Wikipedia and the quest for legitimacy

This week, Wiki Education is at the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) annual meeting in San Francisco. We’re in the exhibit hall speaking with attendees and APSA members about how they can enhance Wikipedia’s coverage of political science by replacing a traditional term paper with a Wikipedia assignment. Thus, students channel research and writing into a project that informs the public about important information related to public policy and political theory.

This year’s conference theme feels particularly suitable for Wikipedia: The Quest for Legitimacy. Just this morning, a political science professor’s teenage daughter approached us to ask about our work. “Teachers always tell us not to use Wikipedia, but it’s the best website I’ve ever seen, so I basically ignore them,” she joked. “I plan to use Wikipedia until the day I die.” I hear this seemingly contradictory ethos on nearly a monthly basis: Wikipedia is not legitimate; I use Wikipedia every day.

This begs the question: What is legitimacy?

For a website aiming to inform the masses about knowledge that cites reputable, reliable sources, allowing readers to verify said information, Wikipedia seems to be doing pretty well for itself. The site gets more than 500 million unique readers per month. These people come to Wikipedia in search of an overview on topics they’re trying to learn more about, and they often find it. No, they do not find original research from scholars proposing solutions to the world’s problems, but Wikipedia has never claimed to be an academic journal. Nor is Wikipedia a newspaper reporting world events. Rather, it’s an encyclopedia serving as a tertiary summary of the robust literature in those academic journals and newspapers. Wikipedia is only as good as its sources.

And that’s where the real problem with legitimacy comes in, but it’s rarely the one scholars approach me to dispute: Wikipedia is not always an accurate, updated reflection of the academy. The available content is usually good, but what of the content that Wikipedia’s volunteer contributors never write (or haven’t yet)? Why don’t we include the most recent peer-reviewed literature so the world’s context can progress at the same rate as the academy’s?

I think the answer is largely a technical one. Wikipedians cannot synthesize the most cutting edge research if it lives behind paywalls. Most academic disciplines have incorporated intersectional lenses and frameworks in the last few decades because the profession has become somewhat more diverse in regard to race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. But that information has not yet made its way into the canon, so we cannot be surprised when marginalized voices are missing from the encyclopedia while outdated historiographies persist.

Until the entire industry joins the open access community and publishes research free of restrictions, I see two options for Wikipedia to improve its representation of scientists’ current understanding of the world. Option A: Give existing Wikipedians access to closed-access journals; Option B: Teach people who already have access to journals the skills and Wikipedia know-how to summarize it and share it with the world. Wiki Education has taken both approaches, and we want to expand our services to even more people. We work with universities who sponsor library access in our Visiting Scholars program, and we support instructors who assign students to write Wikipedia articles in our Classroom Program, teaching them how to be successful along the way. At the APSA conference, we hope to meet people who can help us further both objectives.

By joining Wiki Education’s programs, academics can help bridge the knowledge gap between the people who read academic journals and the people who read Wikipedia. If the academy’s purpose is to inform the world and help humans make scientifically sound decisions, yet that knowledge is limited to a privileged few within a closed community, then I ask you: is the academy still legitimate?


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