In a recent post, I discussed commonalities among my five most popular blog posts in the last five years. Noting that one had been referenced in Wikipedia, I came up with the idea of adding content to the Wikipedia entries on topics I had written about, with links back to my blog posts or publications.
So I got a Wikipedia account and got started. I wrote about how some movies (Twelve Angry Men, Absence of Malice, The Big Short, Eye in the Sky) can be used in the classroom, outlined the plot of Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary City Hall, and explained how to wear a Phi Beta Kappa key on a contemporary lapel pin, rather than an anachronistic watch fob. I referenced my blog posts as well as relevant pages in books or articles.
After a dozen such edits, I woke up one morning to discover that overnight a Wikipedia administrator had deleted most of them. The administrator’s claim was that I had violated Wikipedia’s conflict of interest guidelines by referencing my own work, especially my self-published blog. After two exchanges of messages, the administrator remained adamant, and I decided to waste no more time arguing or even attempting to make edits that would be acceptable to him or her, say by referencing other scholarly works in addition to my own. Thus ended my short Wikipedia career.
Who Would Write for Wikipedia?
This unpleasant experience left me thinking about the motivations of real writers and of Wikipedia contributors. We writers, like other creators, want to express ourselves, and we are sufficiently egotistical to want the public to know what we’ve written is our work. Therefore we sign our work, just as painters sign their paintings, craftsmen sign their pieces, and contributors to films or television programs have their names included in the credits.
Contributors to Wikipedia, on the other hand, are writing anonymously about someone or something other than themselves and are referencing sources other than their own work, even if they have already written about those topics. This rather unpromising situation leads me to speculate about what sort of person would contribute to Wikipedia. Here are several conjectures.
- Fans get satisfaction from knowing that they had contributed to what is known about the object of their affection or infatuation.
- Obsessives are fascinated with a topic, though not necessarily in love with it, and want to explore it from every angle, adding their contributions.
- Students want to learn as much as they can about a topic and, like fans and obsessives, derive satisfaction from adding to what is already known. At that early stage in their careers, they would be delighted to have their work posted online, even anonymously. I would tell a doctoral student preparing for comprehensive exams to look up the Wikipedia article about his or her topic, critique it, and on the basis of the critique, improve it.
- Hired guns. The restriction on people or institutions writing about themselves gives them an incentive to find agents to submit Wikipedia content on their behalf. A quick search revealed that for-hire Wikipedia writers are out there. Wikipedia asks that for-hire writers declare their conflict of interest, but it isn’t clear to me how administrators could enforce that.
Wikipedia Contributions I Won’t Make
Finally, I performed a small thought-experiment. I looked up Wikipedia entries for three topics on which I have acknowledged expertise, as evidence by peer-reviewed academic publications: public sector innovation, Ontario’s highway 407, and the conflict over bilingual air traffic control in Quebec. Then I asked what I would add, if content derived from one’s own peer-reviewed publications was not considered a conflict-of-interest.
There is no Wikipedia entry for public sector innovation, despite the existence of a large body of academic research and reported practitioner experience. There is room for a Wikipedia entry, with scholars and practitioners in the field contributing by citing their own research and experience. Or should the author of the Wikipedia entry be a doctoral student who is studying the field, but has not yet actually published?
There is a lengthy Wikipedia entry on Highway 407. The section on the Highway’s history is weak, and I could readily improve it, but that would require referencing my co-authored book.
Finally, there is no Wikipedia entry on the conflict over bilingual air traffic control in Quebec, a topic on which I have written the definitive book. Contributing an entry would necessitate numerous references to my book.
These three cases convince me that Wikipedia is much the poorer because of its overly-restrictive policy regarding what it calls conflict-of-interest. I encourage other scholars reading this post to look up Wikipedia entries for topics on which they have expertise to see what improvements they could make, were they allowed to.
Like millions of other people, I use Wikipedia. At first glance, I find it informative. But I also find Wikipedia articles, especially on topics I know something, amateurish and disjointed. Now I know why.