Wednesday, February 15, 2012

'Undue Weight' on Wikipedia

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the department of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University. The Chronicle Review recently published a piece of his, in which he recounts his many failed attempts to edit the Wikipedia page related to his area of expertise, the Haymarket Riot of 1886. The main problem: while Messer-Kruse's claims are backed up testimony from the trial available from the Library of Congress and by his own peer-reviewed articles, they conflict with the account given by the majority of published sources, which, according to Messer-Kruse, have been simply repeating the same errors for decades. The problem stems from Wikipedia's 'undue weight' policy, which requires that the content of Wikipedia articles reflect the majority of published works on a given subject (even if the majority happen to be in error):
[A] Wiki-cop scolded me, "I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia's policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write 'Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.' ... As individual editors, we're not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write."
Given Messer-Kruse's experience, it would seem difficult or impossible for a new discovery by a researcher to make its way quickly into Wikipedia; as he puts it:
I guess this gives me a glimmer of hope that someday, perhaps before another century goes by, enough of my fellow scholars will adopt my views that I can change that Wikipedia entry. Until then I will have to continue to shout that the sky was blue.
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