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Wikimédia France Research Award 2013: And the winner is…

(This is a guest post by Carol Ann O’Hare of the French Wikimedia chapter.)

Wikimedia France is pleased to announce the first winner of the Wikimedia France Research Award:

Can history be open source ? Wikipedia and the future of the past by Roy Rosenzweig, published in The Journal of American History in 2006.

This choice was made from thirty scientific publications on Wikimedia projects and free knowledge, directly submitted by the Wikimedia community. Among these publications, a jury of researchers working on these topics has selected five finalists. All Wikimedians, along with the jury members, were encouraged to give their opinion and vote among these five finalists to determine the most relevant paper. This kind of open submission and voting process involving an entire community of non-expert people is unique for such an research award.

“Thought paper/essay that contrasts with classical scientific articles, but a very stimulating read.”

“Rosenzweig was a pioneer in digital history, incorporating new digital media and technology with history to explore new possibilities to reach a larger and diverse public audience.”

These are comments from the jury members and Wikimedians about this publication with significant impact in the field of digital history – almost 160 citations in other scientific publications, according to Google Scholar.

Roy Rosenzweig was a history professor at George Mason University (Virginia), he presented this paper on Wikipedia from the perspective of a historian. In his publication, Roy Rosenzweig focuses not just on factual accuracy, but also the quality of prose and the historical context of entry subjects.

In details, Roy Rosenzweig adds to a growing body of research trying to determine the accuracy of Wikipedia, in his comparative analysis of it with other online history references. He compares entries in Wikipedia with Microsoft’s online resource Encarta and American National Biography Online (ANBO). Where Encarta is for a mass audience, American National Biography Online is a more specialized history resource. Roy Rosenzweig takes a sample of 52 entries from the 18,000 found in ANBO and compares them with entries in Encarta and Wikipedia. In coverage, Wikipedia contained more of the topics from the sample than Encarta. Although the length of the articles didn’t reach the level of ANBO, Wikipedia articles were more lengthy than the entries in Encarta. Further, in terms of accuracy, Wikipedia and Encarta seemed basically on par with each other, which confirms a similar conclusion that the Nature study reached in its comparison of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica.

Then, Roy Rosenzweig discusses the effect of collaborative writing in more qualitative ways. He notes that collaborative writing often leads to less compelling prose. Multiple styles of writing, competing interests and motivations, varying levels of writing ability are all factors in the quality of a written text. Wikipedia entries may be for the most part factually correct, but are often not that well-written or historically relevant in terms of what receives emphasis. Due to piecemeal authorship, the articles often miss out on adding coherency to the larger historical conversation. ANBO has well crafted entries, they are often authored by well known historians.

However, the quality of writing needs to be balanced with accessibility. ANBO is subscription-based, whereas Wikipedia is free, which reveals how access to a resource plays a role in its purpose. As a product of the amateur historian, Rosenzweig comments upon the tension created when professional historians engage with Wikipedia. He notes that it tends to be full of interesting trivia, but the seasoned historian will question its historic significance. As well, the professional historian has great concern for citation and sourcing references, which is not as rigorously enforced in Wikipedia.

Because of Wikipedia’s widespread and growing use, it challenges the authority of the professional historian, and therefore cannot be ignored. The tension raises questions about the professional historian’s obligation to Wikipedia. To this point, Roy Rosenzweig notes there is an obligation and need to provide the public with quality information in Wikipedia or some other venue. He concludes by looking forward and describing what the professional historian can learn from open collaborative production models.

You can view the full publication (in English) here: http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42 and on the Research Award’s dedicated website: http://researchaward.wikimedia.fr/en

Roy Rosenzweig died in 2007. Wikimédia France has decided to award the prize of € 2,500 to the Center for History and New Media, founded in 1994 by Roy Rosenzweig.

In launching this international research award, Wikimédia France wanted to highlight research works dedicated to Wikipedia in particular, and provide a greater visibility for these research works among the entire Wikimedia community. A new edition of the Prize will take place in 2014.

Carol Ann O’Hare
Wikimedia France

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