Historian: Wikipedia falls down on core task


Historian Peter Haber, PhD, is a Wikipedia-fan. To him, reading Wikipedia is even natural as earlier reading Brockhaus encyclopedia. Many colleagues are skeptical, but they never talk about it. So he and his students in Vienna examined some articles closely. His conclusion: Wikipedia is not so suitable for its core task – giving comprehensive guidance to get started about a subject.

What? Wikipedia is not the best first step to learn about a new subject, historian Peter Haber says.

Haber criticizes that the English language article about Engelbert Dollfuss mentions at large the shortness of this Austro-Fascist chancellor. This happens hardly in the article in German.

Another example for different national views, according to him, are illustrations chosen for the articles about the “Cold war”. The article in German has a sober map, the article in English shows Reagan and Gorbachev (the conflict subsiding), the Russian one a list of the block partners (with a long pro-Soviet list).

Factual errors are not the problem, according to Haber, there are some but you would find them also elsewhere. He finds it more important that Wikipedia has its flaws where everybody believes it is strong: Wikipedia is not so good in providing a first overview about a complex subject:

“It is a most sophisticated task to briefly introduce to a historical subject. Such contributions are not suited for collaborative creation.” (Zeit interview, July 8th, 2010)

Because, when several authors come and add something, the texts grow. You don’t need to be a trained historian to collect facts, but have to be skilled to present something complex.

The seminar in Vienna has checked for about 20 articles on history. The quality of the articles is divers, Haber says. But the Wikipedian who has a look at the student’s presentations has the same impression. One of Haber’s students is clearly a Che Guevara fan, I wonder what his presentation sounded like.

Articles based on works in only one language? Wikipedia finds it okay, Haber doesn't.

And the notes about national differences are based on single cases. Is it really more than incidental that the article in English mocks about the shortness of Dollfuss? Are all of the Russian Wikipedians really living in pro-Soviet nostalgia? Is it English Wikipedia that tries to suggest a harmonic end of the cold war, and not a single author who chose one of many possible illustrations? Wikipedians and non Wikipedians will have to wait until the end of the year for the complete survey, to see whether such observations have a substantial basis.

Wikipedia articles refer usually only to literature in the same language, Haber criticizes. According to him this is problematic from a scientific point of view. Actually most Wikipedia guidelines say that one should primarily refer to works in the reader’s own language. Here we come to the main questions: What is Wikipedia, what does it claims to be, and how readers use it?

Haber’s sound remarks repeat to a certain degree what Roy Rosenzweig wrote in 2006 about Wikipedia: not a lack of accuracy, but verbose speech is the problem. Like Rosenzweig Haber warns that historians should care more about Wikipedia:

“It is here where the popular knowledge on history is produced, not in expensive, voluminous essays.”

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