Wikipedia or Wackipedia? On the Reasoned Use of New Technology

This helpful article was recently posted to the SBL Forum: 

Wikipedia or Wackipedia? On the Reasoned Use of New Technology

Taylor David Halverson

Wikiwhata? Upon hearing the term Wikipedia for the first time, we biblical scholars may have scratched our heads, wondering if this term derived from Sumerian or Dorian Greek. Actually, the term wiki is Hawaiian for “quick” or “fast” — a fitting metaphor for the rapid changes occurring in the world because of technology, changes that will affect biblical scholarship and teaching. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia developed and edited by the visiting public, is a website built on wiki technology software for collaborative online authoring.[1]

Sounds like a democratically built knowledge utopia, doesn’t it? However, as scholars, we have reasonable reservations about “free” information on the web. The academic enterprise has labored persistently to establish accepted standards of knowledge generation and sharing. Wiki technology appears to call these standards into question. First, wiki technology appears to bypass the time-honored tradition of the scholarly peer-review process. Second, wiki users are often anonymous. Biblical scholars are accepting of the anonymity of ancient texts whose authorship remains elusive. But in modern academia we shun anonymity, believing that people should own their ideas, that ideas cannot exist independent from people. (I hope I don’t offend any Platonists out there! If so, you’ve got my name.)

Though Wikipedia does not follow the traditional model of scholarly peer review, a more democratic approach to peer review is at the heart of this enterprise, making this collaborative authoring tool vibrant and full of possibilities. I have tested this out for myself.

The first time I heard of Wikipedia I was working on a Jeremiah article. So I investigated, not because I intended to use Wikipedia in my scholarship, but because subconsciously I wanted confirmation that Wikipedia was nothing more than wackipedia, full of quacks promoting misinformation. What I discovered was not so quacky after all.

Whoever authored the article clearly grasped Jeremianic biblical scholarship. Nevertheless, I noticed conceptual errors regarding Jeremiah and Deuteronomistic theology. Had I noticed the same error in a printed book or journal, the best solution would be to contact the editor or author. In contrast, in Wikipedia I simply turned on the editing button and corrected the mistake. Talk about collaboration. Now I doubt that this “scholarly effort” merits a vita citation, but I felt that I was fulfilling my scholarly mandate to share and expand the boundaries of knowledge in our field.

Consider another example. Jeremiah’s views on the law are open to debate. What would happen in a traditional encyclopedia? There is never enough space to include all of the competing views and perspectives, and so only one predominates. Not so with Wikipedia. Smack dab in the middle of this article is a big colored warning bar (like the police use when a crime has been committed), saying, “The neutrality of this section is disputed.” And then in fine print, “Please see the discussion in the talk page.” Without added cost to the publisher or the destruction of more trees on the island of Borneo, this encyclopedia has a “talking page” for all interested readers to suggest edits and improvements.

One final feature that makes Wikipedia powerful technology is that all edits and changes are tracked and recorded so that any previous version can be redisplayed. Too bad the ancient biblical writers didn’t use Wikipedia; with the click of a button we could see who wrote or edited which version when. Of course, then many of us would have little to say about textual and authorial problems of the Bible and would have to find other work.

As I said before, as a scholar I had never considered using Wikipedia to inform my scholarship (except for this article when I had to look up the original meaning of the term wiki). I believed that Wikipedia lacked the scrutiny and rigor normally demanded of other published works that had endured the peer review process. So the first time that students asked me about using Wikipedia for essays they were writing on Abrahamic religions, my immediate response was, “No! I want you to physically walk to the library, lift books off the shelves, read the contents, and develop your knowledge that way.” I confess. I am a biased library user, and I inflict that bias on my students (and no, my library is not underwriting the costs of writing this article). Though wiki technologies have much to offer, I hardly foresee the day when libraries will no longer serve their long-heralded purposes as repositories, organizers, and providers of information. Nevertheless, my views have developed on the subject, and I have landed on several conclusions and accompanying recommendations.

First, wiki technology provides Bible teachers with new tools for helping learners acquire and share knowledge while they gain important critical thinking and reading skills. Consider the following learning activity. When students have research projects, allow them to consult Wikipedia (since they will clamor for that privilege anyway). Whatever article they access on Wikipedia, they must also consult another scholarly resource (e.g., a book or journal article) on the same topic. If students find discrepancies between the two articles, they must address them. And, if the Wikipedia article is deficient, encourage students to improve the article based on knowledge gained from the class and/or their research. Students will learn that their careful critical reading, reasoning, and thinking are similar to the peer review process that scholars use when they evaluate the merits of proposed publications.

Second, wiki technology may provide biblical scholars another viable avenue for producing and sharing knowledge among colleagues and with the wider world audience. For example, the field of biblical scholarship may consider sponsoring a wiki Bible dictionary website, where the vast knowledge of biblical studies can be reposited and updated real time with the daily results from our collective labors. There are some websites that attempt this but suffer from ideological myopia, outdated sources, and a lack of knowledgeable contributors.

In conclusion, wiki technology is here to stay, and the opportunity is ours to wield this tool to propel our professional goals.

Taylor David Halverson, Indiana University

Note
[1] For an excellent introduction to the history of wiki technology, Wikipedia, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Wikipedia project please see Stacy Schiff, “Know it All: Wikipedia takes on the Experts,” The New Yorker (July 31, 2006): 36-43.
http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060731fa_fact

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org

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