In my course on Digital Humanities (DH), I was asked to essentially do what I would reckon most people who have gone through a college course (of any level) in the last couple decades have done–study a Wikipedia article. I found this task to be quite enjoyable because while I have definitely been a visitor to the many articles of Wikipedia in the past, rarely have I taken the time to actually explore the areas outside of the content of the main article. This assignment had me look into the actual process of how a Wikipedia page is created, debated, and edited. I found this to be quite insightful because while I would assume most of those who read this page are familiar with the problematic nature of Wikipedia and the cost one might endure for citing this website in a paper they hope to past muster in a class, this activity presented the platform in a new light to me that has boosted the credibility I assign to the website in general, though more so with specific pages.
This then begs the question: how does one assess the quality of a Wikipedia article? With this being the question in mind, this post will explore what I have learned throughout this activity and my own conclusions of what would be useful to evaluate a given page.
Where to begin. Like with any foray into research, our investigation best starts with a question–or rather, questions. Depending on the questions we ask, a Wikipedia page will yield different results. For example, when we begin conducting research on a particular topic, we should assess our own knowledge of the topic at hand. Questions relevant for this would be:
- What do I think I am trying to research?
- Do I know the general concepts/ideas associated with my research topic?
- Am I familiar with what I want to research?
- What have others said about what I am trying to research?
- Is there any work done on what I am trying to research
These kinds of questions and the answers we give to them will give us a starting point on where to look. When considering Wikipedia as a source, this website can help to answer these questions. While the accuracy and degree of information will inevitably vary from topic to topic, subject to subject, and area to area (which, when considering Wikipedia, will be greatly influenced by the popularity of the subject in question), Wikipedia allows a researcher to see a snapshot of information regarding the topic they are trying to study. Additionally, it provides insight onto what has been done and what the general perception of the topic may be.
Finding what you need. Once one has decided Wikipedia is where they can get a glimpse of the desired information, the questions we ask now revolve around what exactly it is that we are searching for. Questions I considered and that others might want to think about include:
- Am I looking for the gist of the topic or a fuller picture?
- Is the information on the page “newer” or “older?”
- Is the information described broadly or narrowly?
- Are the sources relevant and keeping up with recent scholarship?
- Is the source/reference material credible?
- How credible is the information I am reading?
- What or who has determined the information that appears in the article?
These questions help define the scope, type, and depth of the information we are seeking for research. The answers help us find what we need. When considering a Wikipedia article, these kinds of questions become even more necessary to ask because of the nature of the platform. Wikipedia can be edited by virtually anyone and not all editors provide a bibliographic picture of who they are. Additionally, Wikipedia is “open” to any and all–thus, it can only be expected that some pages about controversial or Pop Culture issues are subject to conflict, vandalism, “trolling,” and misinformation. Wikipedia relies on volunteer editors to arise from the public sphere in order to keep it running. This creates a large pool of potential labor to contribute knowledge to the encyclopedia and cutting down on the amount of work a smaller pool might be able to produce, yet this distinct advantage also creates an omnipresent concern, often in the form of a question: do the people editing the page actually know what they are talking about?
Evaluating the information. Thus, to answer the questions previously posed, we need a process to evaluate the material at hand. Preferably, we need a process that allows us to do so if we might not have the necessary expertise to discern a problematic Wikipedia article through training and knowledge. This can be done with the features provided by the platform and a decent grounding in research fundamentals.
For my course, I was tasked to assess the quality of the Wikipedia article on Digital Humanities. I began process by going to two primary locations for this page: the “Talk” tab and the “View history” tab.
The “Talk” tab allows a person to review all the discussion between editors regarding issues and sections of the article that have been of concern to those editing and authoring pieces. Through here, one can see the arguments being made for certain changes and weigh the decisions being made. Do the arguments seem sound? Are they supported by references? Do the editors have relevant background? Are those engaging in discussion “regulars” of this article? All these questions can be answered, to some degree, from the “Talk” tab.
The “View history” tab does exactly as it says: it allows you to view the history of all the edits, including the creation date of the article, made to the content of the page. This reveals when certain edits were made, the frequency with which edits occur, and trends within time periods of when edits occur. Additionally, it can indicate if an “edit war” has occurred, which is an instance of intense editing that indicates a conflict between editors over the content of the page.
These two tabs allowed me to get a picture of the general issues, concerns, and flow of the article and how/when the edits occurred. It also allowed me to judge whether I felt that the concerns of the editors were relevant to my concerns as a student and “non-Wikipedian.” I could also see if there were points in time when the article itself was perhaps a bit more popular or controversial.
Another interesting area is the “Page statistics,” which can be found in the “View history” tab. This page compiles statistics related to the editing and authorship trends of the article, including who the top editors are. With this information, it becomes easier to tell who is contributing to the page. Are there particular and prominent users on this page or is it a list of questionable people? Wikipedia allows users to create accounts and attach some sort of identity to said account, but edits can also be made in a much more anonymous way where only the IP address of a person is listed, which basically leaves no identifying descriptors. Clicking into the profiles of the usernames recorded, we can potentially see biographies of the users. Knowing where to find this information can help one further judge the credibility and quality of the content on the main article. For example, I found that several of the contributors for the DH page claimed to be scholars, including those with relevant experience, education, and training in the field of Digital Humanities. While a complete novice would have to take these self identified scholars at face value to a degree, it does give a higher level of credibility for the content. I also found that a number of contributors had no claims to credibility or even established profiles, which then casts a level of doubt over their potential contributions and the content of the page.
Another good step to assessing the information is observing the source material that is used. I checked to make sure there was an ample amount of references and mentioned works that supported the claims being made. I also checked if a diverse body of works were being utilized–were they from multiple authors or were claims made based off works by one author? On a similar note, are the sources of a scholarly nature or are they more informal and of a “pop” source material? Evaluating sources does take a certain level of base knowledge, but this is where the fundamentals come in. Checking to see if the material is peer reviewed, published by an academic entity, written by those with relevant qualifications, consistent with established facts in related materials, not generating problematic controversy, and conforming to generally accepted methods are good ways to determine if the source is more quality than not.
And finally, comparing what is written in the article to other pieces that you might have discovered through further research (or, in my case, with the material provided to me by course instructor) can help verify what is provided on the page. Does the information align with other works? Does it relate the arguments and conclusions of established experts in the field? Are these established experts cited in the article? Answering these questions does allow for a higher level of familiarity with the subject, but this kind of knowledge comes with the research we conduct.
Though this guide is far from exhaustive, it does provide some basics that are necessary to understand how a Wikipedia article may yield accurate–or not so accurate–information. The fundamental basics of research are valuable and can be applied to Wikipedia to help us assess the efforts of the public. This platform is both creative and helpful, for it does synthesize large amounts of material that can provide glimpses and even high degrees of overview for a vast array of subjects. Yet, just like with any other source, we must be wary of what and how we use it. With this guide in hand, perhaps one can be better equipped to evaluate what they might find on Wikipedia.