Wikipedia, authority and the free rider problem

[This post argues that historians have much to gain from getting involved in making Wikipedia authoritative, in spite of the many disincentives within the current ecology of academic research. However, to make it work, historians would need to embrace a more speculative and more risky model of collaborative work.]

I am a selfish Wikipedian. By which I mean, that while I am very happy to use Wikipedia, I have not been very serious about contributing to it. There are a small handful of pages for which I keep the further reading (reasonably) up to date, and correct if a particularly egregious error appears.  But it is sporadic, and one of the first things to be squeezed out if life gets busy.

And I wonder whether there aren’t real gains for historians from helping Wikipedia become truly authoritative, but which are obscured by natural disincentives in the way in which our scholarly ecosystem works.

Firstly, the disincentives. One is a residual wariness of something that can be edited by ‘just anyone’. I myself have dissuaded students from citing Wikipedia as an authority in itself, as part of what I am teaching is the ability to go to the scholarly article that is cited in Wikipedia, and indeed beyond it to the primary source. But my experience is that, in matters of fact, Wikipedia is very reliable unless it concerns a highly charged topic (the significance of Margaret Thatcher, say). And even the making of that judgement is an important part of learning to think critically about what it is we read.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that Wikipedia appears to be edited by no-one in particular. One of the contradictions of modern academic life is that most scholars would, I think, assert the existence of a common good, the pursuit of knowledge, towards which we work in some abstract sense. At the same time, the ways in which we are habituated to achieve that end are fundamentally about competition between scholars for scarce resources: attention, leading to esteem, leading to career advancement.

We write books and articles, which help us get and then keep a job. A smaller but growing number write blogs like this one, and tweet about those blogs. Part of this is about ‘impact’ (that is to say, increasing our share of those scarce quanta of public attention). And all of it depends on being identified as the creator of an item of intellectual property: tweet, blog post, article, book, media interview. Few, even at the wildest edges of the Open Access movement, propose licensing of scholarly outputs without attribution, even if a work may be licensed for the most radical of remixing. All depends on being known.

But Wikipedia doesn’t credit its authors, or at least not in a prominent and easily reportable way. And so the question arises: even though contributing to Wikipedia is to the common good, what is in it for me ?

The answer may depend on a more speculative and more risky model of collaborative work, but one which holds out the prospect of a genuinely authoritative resource, made by authorities. And that in turn should reward the best published work, in the good old-fashioned and citable way, by channelling readers to it. (It would be even better for works available Open Access.)

But it depends on everyone jumping together. As long as some contribute, but others only consume, there remains a classic economist’s ‘free rider’ problem. When people use a resource without ‘paying’ (in the form of their own time, and their own particular expertise) then the cost of production is unevenly spread, and the quality of the product denuded. But if editing Wikipedia became a genuinely widespread enterprise amongst scholars, then even if my contribution is not recognised with each and every edit, my ‘main’ work (if it is any good) will be cited and integrated into the fabric of Wikipedia by others. And we might get a more informed public debate about each and every matter, which looks like impact to me. Perhaps I should get more serious about this now.