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 has 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 sometimes presented as a kind of “big bazaar” with no rules that overshadows teachers’ influence. In 2015, Carole Helpiquet, the director of training and 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 deride its unreliability and lack of intellectual interest. A study run in 2010 in the USA by Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg particularly noted 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 discouraging their students from doing likewise. It is nowadays impossible to overlook the influence of the online encyclopaedia, hence the paradox of a digital tool that, while much used, remains poorly understood by 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, Wikipedia, objet scientifique non identifié, (Wikipedia Unidentified Scientific Object). The publication covers the both encyclopaedia’s inner workings and its reception by the French public. Simultaneously, some French-speaking teachers took on this digital object, considering it as an educational experimentation tool worthy of being studied and used, including in the university sphere, even though some 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 an historian’s work, it seems necessary to go back over 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 ruled by a series of strict norms, making it a perpetually evolving website which mean it is continually improving. This brings up questions: in which way could the online encyclopaedia be an interesting tool for historians? 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 January 15th 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 project’s contributors lacked dynamism which led to its closure and its articles being transferred to Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation, a US-based non-profit organization, hosts and finances the servers. It mainly runs thanks to donations from thousands of people and regularly asks for its users’ financial contributions. The organization currently possesses local chapters in 41 different countries. These chapters, set up to support the Wikimedia Foundation’s projects, have their own modes of governance. Today, Wikipedia has over 41 million entries in nearly 300 languages including English, German, Spanish, Corsican, Latin, beginners’ English, Esperanto… The English Wikipedia has the most pages with about 5,500,000 articles. Next comes Swedish in second position thanks to a substancial growth since 2012 – an impressive expansion mainly due to the article production automation on vegetal 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 programs thus “expands” the number of available articles that do not equal the number of active users: the English Wikipedia has 128,000 users while its Swedish and Cebuano counterparts respectively have over 3100 and only 118. The French Wikipedia is in sixth place with over 1,800,000 articles for around 16,000 active users3.

It is possible, on Wikipedia, to edit an article at any time using the “Edit” tab even without being officially registered: enlightened amateurs work alongside professional researchers as well as militants and poorly or misinformed individuals. A novice or even an ill-intentioned person could spoil the quality of the available content. The pages of the online encyclopaedia can potentially be re-read 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”, he set out to deliberately “spoil the web”. The majority of his students copied the erroneous information without crosschecking. For this teacher, “the conclusion is obvious: secondary school pupils do not have the necessary maturity to benefit from digital information on literature. Their servitude towards the internet goes even against the autonomy of thoughts and the personal culture that school is supposed to provide them with”. His actions did have certain ideological and moralizing motivations:

“By bringing the digital sphere into schools, everyone forgets that it has already been there for a long time and in its untamed form is actually digging the grave of [French] republican schools. […] With this educational experiment, I wanted to show pupils that teachers can sometimes master new technologies as well as them, if not better. […] I personally 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 you have previously formed your mind without it”.

A critical reader would reply that this teacher only proved the existence of plagiarism and of the lack of scepticism about collected information – phenomena which existed before computers in both schools and homes. In fact, possible vandalism is taken into account by Wikipedia admins, as explained further down. As Alexandre Moatti recently showed, the willingness 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 back to the appearance of the internet. However, the essential problem of the scientific information validity on the online encyclopaedia cannot be denied and is what has caused a clear mistrust about Wikipedia. Reassessments and advances in research modify the relevance of referenced 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 a school or university context, the online encyclopaedia does not have the same recognition or legitimitacy as research papers published in the scientific field.

Nonetheless, just like papers published by professional historians, Wikipedia conforms to a rigorous working method. The online encyclopaedia is collaborative and open to all volunteers, and explicitly aims to provide “free, objective and checkable [content] which everyone can modify and enhance without registering. 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 lack of rules dominate. The way the publication policy functions is based on five “pillars” determining the nature of the site and ensuring its quality:

  • Wikipedia aims to be a project “that incorporates elements of generalist and specialist encyclopaedias, an almanac and an atlas”. From a historian’s point of view, the online encyclopaedia is a secondary source with a set of overviews. This means that original research, expressed opinions, pamphlets, advertising or primary sources are all excluded. As previously noted, quite a number of French intellectuals and writers have questioned the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Does this encyclopaedia represent a threat for 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 unpublished research; as such, it means to be an encyclopaedia “with a universal vocation”.
  • Writing overviews goes with the necessity to tend towards objectivity and thus to present different points of view while “giving due weight with respect to their prominence“. There is therefore a ranking and a contextualization of knowledge within Wikipedia. Articles must “strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial”. Hypotheses which are considered marginal or even misleading by the academic world will be considered as such in the collaborative encyclopaedia. Thus, [in the French Wikipedia] Robert Faurisson is indeed 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 [French] Wikipedia page on Robert Faurisson, the term “revisionist” is almost always put between quotation marks and mostly used in quotes, some of which precise 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 even with a lucrative purpose, with the only obligations being to “preserve the same licence both for exact and modified copies and to credit the original authors. No-one has control over a particular 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 evaluation, publication and dissemination of academic articles. Once an historian’s work has been evaluated and peer-reviewed, it can be cited as reference at the end of a Wikipedia article.
  • Wikipedia is a large-scale collective and collaborative project and as such insists on the necessity for etiquette rules to be respected: “Always look for consensus. Do not insult people or make insulting generalizations. […]. Avoid edit warring“. Such rules apply particularly to politically sensitive subjects (biographies of politicians, wars and memoirs, important historical events, etc.). For instance, the English page about the Armenian Genocide is partially protected against modifications following acts of vandalism. Voluntary administrators, chosen by and among Wikipedia contributors are able to intervene in the event of an argument or malevolence. They thus make sure the collaborative encyclopaedia functions correctly and that the basic rules are respected.
  • 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 “Ignore all rules” rule. The encyclopaedia functions in a kind of fluid “spontaneous order” that is put in order by the contributions of thousands of active users who correct errors. The Wikipedia history archives the different versions of the articles so that no information is lost for good. The increased number of pages and the corrections regularly added in “real time” ensure that the online encyclopaedia’s quality and quantity of articles tends to be increasingly high. The reliability of its content has been the subject of several scientific studies such as the one published in 2005 in the journal Nature. This study covers fifty articles written in English and states that “Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is close to the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the veracity of its articles in science”. Another study published in 2012 by the Oxford University covers a broader range of subjects and languages (English, Spanish, Arab), and its findings were just as flattering for the free encyclopaedia. American historians used to complain about the lack of certain themes in the English version4 , but after just over fifteen 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 become more diverse: articles about the Humanities and Social Sciences or the Arts are no longer neglected in favour of the so-called “hard” sciences, fantasy and science-fiction4. As the online encyclopaedia has different versions depending on the languages and countries, it obviously needs to be noted that the quantity and quality of articles can differ depending those versions. In any case, the motivation of its contributors and the time they put in are both playing 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, its co-founder Jimmy Donal Wales 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”.

One should also note that the model represented by the online encyclopaedia is not unrelated to the political convictions of Wikipedia’s co-founder. Jimmy Wales is an avowed admirer of American philosopher Ayn Rand’s ideas, 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 is epistemological, metaphysical and includes moral philosophy. It is very popular in the United States and celebrates individual initiatives, emulation and the “self-made man5 model. The economist Friedrich Hayek’s writing is another major source of inspiration for Jimmy Wales. Friedrich Hayek was a contemporary liberal thinker and 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 […] No one can understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek”. The political specialist Sebastien Caré noted that “Wikipedia thus seems to combine Diderot’s utopia of knowledge and Hayek’s utopia of spontaneous coordination of local information linked by ideas and people rather than being ordered by reason or by the State”6.

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 facts of the past and “to create documented and indexed knowledge about a reality which has now been abolished”7. Their scientific and intellectual authority is recognized thanks to their academic training, the use of history writing methods based on critical analysis, the study of sources as well as expertise in specific areas of the field of knowledge concerned. Historians contextualise 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 specific fields. 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 the research field, historians contribute to increasing the quantity of human knowledge that is willed 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 activity sectors in which historians come into contact with an audience8.

Whatever one’s opinion about Wikipedia is, it seems impossible today to deny the phenomenal influence of this new kind of encyclopaedia. The world of education can but note the extensive use of the online encyclopaedia by students who particularly use the source sections of each article for their work- “notes and references”, “references”, “bibliography”, “external links”, etc. These elements can provide research clues for learners.

Wikipedia can also be a good example of an educational tool for apprentice historians. The online encyclopaedia’s articles can be used as objects to analyse and deconstruct in order to train students to question sources found on the internet. As the encyclopaedia’s articles quasi-systematically appear on top of search engine pages, it is essential to teach the importance of cross-checking the obtained results using other digital or print sources. In this respect, Wikipedia has the same limits as a traditional encyclopaedia: no-one should be happy to use just one source, whatever its quality.

Training teachers and students how Wikipedia works could potentially be good training in summary writing and could be a good initiation in using this indispensable internet tool. In France, exercises in Wikipedia’s articles criticism, in questioning sources and information provided and in taking part in Wikipedia pages creation are used by teachers in secondary and higher education9. The results of such lessons are largely positive despite material and time constraints. It may initially seem disconcerting to help students to learn how to use Wikipedia but it offers the advantage of placing learners directly in an active situation rather than in a relatively passive spectator situation as to the knowledge that is being passed on. The idea is to empower students by encouraging them to sharpen their critical judgement, to exercise scepticism and multiply information sources so as to behave as informed observers, intelligently cross-checking data found during researches. This exercise is a direct application of the basic methods of the historian profession.

Wikipedia can also be considered as a formidable tool for the dissemination and popularization of knowledge (or even popular education). The benefit of the online encyclopaedia lies in the possibility of using this object as a mediator enabling the free, simple transmission of a considerable amount of knowledge. By doing this, the danger of the collaborative encyclopaedia to be neglected by those from a university background is reduced. From this point of view, settling for criticizing Wikipedia and forbidding students from using it seems like a kind of laziness or pedantry that is harmful to the intellectual development of the younger generations. It also serves the interests of ideologists and other militants, particularly motivated personalities10 who consider the online encyclopaedia as a political battlefield11 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 whatever can be found free on the Web is low quality, we then have the responsibility to make better information sources available online.” Ten years later, enthusiastic French researchers can still face the reluctance of some of their colleagues regarding the use of Wikipedia. The free encyclopaedia’s model is disturbing the publication habits of historians, who scarcely 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 obtuseness or simple occasional contributors, whereas history research is often an eminently solitary practice12. Writing and publishing articles on Wikipedia, blogs or any other internet format requires historians to work during their free time without being paid for it. These are considered sideline activities and in no way contribute to the scientific and professional renown of a humanities and social sciences researcher who currently needs to publish in a field dominated by the pay-per-view journals model13.

It is nonetheless an opportunity to reach a wide audience and take part in the world-scale democratisation of knowledge. The question is particularly crucial in the poorer parts of the world where access to pay-per-view journals is a major limitation. The democratization of knowledge via Wikipedia or other free digital publishing websites is also an opportunity to educate citizens and foil the censorship of States who limit the dissemination of knowledge, particularly in the humanities and social sciences fields. The humanities articles available on the collaborative encyclopaedia, by providing data on the societies diversity and governance models, contribute to forging readers’ critical thinking and enable the historicization of what can seem immutable and self-evident. As such, 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 occupy nowadays a major place in the transmission of information of varying correctness or reliability. Since Barack Obama’s was first elected in the United States, online activism has first changed the practices of American political militants before being 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. Fake stories and other lies with ideological aims have played their role in disorienting people. Wikipedia’s writing system is based particularly on points of view objectivity, the aim to achieve consensus and the necessity to cite information sources – all of which helps limit the spread of such false information. Simple but strict rules ensure that Wikipedia’s “spontaneous order”, as an improvable encyclopaedia, is functioning correctly.

In France, it seems there has been a strong return of the drive to use history lessons to help disseminate a mythologized national story 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 sciences14. The general public wants free and easily accessible scientific information. The success of Wikipedia proves this as do French language knowledge popularization channels broadcast on Youtube15. Training in the active use – rather than simple consumerism – of digital tools available on the internet is one of the most important issues in the education and intellectual self-defence of any 21st century citizen. The traditional top-to-bottom teaching model featuring teachers as the incarnation of intellectual authority is being called into question by the unprecedented and exponential accessibility of incessantly renewed knowledge. An example of this is the possibility of taking free e-learning courses which lead to actual degrees from prestigious international universities like Harvard, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford or the Sorbonne16. Nowadays, a teacher’s function is less to transmit knowledge than to train students to develop critical skills, scepticism and their use of the scientific method. By the very definition of their work, historians 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.

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 detail on the statistics of the French 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. A claim such as the following from an 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.” []
  5. Alain LAURENT, Ayn Rand ou la passion de l’égoïsme rationnel, Les Belles lettres, Paris, 2011. []
  6. Sebastien CARÉ, Les libertariens aux Etats-Unis, Sociologie d’un mouvement asocial, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, Rennes, 2010. []
  7. Claude GAUVARD, Jean-François SIRINELLI, Dictionnaire de l’historien, Presses Universitaire de France, Paris, 2015. []
  8. Here are some references to find out more about the historian profession: 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. []
  9. See, in particular, the initiatives presented by Lionel Barde, Daniel Bourrion and Stephane Bouvier, Carpe Webem, or by Sylvain Leauthier. []
  10. See the work of sociologist Gerald Bronner, who explains the preponderance of conspiracy and/or scientifically false theories on the web as follows: “Internet reveals very specific informational interactions. In particular the way the offer 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 that of those who would be technically capable of constructing differing, even contradictory offers. 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 astronomist could easily give certain of the reasons which make astrological information highly dubious […] but most of the time they at most just feel irritated by astrological allegations, which are in no way a danger for them, so battling against 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. []
  11. 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. []
  12. In his article from 2006, R. 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”. []
  13. This model is today the subject of intense criticism from researchers who denounce the costs of subscriptions to journals owned by a limited number of publishers as well as the relevance and real interest of the evaluation protocol these journals impose. Moreover, access to open access digital journals represents an alternative. See also the article by Olivier Ertzscheid, teacher-researcher in Information and Communication Sciences: Olivier ERTZSCHEID, “Pourquoi je ne publie(rai) plus (jamais) dans des revues scientifiques“, Affordance.info, May 17th 2016. []
  14. Bernard LAHIRE, Pour la sociologie, Et pour en finir avec une prétendue “culture de l’excuse”, La Découverte, Paris, 2016. []
  15. We may particularly cite “e-penser” (physical and natural sciences), “Nota Bene” (history), “Temps Mort” (archaeology), “Hygiene Mentale” and “La Tronche en Biais” (‘zététique’ and scepticism), etc. []
  16. The lessons 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).