Wicked Wiki, Primary Sources, and SOCHA’s Ongoing Work

Those of us in the Academy are (our should be!) quite aware of the limitations of Wikipedia.  Of course, some of the weaknesses are the same as they have been for any encyclopedia.  Students too often think research begins and ends with them (alas, even in college).  Too many citizens share that approach.  Also, encyclopedia entries cannot take the time to be as nuanced as perhaps they should.  In the case of Wikipedia, this can become a real problem.  Recently, Timothy Messer-Kruse wrote from personal experience about how this is so (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/).  I’d recommend reading the article, but in a nutshell, Dr. Messer-Kruse edited a Wikipedia entry on the Haymarket trial of 1886 based upon primary source research he had done through the Library of Congress.  Wikipedia reacted by deleting his comments and noting he had to cite reliable sources!  He tried again, again citing the court documents and also his own published work.  It didn’t matter.

Now, on the one hand, one might argue that such is all an encyclopedia can do.  It must simply add up the number of secondary sources making a particular point (that no evidence was presented by the prosecution at the trial–yeah, that was the point).  Anyone stating otherwise, even if supported by primary sources, won’t be given a say.  To some degree, that is what encyclopedias have always done–tried to present the general consensus on a given topic.  Furthermore, Wikipedia is not a peer-reviewed journal.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be expected to prioritize primary source scholarship.

On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a platform that is supposed to be open to editing can dismiss the actual primary sources (say letters or diaries or court documents) in favor of historiographical ignorance (which happens for various reasons–no judgment intended at all toward other scholars of the Haymarket riot and trial).

Furthermore, this is a perennial problem within American Orthodox history.  Both Matthew Namee and I have encountered it on more than one occasion, especially when discussing what we’ve called “the myth of unity”–the idea that all Orthodox in America were always under the Russians until 1917 and/or that the Russians always worked hard to demonstrate that they always clearly had jurisdiction everywhere and anywhere on the North American continent (or perhaps Americas more generally).  Often those screaming the loudest were used to doing “history” work by collecting a bunch of secondary sources together.  Similarly, when discussing Archbishop Arseny of Canada, those who seemed most upset with what I found in the court documents were not those who had actually read the court documents (we at SOCHA read them and made them available).  Sometimes, people simply like the “conventional mendacity” (to quote Lord Acton) built up over the ages.

One of the long-term goals of SOCHA is to provide a platform that highlights primary sources and their importance.  Exactly how this will be done is still coming into view, but certainly this blog is a beginning.  We have posts by the four of us directors as well as by others who are knowledgeable in particular primary sources.  We will continue to provide informative articles based on primary source work.  More than that, once we are able to move forward with our future digitization project, readers will have access to primary sources themselves.  We even envision a platform in which readers will be able to submit primary documents to the database.  This will make it similar to Wikipedia, in that people will  be able to add to the knowledge base and influence what is known and learned.  Yet, it will differ in that it will be source material that is added, not conventional mendacity nor even a well documented interpretation.  There will be limitations, of course, as readers won’t be spoon fed interpretations but would have to read, say, Bjerring’s writings themselves to determine what he tended to emphasize in his extant sermons, but I think this is actually better.  Encyclopedias can be nice starting points, but a platform that forces people to think critically and rely on primary sources is better.

Of course, scholars and researchers are seriously questioning the degree to which people are prepared to think critically (you could follow the trail starting with this: http://chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-The/130743/) but that’s a different discussion for another time.


2 thoughts on “Wicked Wiki, Primary Sources, and SOCHA’s Ongoing Work

  1. Wikipedia in particular has explicit policies in place against original research, which are themselves the result of editorial consensus there. Citations have to be from secondary source material, not from one’s own original research into primary sources. Why? It’s for the reasons you state regarding encyclopedias. Encyclopedias are simply about consensus, even if that consensus tends to be wrong.

    For every responsible researcher like Prof. Messer-Kruse, there are potentially hundreds of crackpot editors who have found “the truth” and are willing to enter into an all-out war over it. Prof. Messer-Krause can display impressive credentials on his office wall, but such things are essentially impossible to verify in the semi-anonymous world of Wikipedia editing. The Wikipedia editorial consensus has chosen to sacrifice the introduction of new original research for the sake of holding a much larger tide of craziness back behind the dikes of secondary source materials.

    When Wikipedia policy is enforced, it’s not Wikipedia who is enforcing it, but rather it’s simply other editors who are following the policy consensus and editing articles accordingly. The reason why the policies tend to stay in place is because there is a preponderance of dedicated editors who choose to honor them, not because there is a central governing body that enforces them.

    So, while the site is indeed editable by anyone, it is also just as much re-editable by anyone, and it’s that re-editing process that tends toward the restraint and conservatism reflected in the policy.

    The more gregarious among such editors will often point out to disappointed original researchers that they should get their work published and then other editors can incorporate their findings into articles.

    What’s truly bizarre about all this is that Wikipedia is actually, on the whole, pretty accurate, even in comparison with printed encyclopedias. It’s sort of oddly magical.

    • I do agree that Wikipedia is generally accurate. No encyclopedia can be always up-to-date or have all the cutting edges facts and/or interpretations. That is why I did say encyclopedias, and I do include wikipedia in that, are good places to start when researching something or just learning about something.

      That said, I think it is important to notice the limitations and weaknesses of such a system. Perhaps I am more sensitive to that because I teach and can tell you that most undergraduates in my classes would prefer to cite wikipedia and just move on. I think something similar has happened sometimes in American Orhtodoxy–just cite all the other secondary sources.

      So, although I probably wasn’t clear, that was one of my intended points–that encyclopedias, including wikipedia, are good starting points but must be seen as only starting points.

      My second (intended) point is that although wikipedia cannot be a peer-reviewed journal, I do think it’s failure to admit of citations from directly relevant primary sources and newly published secondary sources is a problem. That is what struck me about Dr. Messner-Kruse–that he cited the actual court documents and then later work he published through a vetted, peer-reviewed system. I do agree with you that there are crackpots out there and I’m more than willing to grant you that they are plentiful. I can see how one would view the current system as good, but I actually see what happened to Dr. Messner-Kruse as a limitation and just one more reason for one to remember that Wikipedia is a starting point, not an ending point.

      I also think for historical studies, some sort of comprehensive database of primary sources is better, but for me to make that statement, I admit I’m assuming an already acquired basic knowledge and/or framework on the part of the reader. So, I would want to clarify that I stress “better” not “replacement for” or something like that (in case I gave that impression).

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