Having edited a Wikipedia article for the first time, I would consider the site as a valuable but unreliable tertiary source. The ease at which I was able to access and edit pages made for a very user-friendly experience, but serves as a reminder that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at all, making the information unreliable.
Charlie Edwards describes the Digital Humanities as a “system with users” and recognises the peril such a system poses in a scholarly context as usability and inclusivity can lead to poorer content and unprofessionalism. 1 Nevertheless, Wikipedia is not a “professional” site in that users with no background in a subject can edit and contribute, and as an encyclopaedia, Wikipedia is not the place for academic arguments or original research. 2 Edwards further describes DH as somewhat “Centreless” – as a decentralised information source with diverse (albeit often non-academic) contributors, Wikipedia is an example of this “Centrelessness”.
I decided to edit the entry on Fine Gael, as I am working on the topic of “Digital Feminism” for a collaborative writing exercise. For this piece, I researched the #repealthe8th social media campaign (which seeks to legalise abortion in Ireland) and was surprised to see that there wasn’t any mention of this on Wikipedia’s Eighth Amendment 3 or Abortion in Ireland 4 articles. As I clicked on links to relevant articles, I saw that Fine Gael’s abortion stance was omitted from their Wikipedia entry. 5 I believe abortion is an important social and health issue and it carries enough weight to be included in Fine Gael’s ideology and policies.
My entry is: “Fine Gael have historically been anti-abortion, with Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald in power during the 1983 abortion referendum. This referendum resulted in the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, giving the unborn child an equal right to life to that of the mother. In 2015, the party is divided on repealing the Eighth Amendment.”
I was careful to adhere to Wikipedia’s “5 Pillars” set of guidelines and used a neutral tone and cited reliable academic, news and legal sources (see above). I was struck by the 5th fundamental principle employed by Wikipedia, that there are “no firm rules” and that “there is no need to read any page before editing.” 6 When perusing the different features available to contributors, I scanned the “Recent Changes” page which tracks the hundreds of edits made on various articles every minute in real-time – here, I came across a few cases of vandalism where lewd and deliberately false information was added to otherwise seemingly legitimate articles (see example below).
With regards to traditional scholarly publishing, Daniel J. Cohen describes a “social contract” forged between press and reader, in that the reader considers an article seriously (consciously or otherwise) when a publisher employs time and effort to minimise errors, format appealingly and cite correctly. 7 Many Wikipedia contributors clearly do not adhere to the idea of a “social contract” between themselves and readers (as seen in the previous example), which further undermines its reliability as a source of information. Cohen considers scholarly articles in terms of “supply & demand” i.e. scholars supply the content while readers demand believability. While the “supply” of content in new forms has been considered at length in the field of Digital Humanities, Cohen believes that the “demand” of the audience must be examined if DH is to advance any further. Creating new formats to present information is meaningless if the audience is left unconvinced – this is a difficult balance to get right as can be seen in Edwards’ argument for usability & inclusivity versus quality & professionalism. While Wikipedia is open to everyone and easy to use, contributors do not strive for the same level of quality professional publications strive for.
Paul Fyfe further considers the differences between traditional & digital publishing and open versus peer review – in his mind “we need clearer plans for the obsolescence of academic correction” to create quality digital documents. 8 He mediates on the importance of copy, and argues that standards of quality must be enforced for digital documents to be held in the same esteem as traditional publications. According to Fyfe, Wikipedia as an example “invites a different understanding of correction as curation” due to the rate at which edits can be made by such a broad base of contributors.
Sources, content and the audience must be considered and respected when presenting information in traditional and digital forms – coming from a non-editorial background, contributing to Wikipedia has given me helpful insight into the editorial process and the need for standards.
1 Edwards, Charlie. ‘The Digital Humanities And Its Users’. Debates In The Digital Humanities. 1st ed. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
2 Wikipedia. ‘Five Pillars’. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars
3 Wikipedia. ‘Eighth Amendment Of The Constitution Of Ireland’. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighth_Amendment_of_the_Constitution_of_Ireland
4 Wikipedia. ‘Abortion In The Republic Of Ireland’. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_the_Republic_of_Ireland
5 Wikipedia. ‘Fine Gael’. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_Gael
6 Wikipedia. ‘Ignore All Rules’. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Ignore_all_rules
7 Cohen, Daniel J. ‘The Social Contract Of Scholarly Publishing’. Debates In The Digital Humanities. 1st ed. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
8 Fyfe, Paul. ‘Electronic Errata: Digital Publishing, Open Review, And The Futures Of Correction’. Debates In The Digital Humanities. 1st ed. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.