Three surprising things I learned about Wikipedia

Dr. Bradley Zopf is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Carthage College. He recently participated as a Wikipedia Fellows in our pilot program as a member of the American Sociological Association. In this reflective piece, he discusses three things he’s taken away from the experience.

Dr. Bradley Zopf.
Image: File:Bradley Zopf.jpg, BradleyZopf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As an Assistant Professor of Sociology, Wikipedia has usually been near the top of my least favorite websites students cite. I have held a genuine hesitancy, if not outright rejection, of Wikipedia as a reliable source of information. My skepticism extended to my own use of this online database, often reluctantly and begrudgingly using Wikipedia simply because it was easy and often the first website that comes up in a Google search. When I first became aware that the American Sociological Association was collaborating with Wiki Education for a pilot program to engage academics in editing Wikipedia, I instinctively dismissed the opportunity. However, my curiosity soon got the better of me as I explored the purpose and scope of the Wikipedia Fellows Program. Now, having participated in this program, I am happy to say that my views on the use and value of Wikipedia have changed dramatically.

By learning the rules and regulations concerning Wikipedia contributions and engaging with fellow Wikipedians, I learned a lot more about how Wikipedia articles are created, edited, and maintained. I have come to appreciate the breadth, and even the depth, of what Wikipedia can provide to both students and scholars alike. I would like to explain just a few lessons I have learned after participating in the Wikipedia Fellows Pilot project as a member of the American Sociological Association.

The first lesson I learned from this experience is that Wikipedia articles are very much a collaborative effort and that fellow Wikipedians truly care about making articles as well researched and well-written as possible. I participated in the Wikipedia Fellows program primarily because I wanted to contribute to more complete and accurate knowledge about the Arab and Muslim American populations in the United States. During the early phases, I often confirmed my initial apprehension about Wikipedia, which was that not all Wikipedia articles are good. I often found articles on Arab and Middle Eastern Americans to be incomplete. However, I generally did not find these articles to be inaccurate or to misrepresent Arab, Middle Eastern, and/or Muslim Americans. Perhaps this should not have been a surprise given the stringent guidelines around vandalism on Wikipedia, but my naiveté notwithstanding; I set out to contribute to various pages on the Arab and Muslim American experience. I initially edited several pages on Arab American immigration and Definitions of Whiteness. While editing these articles I realized just how much information is well cited in the Wikipedia article and the ease to which I could investigate source material linked throughout the page. Additionally, I found that being a part of a community of Wikipedians contributed to the overall improvement of the articles as several Wikipedians copyedited my own contributions making the overall article much clearer. Even with relatively little direct communication with others, I found myself a member of a community of writers, scholars, and contributors whose goals aligned with my own, namely, to provide accurate and reliable information about Arab and Muslim Americans.

The second lesson I learned by participating in the Wikipedia Fellows Program was that Wikipedia provides a fertile ground for student involvement. I am looking forward to assigning semester-long group projects requiring students to engage with both material on Wikipedia and the broader Wikipedia community of editors. Rather than having students avoid Wikipedia, I want students to contribute as editors. If anything, involving students with Wikipedia can encourage them to “Be Bold” in their own writing and thinking. I envision students gaining skills in editing others’ work, evaluating sources, and developing new writing styles as potential learning outcomes for Wikipedia-based projects. Such skills are highly transferrable and students can point to Wikipedia contributions as real-world experience.

Finally, and perhaps most rewardingly, I learned that Wikipedia can be a good place for scholars to engage with their own research and that of others. While Wikipedia articles are not about original research or scholarship, I was surprised by the skills and knowledge I gained by participating in this Wikipedia Fellows program. Not only did I find myself endlessly following linked articles across the vast number of articles on Wikipedia, but I also dug deeper into the references and resources related to my own research. In order to feel confident in contributing to Wikipedia, I forced myself to re-engage with books and articles I haven’t read in a while and even found others that I was not aware had been published. Taking my work on Wikipedia seriously meant that I had to find sources—especially page numbers—for often very specific details that I wanted to add to an article. Going through the process of re-reading and combing through some of those references I know quite well, as well as finding more recent scholarship on the subjects, gave fresh light on my own research—something I certainly did not expect.

My experience as a Wikipedia Fellow has taught me to embrace Wikipedia for a variety of reasons. I want to encourage other scholar-teachers to consider taking part in Wikipedia projects around their areas of expertise whenever possible. The skills I gained by going through this program have changed my views of Wikipedia for the better. I no longer scoff when students use Wikipedia, nor do I include it on my do-not-cite list. Rather, I plan to encourage students to explore Wikipedia as starting place for exploration of their chosen research topics; to continue editing and contributing to Wikipedia as a matter of scholarly activity; and to occasionally use Wikipedia as a place to practice my writing and editing skills.

To see the Wikipedia articles this Fellows cohort improved, click here. To learn more about how you can get involved as a Wikipedia Fellow, click here.

Image: File:20110510 15 Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin (6010327246).jpgDavid Wilson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


One thought on “Three surprising things I learned about Wikipedia

  1. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing what you learned, Bradley! I look forward to reading more of your work and hope to see you at Midwest Sociology Society meetings next spring.

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