Rewriting History: The JISC/ Wikipedia World War One Editathon

The Wikipedia page on the World War One attracts approximately 7.3 million page views per year, 597,945 for the month of June 2012 alone. Add this to the number of page views for June 2012 the plethora of related WW1 articles from the Treaty of Versailles (114,190, ~1.4m/year), to the Battle of Somme (56,071, ~680k/year), from the ‘Causes of World War 1’ (65,611 ~800k/year) to ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria’ (58,070, ~700k/year) and you can start to see how this substantiates the view that all searches, whether for general interest or in an educational capacity, start with Wikipedia.

However, the key contention with Wikipedia has always been its perceived lack of authority and reliability. To quote from Alison J Head and Michael B Eisenberg’s 2010 report “How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course-related research”: ‘if you want to stir up a room full of university faculties and librarians- mention Wikipedia’. As noted in the ‘Researchers for Tomorrow’ report, Wikipedia represented a ‘first port of call’ around a research topic, but could not be seen as a reliable source for citation.

“Wikipedia is nice to understand the background and basic concepts. I might use that knowledge to understand my research up to a bit. But I am hesitant to quote it directly in my work.” (Engineering and computer science)

With so many students and researchers increasingly using Wikipedia to, at the very least, inform further research, the need for improved accuracy is a pressing issue.

In order to address this issue in a pragmatic way, JISC and Wikimedia hosted the first of its kind ‘Editathon’ around World War One at the British Library. Academic experts and editors of Wikipedia (Wikipedians) were brought together to create and improve Wikipedia articles on WW1 topics. The aim of the event was to increase coverage and make the information as accurate, consistent, wide-ranging and up-to-date as possible and to build bridges between Wikipedian and academic communities.

The level of participation and engagement from the academic community and Wikipedians, (both physically and virtually), was greater than could ever have been imagined. ‘Editing’ the articles (33 pages in all) was only the start of a rich debate on the content itself and the possibilities for the academy to really consider how to apply and exploit the educational and research benefits of Wikipedia in a more nuanced way. Two key polemics emerged as reasons why and how the academy could engage with Wikipedia further:

1)      In line with the recent finding of the Finch Group report ‘Expanding Access to Published Research Findings’ which calls for ‘a programme of action to enable more people to read and use the publications arising from research’, through editing Wikipedia, academics and researchers are offered a relatively easy mechanism to amplify the research findings and engage with the public on aspects of their research, by virtue of the content being totally ‘open’.  Albeit indirectly and in a mediated way, the academics present felt like this added huge value to their research and the credibility of their institution, but felt that this counted for little as it was not included in the formal assessment as to the quality of research, the Research Evaluation Framework (REF) – something that would need to change if collaboration of this nature did take place in the future.


2)      It also allows academics to redress the balance of how subject topics including WW1 can be represented in terms of the coverage of Wikipedia articles. Currently, the overwhelming number of articles pertaining to the conflict, cover aspects of military history (e.g. battleships and military strategy).  Little can be gleaned in terms of the social, economic or political effects of the war e.g. the role of women. Additionally, the wider global legacy e.g. experience of servicemen from across the European empires are widely underepresented. The editathon served to ‘rethink’ how aspects of the conflict are represented in a wider context, to include articles on  previously unknown commonwealth soldiers like Gobind Singh, an Indian servicemen to be in receipt of the Victoria Cross  or how women coped with a generation of husbands, brothers and fathers being permanently absent.

From all those who attended the event, the resounding message was that this represented the start of a discussion.  Academics and Wikipedians have taken it upon themselves to maintain links with each other, at the very least, to update or create articles, but also in some cases to trial ‘putting Wikipedia into the classroom’ as an editing exercise for the 3rd year history programme. On a strategic level, JISC and Wikimedia are committed to future collaborative work, to include future ‘editathon’ events around a range of topics and exploring the possibility of ‘Wikipedian in residence’ roles being installed in UK institutions.

Another notable message from the event was the importance of providing mechanisms for academia to engage with the WW1 commemoration and aiding ways in which student, researchers and the public alike can comprehend the incomprehensible. The legacy of the war that shaped subsequent generations is at risk of slipping from public memory, making it essential that today’s educators are able to reinterpret, re-engage and re-create a new social memory ‘lest we forget’ the experience and lessons created by this conflict. The ‘JISC/ Wikipedia WW1 Editathon’ has in some small way created another building block to realising this ambition.