< The Professor Versus Wikipedia


Friday, March 09, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Historian Timothy Messer-Kruse has devoted the past decade to one pivotal American moment, the 1886 Haymarket Riot and trial. If you go to Wikipedia, you'll be reminded that the riot took place in Chicago where workers were demonstrating in favor of an eight-hour work day. An unknown person detonated a dynamite bomb near a group of police officers. A gun battle broke out, and by day's end seven cops and four civilians were dead.

In the ensuing trial, the alleged rioters received seven death sentences and one 15-year prison term, despite the fact that the prosecution conceded that none of the defendants had actually thrown the deadly bomb. If you had checked Wikipedia last year, you would have read that though the trial went on for six weeks, the prosecution never introduced a single piece of evidence. But that last jaw-dropping fact is not true.

Trying to remove that false fact from Wikipedia turned into a bit of a crusade for Messer-Kruse. He'd first gotten interested in the canard of the evidence-less prosecution after a student in one of his classes asked about it a decade ago.

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  One of my students raised her hand and she said, “Professor, I don't quite understand. If there was no evidence presented, what did they talk about for six weeks?” Well, I said I'd find out and it's taken me about ten years to answer her question.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] One of the things you found out is that actually there was a heap of evidence.

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  In fact, some of the evidence presented was groundbreaking and landmark evidence, some of the first chemical forensic evidence ever introduced in an American trial. There were witnesses who turned state's evidence who had been party to secret meetings in which the bombing was planned.

There were other witnesses who testified that they actually helped one of the defendants assemble bombs the, the very day of the riot and bombing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What happened when you tried to correct the error on Wikipedia?

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  Within about five minutes, the change was reversed. Somebody informed me that, although I had cited the trial transcript itself, coroners' records, things of that sort, my sources were invalid because they were primary sources; they were the actual evidence from history. And Wikipedia depends upon published secondary sources.

One of the self-appointed Wikipedia editors told me that Wikipedia was not about the truth, it was about verifiability. And the reason for having a policy stressing secondary sources is so that the evidence can be verified by anybody in the world. Almost all the sources that I was citing, the primary sources, were available through electronic means, as well, so the access to them really shouldn't have been an issue.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So your book comes out. You change the entry referencing your work, and voila, mission accomplished, right?

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  That's what I thought. I thought my patience had paid off and that I had followed the rules. Once again, my changes were reverted back to the original page and when I tried to change them a - an additional time, this time I was informed that I was possibly vandalizing the page.


And that's when I really gave up because I didn't want to be labeled a vandal.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But ultimately, your point of view did make it on to the Wikipedia page. How?

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  In early February, I published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education just detailing my experience with Wikipedia. And as soon as that piece came out, within a couple of days, most of the changes I had been recommending had been made to reflect my research.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It seems like Wikipedia is a little broken here. You're a specialist in this topic, yet you are unable to add your specialized knowledge to Wikipedia because you ran afoul of their thorny editing culture, right?

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  Well, that's right. I'm glad you described it as a culture, 'cause I think we're also dealing here with a culture clash. Clearly, I come from an academic experience where if an editor doesn't like what I'm submitting, they just simply say, “I don't like it,” either revise it or go somewhere else. In this case, there seems to be a culture that you need to be persistent. You need to suggest changes and if they're rejected, you need to go back at it again. If you look at the Wikipedia talk pages about this event, the gist of them is observing that I did not persist sufficiently to make the changes happen.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But Timothy, could you argue that actually your failure to change Wikipedia represents a strength of the system, rather than a failing? I mean, you can't really have a system where anyone who's published a book has an absolute standing to change an article. And it's hard for an amateur community to adjudicate conflicting claims.

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  Well, I would agree. The problem though is that, especially in, in historical interpretation, there is something called a fact.


PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  [LAUGHS] There are some types of information which simply don't suit themselves to crowd sourcing, and I would say that historical scholarship is one of those. You know, my understanding of crowd sourcing is that it really works best with things that people have direct, real world knowledge about. But when you ask people about events that happened long before probably their grandparents were born, well, they certainly would have no direct experience. So I'm not sure that crowd sourcing is really the way to bring the best information forward. Unfortunately with some topics, you do have to rely on some degree of expertise. I'm not sure how you build that into the system.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Have you tried to make any changes in any Wikipedia articles since this one?

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  No, I have not, not even the, the Haymarket page.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Wow. Once burned, twice shy?

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  Pretty much. Yes, I'd say so. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] Thank you very much.

PROF. TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE:  Well, thank you so much for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. For more on the Haymarket riots, you can check out his book, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists:  Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age, or just read the Wikipedia entry. Since Wikipedia is overseen by a diverse and self-reflective community, the professor's experience prompted some soul searching. Phoebe Ayers serves on the Board of the Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation and is herself an active Wikipedia editor. Phoebe, welcome to On The Media.

PHOEBE AYERS:  Thank you for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So from a Wikipedian's perspective, what went wrong here?

PHOEBE AYERS:  Well, he should have met a friendlier reception. But one thing about Wikipedia is, of course, it doesn't try to replace the scholarly peer review process. It can't replace that process. And so, since its early days there's been this large-scale discussion among the contributors about how to deal with sources and what makes for a good source and what makes for a notable topic. And that debate has resulted over the years in this huge body of policies and practice. And so, when a new contributor like Professor Messer-Kruse comes to the site, he's sort of unwittingly walking into that landscape of extensive discussions and extensive policy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Wikipedia disallows original research. So even though he could offer accessible transcripts from the Library of Congress, because those were primary-source documents the policy calls for those to be regarded with less weight than historians commenting in a published book, on primary documents. And that strikes me as a little half-baked.

PHOEBE AYERS:  Well, I don't think there's anything wrong with citing the primary sources. But there is something wrong with Wikipedians deciding on the site what historical theories are valid.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  He wasn't allowed to have his position represented on the site at all.

PHOEBE AYERS:  Well, but it is now. That's the thing about Wikipedia, right? It's a work in progress and it's never finished. And so, while I think that Professor Messer-Kruse, of course, could have had a better experience, I'm not sure that's a fundamental failing of Wikipedia, to move with caution.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Isn't he on the site because he aired his frustrating experience in The Chronicle of Higher Education?

PHOEBE AYERS:  Well, [LAUGHS] certainly that's part of it, but he's also on the site because he's published these valid views.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  One last question. He said that he was told later that if he had argued his case more aggressively in the discussion pages, he might have had a better chance at changing the article. But he walked away because that's what you do in academia. He says that there is a fundamental clash of cultures between academic publishing and getting published on Wikipedia.

PHOEBE AYERS:  It is true that it's a very different culture because it's a collaborative community, because it's international and because the things that we're trying to do are very different from academic publishing. Discussion pages exist attached to all articles, and their point is that you can go there and discuss the contents of the article and say, look, I think this thing needs to be changed and here's why I think that. And that's – that’s how the process works. And so, he would have likely had more luck engaging in that process of discussion in getting his changes to stick in the first place.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Okay. Thank you very much for talking to us.

PHOEBE AYERS:  Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Phoebe Ayers is on the Wikimedia Foundation Board. She is also a librarian at the University of California, Davis.