Wikipedia, Scholarpedia, Citizendium, knol: Open Knowledge Production and Access

In “Making Wikis Work for Scholars,” an article by Andy Guess in the 28 April, 2008, issue of Inside Higher Ed, one begins to see more positive assessments by some scholars of the value of Wikipedia for teaching, with some limitations (some making use of the limitations themselves), some doubts about credibility, and some new attempts by scholars to produce wikis that surmount credibility issues. All are in agreement with open source and open access work being used for both research and teaching.

Using Wikipedia in the University Classroom

One of the article commentators explains that s/he uses Wikipedia for course assignments, where students work on entries of relevance to the subject matter of the course, with the aim of finding inaccuracies and making corrections. As that teacher states, “They learn 4 things 1) that Wikipedia can be useful but has its limits 2) how to assess knowledge 3) how to research a topic 4) how to actively put their knowledge to work as Wikipedia guerrillas. My aim is for the students to see themselves as active producers of knowledge and as contributors to scholarly debates”.

Jbmurray, an academic and Wikipedia contributor, who would nonetheless advise students against using Wikipedia as a research source, produced a very interesting page on Wikipedia itself, explaining the advantages, and pitfalls, of using Wikipedia for assignments.

One of the critically important things that students learn by contributing to Wikipedia articles, or creating new ones as part of coursework, is the value of revision. In addition, the projects helped to teach collaboration, and open up peer review beyond the judgment of a single professor. Jbmurray calls this “collective, public, peer review”: collaborating with Wikpedia editors, feedback from other Wikipedia contributors, and members of the public. Professors, on the other hand, can track the inputs and changes made by students, a system that allows for a greater degree of transparency, Jbmurray argues.

While Jbmurray worries that argumentation is not a skill that is developed in such assignments, that the development of a cogent thesis is not the core of the activity, students learn to think critically of information. In addition, they learn skills that will be of value in work settings outside of academia: “information gathering, presentation, meticulousness, teamwork, and the ability to negotiate with the public sphere”.

As Jbmurray points out, Wikipedia itself is actively promoting the idea of being used in school and university projects. Against the backdrop of dozens of university projects that it documents, Wikipedia states:

If you are a professor or teacher at a school or university or college, we encourage you to use Wikipedia in your class to demonstrate how an open content website works (or doesn’t). You are not the first person to do so, and many of these projects have resulted in both advancing the student’s knowledge and useful content being added to Wikipedia. An advantage of this over regular homework is that the student is dealing with a real world situation, which is not only more educational but also makes it more interesting (“the world gets to see my work”), probably resulting in increased dedication. Besides, it will give the students a chance to collaborate on course notes and papers, and their effort might remain online for reference, instead of being discarded and forgotten as is usual with paper coursework, or classroom systems which are routinely reinitialized.

Continued Worries

As Andy Guess’ sources notes, there are continued worries around quality and the peer review process revolving around Wikipedia: “the very structure of Wikipedia encourages editors (who can be anyone) to disregard expertise and undermine the basic mechanics of peer review and academic credibility”. Wikipedia is rife with conflict and anonymity, many have noted, which can lead to the erosion of the accuracy of an article and even acts of repeated vandalism, as outlined in a memorable, ethnographically sensitive, piece on Wikipedia by Nicholson Baker in the 20 March, 2008, issue of The New York Review of Books (“The Charms of Wikipedia“). As Andy Guess puts it: “the site’s openness — the ability of everyone to participate, without having to identify themselves by name — leads to an erosion of accountability and, often, an increasingly shrill cacophony”.

Academic, Peer Reviewed, Open Source Encyclopedias

Not having to conform to the constraints and vagaries of Wikipedia, as if it were “the only show in town”, some academics have opted to create wikis that are more in line with professional standards of accountability, peer review, and credible research. It is still open access, but not quite as open at the source of knowledge production.

Guess provides a very good outline of these various initiatives, some of which, like Citizendium, still try to build linkages with coursework. This is spelled out in a press release on the site, dated 24 January, 2008, part of which follows here:

In a striking departure from traditional methods of teaching, a new way for students to gain course credits is emerging. As with so much else this decade, it is all down to the Internet.

Traditional teaching saw students laboring to produce essays that to them felt onerous and oftentimes pointless. Once read by the lecturer their writing was generally consigned to the dustbin.

For some students, that situation is now radically changing.

In a never-before-seen new initiative, the online reference encyclopedia project Citizendium (, in collaboration with expert teachers and lecturers, has launched Eduzendium. The Eduzendium project allows students to write their assignments online on the Citizendium on a given topic allocated by their teacher.

Students can take responsibility for their work for course credits, and teachers grade the finished work based on the quality of the final article produced from each student’s input.

But students not only get to earn grade credits, they add to the global store of knowledge as they earn their written course assignment credits. By collaborating with the rapidly growing Citizendium (CZ) community of expert and non-expert authors, they can have their essays become a lasting article in the Citizendium.

Perhaps best of all, students actually get to learn in a highly collaborative real-time way, enjoying direct online access to highly competent help with their work, in the form of the Citizendium authors and expert editors. The community is small, but growing and quite lively. It is also polite, in no small part because real names are required. For these reasons, the Eduzendium program differs crucially from using Wikipedia in a similar way.

And many basic topics are still wide open.

One of the thrusts of these scholarly efforts is to create resources that will attract scholarly input, especially if contributors become “curators” of their pieces online, and are able to show that they received peer review by other scholars in an often cited resource. This is one of the principles that we find driving the site, Scholarpedia. The primary emphasis of Scholarpedia, howevers, seems to be the natural sciences and computation sciences.

Google is also currently developing a resource, knol, which so far has contributors working by invitation only. Knol describes its mission, in preliminary terms:

Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. The tool is still in development and this is just the first phase of testing….The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors

What About Anthropology?

Citizendium currently has, among other such groups, an Anthropology Workgroup. It currently has a small group of identifiable editors, and a few dozen contributors, to most fields in anthropology aside from cultural anthropology which is still very limited on that site. The group is clearly working slowly and carefully, with articles at different stages of completion, review, and approval, and only about a dozen actually approved at the moment.

A recent commentator on this blog noted an absence of open source/open access course textbooks in anthropology. Apparently anthropology is “distinguishing” itself as one of the few fields not to have these freely available, freely amendable, open source course texts.

This is indeed surprising, given the number of Internet-literate anthropologists, given the growing number of anthropology blogs, and anthropologists interested in open source and open access issues, and given some of the freely available resources that would permit networking and content management needed for collaborating on building these course texts.

If anyone is interested in pursuing this course, please count me in.