Busting Up the Monopoly on Knowledge Production

Dariusz Jemielniak is a professor of management at Kozminski University, in Poland, a Wikimedia activist, and author of Common Knowledge: An Ethnography of Wikipedia. He views  Wikipedia as a professor's best friend.  He quotes Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Association, who wrote some years ago that "a professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything."

Jemielniak not only recommends that his students use Wikipedia but also encourages them to edit and develop it. I tried the same thing with my graduate students about 5 years ago. I wanted them to (1) find a topic in our area of study that has no Wikipedia article (2) create an account and post a first version (3) make additional contributions and get the article to survive until the end of the semester. They told me it was one of the hardest assignments we did. Some could barely get past part one.

I often think that teachers are fearful of Wikipedia because they don't really understand how it works. "Anyone can change something," they say, and that is true. But see if the change lasts. If it's inaccurate or opinion, it will vanish quickly.

Even though studies going back to 2005 show that Wikipedia does not have significantly more errors than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, people doubt it. Teachers at all levels may tell students "You're not allowed to use it in in your research" (as if they could actually monitor student research at all), but those teachers are very likely to use Wikipedia in their own informal or formal research.

Wikipedia has significantly grown and improved in the past decade and it's no surprise that articles often turn up at the top of search results. Everyone uses it.

Jemielniak thinks that the "real reasons for the general dislike of Wikipedia among scholars" is because they are used to having a "monopoly on knowledge production." The idea of these open-source loonies creating and managing knowledge without anyone wanting remuneration or even credit is absurd.

Do students plagiarize from Wikipedia? Yes, as they once did from books and have more easily done ever since we had word processing and the Internet.

And yet, the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association have started initiatives aimed at encouraging scholars and students to help develop Wikipedia.

One project I like is the Wikipedia Education Program which carries the tagline: "The end of throwaway assignments and the beginning of real-world impact for student editors."

It's not a difficult idea to use. Professors around the world assign their students to use Wikipedia to contribute to articles on course-related topics. More than 6,500 students have participated in the Wikipedia Education Program around the
world, adding the equivalent of 45,000 printed pages of quality content to more than 10,000 Wikipedia articles in multiple languages.

Writing a Wikipedia article is an excellent academic assignment that requires research, synthesizing facts, teaches how to properly use third-party sources, and is resilient to plagiarism. Wikipedians (those monitors of the pages) are more watchful for signs of plagiarism than teachers.

Just that first part of my assignment - finding a topic that is not yet covered on Wikipedia - requires imagination and a need to review sources with an eye to finding research gaps. These assignments have a life online too. They don't get a glance at the grade and a toss into the recycle basket. Some students remain connected to the article and monitor changes, and continue to write and edit other articles. I've never had a student write another essay that wasn't assigned.

The idea of sharing knowledge with those who do not have the knowledge or easy access also seems to be an ethical obligation that faculty and students should recognize and participate in making better.

One site I found is Adrianne Wadewitz's HASTAC blog. She was hired as an educational consultant by the Wikimedia Foundation and posts about teaching with Wikipedia and especially on gender.

Following the links below, teachers and students can use available instructions and training from Wikipedia on how to do this activity in an academic setting.

Just looking at the second of Wikipedia’s Five Pillars is a worthwhile discussion in any class involving writing:

"Wikipedia has a neutral point of view.
- Strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view in a balanced and impartial manner.
- Avoid advocacy. Characterize information and issues rather than debate them.
- In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in other areas we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context, and NOT presenting any point of view as "the truth" or "the best view".
Please note: All article content should be verifiable based on published material. That means citing published, authoritative sources, especially on controversial topics and when the subject is a living person. Unreferenced material can be removed. Articles should not feature editors' personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions."

Good writing advice to all writers in all settings.

Further Reading

Download a nice 12 page PDF on How to_Use_Wikipedia_as_a_Teaching_Tool

Get involved as a teacher with the Wikipedia Education Program or as a student


Trackback specific URI for this entry


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

No comments

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.
BBCode format allowed
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
To leave a comment you must approve it via e-mail, which will be sent to your address after submission.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.