Wikipedia: a tool for historians?

Wikipedia is often considered not to be a particularly reliable source by teachers in secondary schools and higher education. Generations of pupils and students have heard warnings about the reliability of the online encyclopaedia and there have even been bans on using it. The idea spread around, particularly in schools, that “anyone can write anything on Wikipedia” and that there is no control on it has contributed to reducing the collaborative encyclopaedia’s perceived legitimacy. Wikipedia is occasionally presented as a kind of “hodgepodge” with no rules, purportedly overshadowing teachers’ influence. In 2015, Carole Helpiquet, a director of training and head of the Clemi network (French Liaison Centre for Education and Media Information) explained to the French news site Rue89 that: “There has been a lot of defiance towards Wikipedia in the French National Education system. For a long time, the site has been considered a source of competition and criticized by certain teachers.” The teachers’ precautionary advice is not often accompanied by an explanation as to how Wikipedia actually functions. The online encyclopaedia is rarely viewed as being potentially useful for the humanities and social sciences.

Wikipedia is highly popular and used on a daily basis by many people1, including those who seem to denigrate its unreliability and lack of intellectual interest. A study run in 2010 in the USA by Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg noted in particular that “a majority of respondents frequently used Wikipedia […] Wikipedia provided students with a summary about a topic, the meaning of related terms, and also got students started on their research and offered a usable interface”.
Another study of the use of technologies by American teachers, which was published in 2013, found that 87% of the respondents used Wikipedia while sometimes discouraging their students from doing likewise. Today it is impossible to disregard the influence of the online encyclopaedia. Hence the paradox of it being a very widely used digital tool whose internal mechanisms sometimes remain fairly unfamiliar to the general public.

The relations between the collaborative encyclopaedia and the field of historical research were the subject of an article from 2006 offering an analysis by the American historian Roy Rosenzweig2. He discusses the paradigm changes caused by open digital publishing bursting into the world of research. Since then, practices and mentalities have evolved with the expansion of open access and the popularization of Wikipedia. Lionel Barbe, Louise Merzeau and Valerie Schafer thus recently directed the publication of an interdisciplinary collective study of the online encyclopaedia. This book, Wikipedia, objet scientifique non identifié (Wikipedia: Unidentified Scientific Object), deals with both its way of functioning internally and how it is received by the French public. At the same time, some French-speaking teachers have appropriated this digital tool, considering it an object for educational experimentation worthy of being studied and used, including in the academic sphere, even though certain intellectuals continue to disparage it.

This article aims to shed light on and provide a summary of the possible links between Wikipedia and the practices of historians. Before discussing the roles the free encyclopaedia could play in the framework of a historian’s work, it seems necessary to recall its origins as well as the fundamental principles governing how its articles are written and managed. Indeed, contrary to many preconceptions, Wikipedia is far from being a lawless space and is instead subject to a series of strict norms, making it a site that is constantly improving. This raises two questions: in what way might the online encyclopaedia be a useful tool for historians? And to what extent can it meet some of their requirements?

Strict and simple rules for an improvable encyclopaedia

The free encyclopaedia was officially created on 15 January 2001 by the Americans Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The original idea was to support another encyclopaedia project entirely written by experts and managed by a scientific committee: Nupedia. The sluggishness of the project’s contributors led to its closure and its articles being transferred to Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit-making organization based in the United States, hosts and finances the servers. It mainly runs thanks to donations from hundreds of thousands of people and regularly asks its users to make financial contributions. The association currently possesses local chapters in 41 different countries. These chapters, set up to support the Wikimedia Foundation’s projects, have their own mode of governance. Today, Wikipedia has over 41 million entries in nearly 300 languages including English, German, Spanish, Corsican, Latin, simple English and Esperanto. The English-language Wikipedia has the most entries, with around 5,500,000 articles. Swedish is in second position, thanks to substantial growth since 2012 – an impressive expansion mainly due to the automation of the production of articles on plant and animal species, assisted by “bots”. Wikipedia in Cebuano, a language spoken in the Philippines, is in third place thanks to a similar process. Using computer programmes thus “expands” the number of articles available, though this does not in any way correspond to the number of active users. The English Wikipedia has 128,000 users, while its Swedish and Cebuano counterparts respectively have over 3,100 and only 118. The French-language Wikipedia is in sixth place, with over 1,800,000 articles and almost 16,000 active users3.

On Wikipedia, it is possible to modify an article at any time using the “Edit” tab, even without being officially registered. Enlightened amateurs work alongside professional researchers as well as activists and also ill- or misinformed individuals. A novice or even an ill-intentioned person could spoil the quality of the content available. The pages of the online encyclopaedia can potentially be reread and corrected by absolutely anyone. In 2012, a secondary school classical literature teacher tricked his pupils by deliberately vandalizing a Wikipedia article. Under the pretext of “running a little teaching experiment”, the teacher set himself up as a “web wrecker”. Most of his students copied the incorrect information without checking it. For this teacher, “the conclusion was obvious. High school pupils do not have the necessary maturity to benefit from digital information in the arts. They are in thrall to the Internet and this goes against the independent thinking and general culture that school is actually supposed to provide them with.” His actions did of course have certain ideological and moralizing motivations:

“By bringing the digital sphere into schools, we forget that it has already been there for a long time and that in its untamed form it is actually digging the grave of (French) republican schools […] With this teaching experiment, I wanted to show pupils that teachers can sometimes master new technologies as well as them, if not better […] Personally, I don’t believe that it is in any way possible to moralize the digital sphere in schools. And I believe in the paradox that you can only really benefit from the Internet when your mind has been trained without it”.

A critical reader would reply that this teacher merely proved the existence of plagiarism and the absence of a sceptical attitude to information – phenomena that existed before there were computers in schools and homes. What’s more, the administrators of Wikipedia are aware of the possibility of vandalism, as we shall see. As Alexandre Moatti has recently shown, the desire to systematically reject the digital sphere seems to be more of a social posture than truly questioning the possibilities, potential and even the limits of Wikipedia. Moreover, the written dissemination of lies and absurdities hardly dates from the emergence of the Internet. However, the essential problem of the scientific validity of information on the online encyclopaedia cannot be denied, and it is this problem that has caused a certain mistrust of Wikipedia. Furthermore, reassessments and advances in research alter the relevance of the reference sources. A lack of knowledge of the state of the art can lead a Wikipedia contributor to cite scientific works that are today considered erroneous. In the school and university context, the online encyclopaedia does not have the recognition or legitimacy of research published in the academic sphere.

Nonetheless, just like research disseminated by professional historians, Wikipedia observes a rigorous working method. As an online collaborative encyclopaedia that is open to all volunteers, it explicitly aims to provide content that is “free, objective and checkable, which anyone can modify and enhance without having to register. All the articles on Wikipedia are a work in progress that can be modified and improved by anyone.” The online encyclopaedia is not a digital experiment where chaos and a lack of rules reign. The way the publication policy functions is based on five “pillars” that determine the nature of the site and ensure its quality:

  • Wikipedia’s aim is to be a project “which incorporates features of generalist and specialist encyclopaedias, almanacs and atlases”. From a historian’s point of view, the online encyclopaedia is a secondary source, a set of summaries. This means that original research, the expression of opinions, tracts, advertising and primary sources are all excluded. As previously noted, a number of French intellectuals and writers have questioned the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Does the encyclopaedia represent a threat to experts’ scientific authority? Is there a competition between Wikipedia contributors and academic professionals? This is an important point as far as the dissemination of knowledge is concerned: Wikipedia’s aim is not to publish and disseminate original research and as such it means to be an encyclopaedia “with a universal vocation”.
  • The desire to write summaries goes hand in hand with the necessity of striving towards objectivity and thus even to present several different points of view, while also “taking their respective importance in the field of knowledge into account”. There is therefore a hierarchization and a contextualization of knowledge within Wikipedia itself. Articles must allow for the “verification of information by citing authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial”. Hypotheses that are considered of marginal interest or even mendacious by the academic world will also be considered so in the collaborative encyclopaedia. Thus Robert Faurisson is presented as a negationist activist and not as a simple “revisionist”, which is a polemical and polysemantic term used by Faurisson himself to legitimize his pseudo-scientific discourse. In the Wikipedia page on Robert Faurisson, the term “revisionist” is almost entirely used with quotation marks and is used essentially in quotations, some of which indicate the problematic nature of the term.
  • The online encyclopaedia is presented as “free” and “collaborative”. It is published under a free licence, which means that everyone is authorized to “create, copy, modify and distribute” content on Wikipedia, including on a for-profit basis, with the only obligations being to “retain the same licence both for exact and modified copies and to credit the original authors. No one has control over any one article.” It is not even necessary to register to contribute, as the “Edit” tab at the top of the page can be used by anyone. Wikipedia’s vocation is not to replace the traditional process of peer review, publication and dissemination of academic articles. Once a historian’s research has been peer reviewed, it can be cited as a reference source at the end of a Wikipedia article.
  • Wikipedia is a large-scale collective and collaborative project and as such insists on the necessity of etiquette: “Seek consensus […] Do not insult people or make insulting generalizations […] Avoid edit wars.” The latter particularly affect politically sensitive subjects (biographies of politicians, wars and memoirs, important historical events, etc.). For example, the English page on the Armenian Genocide is partially protected against modifications following acts of vandalism. Voluntary administrators, chosen by and from among Wikipedia contributors, are able to intervene in the event of a dispute or abuse. They thus make sure that the collaborative encyclopaedia functions correctly and that the basic rules are observed.
  • Finally, the last rule consists in an invitation for everyone to be creative and contribute: “Wikipedia has no other rules than the five pillars set out here.” This is the so-called “creative interpretation of the rules” rule. The encyclopaedia functions in a kind of “spontaneous order” that is fluid and organized by the contributions of thousands of active users, who correct any errors. In addition, the Wikipedia history archives the different versions of articles so that no information is lost for good. The growing number of pages and corrections regularly made in “real time” ensure that the quality and the quantity of the online encyclopaedia’s articles are constantly increasing. The reliability of its content has been the subject of several scientific studies, notably that published in 2005 in the journal Nature. This study covered 50 articles in English and states that “Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries”. Another study published in 2012 by Oxford University covered a broader range of subjects and languages (English, Spanish, Arabic), and its findings were just as flattering for the free encyclopaedia. American historians used to complain about the absence of certain topics in the English version4 but after just over 15 years of existence the free encyclopaedia now offers a rich variety of subjects. The sociological profiles of contributors to the “original” Wikipedia (the English version) have also become more diverse. Articles on the human and social sciences, the arts and humanities are no longer neglected in favour of the so-called “hard” sciences, fantasy and science fiction5. As the online encyclopaedia has different versions depending on the languages and countries involved, one should obviously note that the quantity and quality of articles differ depending on those versions. In any case, the motivation of its contributors and the time they put in both work in Wikipedia’s favour.

Wikipedia’s ultimate goal is therefore to create an open global knowledge network providing free access to knowledge for everyone, everywhere. In 2005, Jimmy Donal Wales, its cofounder, stated that “Wikipedia is first and foremost an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopaedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language”.

We should also note that the model represented by the online encyclopaedia is not unrelated to the libertarian political convictions of Wikipedia’s cofounder. Jimmy Wales is an avowed admirer of the ideas of the American philosopher Ayn Rand, an intellectual and writer who fled the USSR in the 1920s. Her writing and actions are shot through with the values of optimism, hard work and individualism advocated by the American model. Ayn Rand’s work, which is epistemological, metaphysical and concerned with moral philosophy, is very popular in the United States and celebrates individual initiatives, emulation and the model of the “self-made man”6. The economist Friedrich Hayek’s writing was another major source of inspiration for Jimmy Wales. Friedrich Hayek, one of the thinkers of contemporary liberalism, particularly defended the hypothesis of “spontaneous order”, a non-hierarchical social organization resulting from individual actions that require no centralization to function harmoniously. In 2007, Jimmy Wales thus presented Hayek’s work as an essential source that helped him create his own vision of the collaborative encyclopaedia: “Hayek’s work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project […] One can’t understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek.” The political specialist Sébastien Caré notes that “Wikipedia thus seems to combine Diderot’s utopia of knowledge and Hayek’s utopia of the spontaneous coordination of local information linked by ideas and people rather than being ordered by reason or by the state”7.

Why historians should embrace Wikipedia

Let us briefly recall what is considered to be the job of historians these days. Historians’ work is to construct, understand and decipher the facts of the past and “to create documented and referenced knowledge about a reality that has now been abolished”8. Their scientific and intellectual authority is recognized thanks to their training, the use of methods of writing about history based on critical analysis, the study of sources as well as expertise in specific areas of the field of knowledge concerned. Historians contextualize and compare sources (internal and external criticism). They reflect on their predecessors’ work and on the state of the art in their field. They are specialists who have devoted some of their time to one or more precise subject areas. To be professionally and intellectually recognized, historians publish and disseminate their work in an academic framework, with peer reviewing by juries and reading committees trained in scientific methods. By working in research, historians contribute to advancing the sum of human knowledge – knowledge that one wishes to be objective and based on an intellectually honest process. Historians also have roles as teachers, mainly in secondary and higher education. Working in the field of institutional culture (museums, associations, regional authorities, etc.) or in private companies (archive services, etc.) are other potential sectors of activity in which historians come into contact with the public9.

Whatever our opinion about Wikipedia, today it seems impossible to deny the phenomenal influence of this encyclopaedia of a completely new kind. The world of teaching can but note the extensive use of the online encyclopaedia by students, who make particular use of the sections of each article containing the sources: “Notes and references”, “References”, “Bibliography”, “External links”, etc. These elements can provide research pointers for learners.

Wikipedia can also represent a good teaching tool for apprentice historians. The online encyclopaedia’s articles can be used as objects to analyze and deconstruct so as to train students to question sources found on the Internet. The encyclopaedia’s articles almost systematically appear at the top of search engine results, so it is essential to teach the importance of cross-checking the results obtained using other sources, whether digital or print. In this respect, Wikipedia has the same limits as a more classical encyclopaedia: no one should content themselves with using just one source, regardless of its quality.

Training teachers and students how Wikipedia works would potentially be good training in how to write summaries and would help initiate them in how to use what has become an indispensable Internet tool. In France, exercises involving criticism of an article from the online encyclopaedia, questioning sources and the information presented, and taking part in the creation of Wikipedia pages are used by teachers in secondary and higher education10. The results of such lessons are generally positive, despite the material and time constraints. Thought it may initially seem disconcerting to help students learn how to use Wikipedia, it offers the advantage of making learners active and no longer relatively passive spectators vis-à-vis the knowledge being passed on. The idea is to empower students by encouraging them to sharpen their critical judgement, exercise scepticism and use multiple sources of information so as to behave as informed observers, intelligently cross-checking data found during their web searches. This exercise is an application of the basic methods of the profession of historian.

Wikipedia can also be considered a formidable tool for the dissemination and popularization of knowledge (or even popular education). The interest of the online encyclopaedia lies in the possibility of using it as a mediator, making it possible to convey a considerable amount of knowledge freely and easily. In doing so, the danger of the collaborative encyclopaedia being neglected by those from university backgrounds is reduced. From this point of view, contenting oneself with criticizing Wikipedia and forbidding students from using it seems a kind of laziness or pedantry that is harmful to the intellectual training of the younger generations. What’s more, it potentially serves the interests of ideologues and other activists, particularly motivated figures11 who consider the online encyclopaedia as a political battlefield12 rather than a space for intellectual enrichment.

Questions may therefore be asked about the individual and collective responsibility of professional historians. As Roy Rosenzweig explained in 2006: “If historians believe that what is available free on the Web is low quality, then we have a responsibility to make better information sources available online.” Ten years later, enthusiastic French researchers can still find themselves faced with the reluctance of some of their colleagues. The free encyclopaedia’s model disturbs the publication habits of historians who rarely have the opportunity to work within a large collective. Articles on Wikipedia are the fruit of anonymous, collective work involving thousands of passionate individuals specializing in subjects of varying degrees of obscurity as well as occasional contributors, whereas research in the historical sciences is often an eminently solitary practice13. It should be noted that writing and publishing articles on Wikipedia, blogs or any other Internet format requires historians to work in their free time without being paid for it. These are considered as sideline activities and in no way contribute to the scientific and professional renown of humanities and social science researchers, who currently need to publish in a field dominated by the fee-charging journal model14.

It is nonetheless an opportunity to reach a wide audience and take part in the world-scale democratization of knowledge. The question is particularly crucial in poorer parts of the world, where access to fee-charging journals is a major constraint. The democratization of knowledge via Wikipedia or other free digital publishing sites is also an opportunity to educate citizens and foil the censorship of states that limit the dissemination of knowledge, particularly in the field of the humanities and social sciences. The humanities articles available on the collaborative encyclopaedia provide data on the diversity and modes of governance of societies, and in doing so help forge readers’ critical spirit and enable the historicization of that which seems immutable and self-evident. In this way, Wikipedia is a potentially highly subversive object for any political regime aiming to impose a narrow, exclusive vision of the nation.

Towards a reframing of the educational model

The new digital communication tools available on the Internet currently occupy a major place in the transmission of information of varying degrees of correctness and reliability. Since Barack Obama’s first election in the United States, online activism has changed the practices of American political militants and these ideas have now been adopted by the rest of the world. Social networks have paved the way for renewed mobilization but are now heavily criticized for their administrators’ ineffectiveness in controlling false or even slanderous information, particularly in the context of the 2016 American election. Propaganda and other lies with ideological intent have played their role in disorienting people. Wikipedia’s writing system, based in particular on the objectivity of points of view, the aim to achieve consensus and the necessity of citing information sources, helps limit the spread of such false information. Simple but strict rules ensure the correct functioning of Wikipedia’s “spontaneous order” as an improvable encyclopaedia.

In France, it seems there has been a drive to return to using history lessons to help disseminate a mythologized national narrative as well as a lack of understanding, even at the highest levels of the French state, of the fundamental mechanisms of the humanities and social sciences15. The general public wants free and easily accessible scientific information. The success of Wikipedia proves this, as do French-language channels for knowledge popularization broadcast on YouTube16. Training in the active use – rather than simple consumption – of digital tools available on the Internet is one of the most important issues in the education and intellectual self-defence of all twenty-first-century citizens. The traditional vertical teaching model, where teachers are the incarnation of intellectual authority, is being called into question by the unprecedented exponential accessibility of incessantly renewed knowledge. This is attested by the possibility of taking free e-learning courses that lead to actual qualifications from prestigious international universities like Harvard, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford or the Sorbonne17. Today, the job of teachers is less to convey knowledge than to train students in critical thinking, scepticism and the scientific method. Historians, by the very definition of their work, have a formidable role to play in this renewed form of education.

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Featured image: Puzzle by Gaetan Ducatteeuw under Creative Commons BY-NC license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.

Cite this article: "Wikipedia: a tool for historians?", by Kévin Vanehuin in Anthology. http://anthology.hypotheses.org/229


  1. When this article was being written, Wikipedia.org was fifth in the rankings of the 500 most visited sites in the world: http://www.alexa.com/topsites. []
  2. This article was first published in the Journal of American History, Volume 93, Number 1 (June, 2006), pp. 117-46 and translated into French by Bernard CROS, Louis CAPEDEBOSQ, Vincent MERY, Michel LEVÊQUE, Anne BOUCKER and Daniel LETOUZEY. []
  3. For more details on the statistics of French-language Wikipedia (number of articles and users, names of the most active contributors and the number of hours spent on Wikipedia, etc.), please see Wikiscan. []
  4. In 2006, Roy Rosenzweig thus wrote that “dozens of standard topics – the Red Scare, the Ku Klux Klan, the Harlem Renaissance, women’s suffrage, the rise of radio, the emergence of industrial unionism – go unmentioned” by Wikipedia []
  5. A claim such as the following from a 2001 article in the English Wikipedia is less relevant today: “Geek priorities. There are many long and well-written articles on obscure characters in science fiction/fantasy and very specialised issues in computer science, physics and mathematics. Other topic areas are less active”. []
  6. Alain LAURENT, Ayn Rand ou la passion de l’égoïsme rationnel, Les Belles lettres, Paris, 2011. []
  7. Sebastien CARÉ, Les libertariens aux Etats-Unis, Sociologie d’un mouvement asocial, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, Rennes, 2010. []
  8. Claude GAUVARD, Jean-François SIRINELLI, Dictionnaire de l’historien, Presses Universitaire de France, Paris, 2015. []
  9. The following provide further information on the profession of historians: Marc BLOCH, Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien, Armand Colin, Paris, 1993. François CADIOU, Clarisse COULOMB, Anne LEMONDE, Yves SANTAMARIA, Comment se fait l’histoire, pratiques et enjeux, La Découverte, 2e édition, Paris, 2011.  Michel de CERTEAU, L’écriture de l’histoire, Gallimard, Paris, 1975. []
  10. See in particular the initiatives presented by Lionel Barde, Daniel Bourrion and Stephane Bouvier, Carpe Webem, or by Sylvain Leauthier. []
  11. See the work of the sociologist Gerald Bronner, who explains the preponderance of conspiracy and/or scientifically false theories on the web as follows: “[The] Internet reveals very particular informational interactions. In particular, the way the provision of information is structured on certain subjects depends a lot more on the motivation of those providing information than on that of those requesting it, and above all on that of those who are technically capable of constructing differing, even contradictory offers [of information]. Basically, believers are generally much more motivated than non-believers to defend their point of view and to spend time on it […] Those who could argue robustly against the allegations of believers do not have much reason to do so […] Any astronomer could easily highlight some of the reasons that make astrological information highly dubious […] but most of the time they feel no more than irritated by astrological allegations, which are in no way a danger to them, while combating them would be highly time-consuming and of no institutional interest”: Gerald BRONNER, La démocratie des crédules, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2013, p. 76-77. []
  12. Vincent COQUAZ, Comment la bande de Soral infiltre Wikipedia, arretsurimage.net, 1st September 2015 and Robin D’ANGELO and Mathieu MOLARD, Le système Soral, enquête sur un facho business, edition Calmann-Levy, Paris, 2015 – see particularly “Une “cellule Wikipédia” pour modifier l’encyclopédie”, p. 87-90. []
  13. In his article from 2006, Roy Rosenzweig thus wrote that “History is a deeply individualistic craft. The singly authored work is the standard for the profession; only about 6 percent of the more than 32,000 scholarly works indexed since 2000 in this journal’s (i.e. The Journal of American History) comprehensive bibliographic guide, Recent Scholarship, have more than one author. Works with several authors – common in the sciences – are even harder to find. Fewer than 500 (less than 2 percent) have three or more”. []
  14. This model is today the subject of intense criticism from researchers, who criticize the costs of subscriptions to journals owned by a limited number of publishers as well as the relevance and real usefulness of the review protocol these journals impose. Moreover, access to digital journals published in open access represents an alternative. See also the article by Olivier Ertzscheid, lecturer/researcher in Information and Communication Sciences: Olivier ERTZSCHEID,Pourquoi je ne publie(rai) plus (jamais) dans des revues scientifiques, Affordance.info, May 17th 2016. []
  15. Bernard LAHIRE, Pour la sociologie, Et pour en finir avec une prétendue “culture de l’excuse”, La Découverte, Paris, 2016. []
  16. Particularly noteworthy are “e-penser” (physical and natural sciences), “Nota Bene” (history), “Temps Mort” (archaeology), “Hygiene Mentale” and “La Tronche en Biais” (“zététique” and scepticism), etc. []
  17. The classes are available at: https://www.edx.org [consulted on 16/12/16]. []

Kévin Vanehuin

Etudiant en histoire contemporaine à l’Université de Lille (année 2016-2017).