectively as possible. Faculty and teachers are looking for new ways to communicate their work, creating moocs, blogs, podcasts, and so on (Bellardo, Burright, and Duggan, 2011). I myself experiment with an online magazine of Sociology ( designed to bring the insights of sociology into mass awareness. These are all interesting innovations but an already available, and underexploited, technology that has considerable potential to push forward the agenda for rapid pedagogical and scholarly gain is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia (Wiki is a Hawaiian term meaning “quick or informal”) was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales a securities trader (0′Leary, 2005). Wikipedia is an interesting case. It was created specifically to allow for quick collaboration on scholarly articles prior to them entering into the onerous peer review process (Voss, 2005), and is thus scholarly at its core. Wikipedia is arguably the world’s most widely used repository of information,1 establishing itself as a stopping off points for secondary, post-secondary, and professional researchers alike (Head & Eisenberg, 2011; Lim, 2009) Wikipedia is in some ways like a global brain. Type almost any topic into Google or other search engines and Wikipedia entries are often the first link retrieved. Given its visibility it is not so outrageous to claim that Wikipedia is the “go to” resource for the general edification of the planet. Even scholars, myself and others, admit to making Wikipedia a starting point. There are perceived problems of course (Denning,Horning, Parnas, & Weinstein, 2005), including the quality of the articles, the mutability of the entries, and the lack of formal peer review. However, article quality is often sufficient for journalist use (Shaw, 2008; Messner & South, 2011), with growing acceptance over time (Messner & South, 2011), and the community itself is heavily focused on improving quality (Voss, 2005) such that reviews of article quality are generally high (Chesney, 2006) and growing (Messner & South, 2011). In addition innovations in citation practice, like the introduction of the construct and journal citation templates (Nielsen, 2007), are setting the ground work for automated evaluation of article quality.

Despite hopeful improvements in quality, and the reality that scholars have been citing Wikipedia articles as authoritative sources since at least 2005 (Blumenstock, 2008), quality concerns remain (e.g. Kupferber & Protus, 2011; Anderka and Stein, 2012; Shachaf & Hara, 2010) and this perhaps makes Wikipedia not a candidate for dissemination of original research (and in fact Wikipedia officials forbid original research from being include,2 or for professorial promotion, but as an outlet for scholarly activity, and as channel for revolutionary sentiment, it is perhaps ideal (Wright, 2011). Scholars always have requirements for some form of community outreach or service and Wikipdia articles seem an ideal way to do that, building scholarly community (by for example inserting scholars into the Wikipedia community itself), or by empowering the scholar to disseminate scholarly research widely (Nielsen, 2007) and touch the world in an instant. Instant editorial access means scholars can contribute to a global public knowledge project through Wikipedia simply by adding their research, citing relevant sources, and participating in a project already in existence.

In addition to providing scholars a potential outlet for their activity, the Wikipedia may also be an ideal avenue for those working in distance education. Instructors themselves can develop course notes, resource lists, and additional reading lists easily and quickly by connecting to established and reliable Wiki articles, or they can even develop class based resources for themselves by entering into the fray and editing articles they have an interest in. In addition to this there is a definite pedagogical role as instructors (Goodman, 2008; Pollard ,2008) and even entire disciplines like Sociology (Wright, 2011) and Biology (Butler, 2008) have recognized that one can piggyback science, pedagogy, education, and instruction upon the public good. In this regard asking students to improve articles on Wikipedia as part of course requirements can help teach not only the process of scholarly research and writing, but also get student’s themselves contributing to the general fund of knowledge on Wikipedia. This can also contribute to the development of a “distance” orientated pedagogy and research style (i.e. students become primed to think about their contributions in an distributed information environment). The potential to further the revolutionary agenda is certainly there. All we really have to do is explore the possibilities and remove any obstacles in the way.

With this in mind I would like to report on a project I am currently working on. I am currently doing research on the social and political history of Tarot cards and writing an article entitled A Sociology of the Western Tarot. In the process of researching this article I stopped by the relevant Wikipedia pages on Tarot3 and Divinatory Tarot.4 While the former was of reasonable quality, that latter was unimpressive to say the least. In addition to a shoddy article with questionable sources I also found a big yellow exclamation point attached to an appeal from Wikipedia authorities that this article needed the attention of an expert. I saw this as an opportunity not only to improve the article, but also meet my service obligations as a public scholar, and contribute to what I hope would become a valuable resource in the occult, Tarot, and (more generally) the Sociology of Religion. The later contribution was, from my perspective very important, especially being as I had just finished writing a Sociology of Religion course, was planning on writing a follow up to this course entitled the Sociology of Spirituality, U was thus looking for quality resources to include in the course reading list. Contributing to this article was thus contributing to general scholarship on the topic but also serving a self-interested (and distance education related) need for quality and accessible writing on the topic.

It was easy to jump right in being as a) I was already immersed in Tarot scholarship and b) I am trained in scholarly research and writing. I began rewriting the article, bringing in quality sources, removing fluff and inaccuracies, and generally improving (I feel), the overall quality of the article. It has become a work in progress and will probably take me several weeks to complete. Overall I am finding this editorial work to be an incredibly useful exercise for several reasons. One, my work on the Wikipedia entry it is allowing me to “write out” in detail a history that I need to know anyway. Two, it is allowing me to put the research in a safe place where I (and students in subsequent courses) can find it easier to go to (much easier than the messy drive of my home computer). Three, I am fulfilling a professional obligation of teaching and community service. Finally, by taking that article and a) raising it to a higher level of quality and b) putting it in a place, and form, that allows for rapid dissemination of the information, I believe I am contributing to the dissemination of scholarly information into the public sphere. The impact could be considerable not only in terms of elevating popular understanding of the history of the Tarot, but also in impacting scholarly research, especially since Wikipedia is an established goto resource. Anybody anywhere in the world that becomes interested in the Tarot may be confronted by the scholarship already there. The opportunity to set research agendas, influence students, and contribute to scientific output should be obvious.

There are several issues that need to be addressed as Wikipedia article contribution becomes a more acceptable and valued component of scholarly labour, and since this is a field note I’ll only mention them in brief. Obviously, the quality of the resources currently in Wikipedia is a factor. This is, however, a bit of a red herring. The quality of the resources in Wikipedia can easily be increased by scholarly attention, and not even necessarily from stodgy professors with no time on their hands. As noted some instructors are encouraging their students to edit articles with an eye towards improving quality and balance (MacLeod, 2007) and this is surely going to lead to general improvement in the resources. In this regard anybody who teaches a class can readily raise an army of students to help with the task of improving the quality of the Wikipedia universe. Still one cannot contribute to every article and some form of assessing article quality needs to be developed. Although a critical concern, likely this is short term problem since increasing attention is being paid to the development of quality indicators (Blumenstock, 2008; Ganjisaffar, and Lopes. 2009; Korsgaard and Jensen, 2009).

Another issue is article change. Articles can be edited by anyone and they change over time. In the early days of Wikipedia changes were rapid, however a cursory glance at several entries suggests article turn over may have slowed considerably (a formal “mini study” would have to be done to confirm this hypothesis). Although research is needed to establish editing trends, one can expect this slow down to continue to occur to the point where many entries may see only minor revision for extended periods of time. In any case, even if that is not the case it is always possible to “deep link” into specific versions of an article (check the article “History” tab), thus totally obviating any concern with the transience of the resource.

A third issue is measuring the impact of the articles, specifically with an eye towards using Wikipedia contributions as acknowledged contribution to scholarly work as assessed in promotion and tenure hearings. The problem is of course identifying one’s contribution, and tracking the impact. There will always be problems with both. Wikipedia downplays individual contributions, and never displays an author’s contribution on the front page of an article. However article history tabs allow one to identify one’s contributions to individual articles, even presenting the information in pretty graph form, and when you have registered a username, a “Contributions” tab allows you to present the sum total of all contributions over a period of time. Statistics provided are inadequate in my opinion, with tabulations and summaries, and other ways to identify author contributions being necessary. Improving presentation of data in this regard may be difficult, but improvements in statistical presentation of contributions, or even a re engineering of Wikipedia to allow a more formal identification of reputation (Korsgaard and Jensen, 2009) would facilitate scholarly interest in Wikipedia and with Growing power and sophistication of data mining, such detailed analysis of Wikipedia use data is becoming more feasible.

As for measuring impact, citation indexes would be the ideal solution, but academic prejudice against citing Wikipedia entries, and the inability to identify individual contributions, make the use of citation indexes problematic. Other options are available however, including tracking “page views” over time (as an indication of the growing popularity and use of a particular article), and also internal and external back links. Both are possible. Tracking page views is handled by a “Page view statistics” link beneath the article history tab, internal back links can be enumerated by clicking the “What links here” link is the article Toolbox (currently in the left hand sidebar), and Google provides an easy way to track external back links. However, limitations do exist. Currently tracking page views over time is a primitive process with data only being available for a period of ninety days, and no facility for easy data extraction (other than hand entry into a spread sheet). Once again, better data presentation (including automated exploitation of Google statistics) could encourage more scholarly activity in Wikipedia. Altogether this may not be enough to count contributions to the Wikipedia as peer reviewed articles in scholarly journals, it is certainly enough to enable CV entries in the name of professional and/or community service. Given our decade long interest in transformation of scholarly communication it seems worthwhile to take a closer look at the possibility and potential of Wikipedia.

Over the next several months I plan on making a number of contributions to Wikipedia both in the area of the Sociology of Religion/Occult/Tarot, as well as in the area of Scholarly Communication and scientific community. At the end of the project I will report, as much as possible given current limitations in bibliometric indicators for Wikipedi articles, on improvements in the articles I contribute to, interactions with the Wikipedia community, barriers, and so on. As a note this is bibliometric and enthnographic study and I will also report on my experience with “wikipedians” and there openness (or resistance) to scholarly initiative and scholarly contribution to the emerging global brain that is Wikipedia. If you are, or you know of, a scholar with experience contributing to the Wikipedia, I encourage you to contact me at [email protected] or (of you can’t get through our spam filters) [email protected]


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