How does the tidal wave of crowdsourcing affect academic scholarship and communication? New digital platforms and user-generated forms of information cut such a broad swath, and are developing so quickly, that we are inevitably learning about them as we go. Even so, we can begin to assess their implications for emergent forms of knowledge and some existing social and academic inequalities. The record so far is both promising and problematic.
My sense of the possibilities of these new platforms and sources of information stems in part from my ongoing work, undertaken with Prof. Hannah Brueckner of NYU-Abu Dhabi, on Wikipedia’s representation of scholarly knowledge in the social sciences, sciences, and humanities. Crowdsourcing looms large for Wikipedia: one of its major claims is to have deployed crowdsourcing as a tool for democratizing encyclopedic knowledge. Unlike traditional reference tools, Wikipedia initially sought to open up contributing to anyone who wanted to participate. That openness was meant to guarantee more breadth and deeper, higher-quality content.
These are features that academics rightly admire. In the academy, Wikipedia increasingly serves as both a default source and an instance of participatory democratic practices. Erik Olin Wright, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and past president of the American Sociological Association, cites Wikipedia as a paramount example of a “real utopia.” One can understand why, because both the production and consumption of the online encyclopedia connect to questions of democracy and the decommodification of social life. Democratic decisionmaking in particular rests on an informed citizenry with access to adequate information, including information that represents social categories and groups with some measurable degree of accuracy.
Wikipedia has the potential to deliver such information. It is also supposedly fast, direct,Democratic decisionmaking rests on an informed citizenry with access to adequate information. deliberative, and globally inclusive. The downside? Exclusionary practices have arisen out of editorial practices and interactions among Wikipedia editors, including struggles over status and influence. Newcomers especially are less likely to be able to negotiate the jargon, increasingly involuted rules of conduct, and potentially snarky shoals of editorial interactions. The unintended consequences and internal politics of the editorial structure and process now pose more of a barrier than any particular technical qualifications required to contribute.
In a textbook example of Robert Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy,” in which an elite forms within an organization, captures its goal setting, and colonizes its inner workings, a shrinking number of increasingly unrepresentative editors have basically taken control of the shop. These dynamics limit the extent to which knowledge documentation on Wikipedia can be said to be democratic rather than oligarchical. They also pose real problems for the quality of the content.
That content is also, and increasingly, a combined formation of knowledge, even explicitly including imported old-style encyclopedia materials—e.g., Britannica—that improve coverage but mesh awkwardly with user-grown categories and content. A good deal of contemporary public sphere representation resembles Wikipedia in this sense, not with the shocking clickbait of advertising, but as a messy mishmash of content aggregation, old-line reporting, opinion, and so forth.
Hannah Brueckner’s and my ongoing project focuses on its representation of academic disciplines. We do not study “all” of Wikipedia (it’s hard to imagine how one might do that rigorously at this juncture). We also seek to understand inequalities, especially of gender and race/ethnicity. With respect to gender, for example, a major slice of the ongoing work highlights how Wikipedia represents male and female scholars, and topics systematically associated with masculinity and femininity, in the social sciences, humanities, and sciences. We are mapping and quantifying the facts of the matter of the surface text and assessing the array of mechanisms that together produce the traces that you see when you log on.
Take my own home academic discipline, sociology, which is not readily recognizable as such on English-language Wikipedia. There the form of knowledge about sociology is categorically incoherent at best, a good deal of the content frankly uneven. As to who is there … Wikipedia’s so-called “professor test” contains general guidelines for the notability of academics. Hannah Brueckner and I have compared people who are listed on Wikipedia with people who “should have been there,” both with respect to Wikipedia’s own criteria and other accepted criteria of academic notability. Our analysis of the 452 living “American Sociologists” listed on Wikipedia in August 2014 uncovered a mixture of notable academics (about 60 percent), non-notable ones, social activists, social workers, motivational speakers, and others (Adams and Brueckner 2015).
That sociology is perceived as having flexible professional boundaries is not news. What is more surprising is that plenty of pages that should not be there on any imaginable grounds remain up for a substantial length of time, if not permanently, while others are inappropriately deleted. Some of our ongoing work—on deletion of talk pages, for example—and other scholars’ should better illuminate the underlying dynamics.
So is there hope for a better and more enlightened map of scholarly knowledge? I hope so! For technologies that allow us to map knowledge through extensive linking of related content are helpful features of Wikipedia and other like platforms. And Wikipedia and its ilk are increasingly accepted by students and teachers in secondary and even primary schools; they are here to stay. Therefore it would behoove us to try to improve them.
Absent better algorithms—another important topic—there are individual, group, and organizational efforts to counteract the exclusionary emergent properties of crowd-sourced and hybrid forms of knowledge. In this particular case, these involve efforts to make academic and scholarly Wikipedia a better place in which we can all live. Absent better algorithms, there are individual, group, and organizational efforts to counteract the exclusionary emergent properties of crowd-sourced and hybrid forms of knowledge. Hannah Brueckner’s and my findings do confirm that women and minority sociologists, controlling for H-index and other key factors, have been relatively underrepresented on Wikipedia, and that standards of notability have been inconsistently applied in gendered and racially specific ways. But the pushback is encouraging Wikipedia to hold to its own declared standards, at least in smaller and more tractable corners of the online encyclopedia.
There is some explicit resistance to these efforts, of course, both externally and within the Wikipedia hierarchy. And Wikipedia’s institutionalized suspicion of “original research” can make it more challenging for scholars to weigh in than some other categories of contributors. Nonetheless, it is still possible for informed e-citizens to make a difference. How much these efforts may aggregate up, whether they matter to the whole, and whether they could simultaneously help deepen and democratize the expert knowledge on Wikipedia and other like sites, remain open questions.
If they do, they hold wider promise for the mapping and communication of academic knowledge. To give just one example, there are at least some concrete cases in which a notable scholar who has been forgotten or erased from more conventional compendia of academic knowledge has been introduced on Wikipedia. This may reawaken interest in her or his substantive scholarship within the academy, potentially reconfiguring a lopsided scholarly canon. It may also encourage those of us either who make up the categories and groups that have been systematically excluded or who identify with their fortunes to believe that wider participation in the sphere of scholarly knowledge is possible. That would be good for scholarship, the academy, primary and secondary school students and teachers, and indeed citizens and the global public sphere.
Wikipedia is a work in progress, and struggles over representation in all its senses are unrolling in real time. If we can better understand how hybrid knowledge formations like this develop and change, in reference works and more broadly, we can also explore how they might be better governed so that they become genuinely richer, more accurate and inclusive, and are able to reach their full scholarly and human potential.