Wikipedia and Redaction: More Than You Might Expect

Image credit: R. Martinez

Often we want quick-and-easy access to historical information — and naturally — we turn to the web. One of the sources students rely on is Wikipedia, which they argue is a “good place to start”. Perhaps not.  Alexandra Rice writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, famously allows anyone to write or revise its entries, and the history of each item is open for anyone to review. Except for material that leaders of the effort consider too “dangerous” to leave online.

In fact, according to the University of Pennsylvania, Wikipedia is actively redacting over 56,000 entries each year. Who decides what to include and delete? Do we understand and agree with their decision making process for redaction? Are the decision makers experts in the entries that they edit or are they making changes according to their personal, political, or other biases?

It seems prudent that we should all read Wikipedia with more skepticism and more importantly, turn to other readily accessible electronic sources, such as the Kraemer Family Library’s Online Resource Collection, to begin our research. Two of my favorite resources are the Gale Virtual Reference Library and Britannica Online because of their  brevity, clarity, and references to additional books/articles. So, the next time you have a question or are interested in a particular topic, visit our electronic library. You will save time and you will know that the entries you are reading are among the most accurate and best-documented sources available on the web.

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About Roger L. Martinez

Assistant Professor of History University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
This entry was posted in and libraries, History in the News, student research. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Wikipedia and Redaction: More Than You Might Expect

  1. FYI, redaction is done according to set of criteria that have been decided on by the Wikipedia community:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:REVDEL
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SIGHT

  2. Hi Dr./Mr. Morris: Thank you for the note and the reference; they are much appreciated. When reading the criteria for REVDEL, my concerns are not minimized. Rather, the REVDEV criteria and the process employed explicitly highlight the problematic nature of redaction. The redaction criteria that are of concern are:

    1. “Grossly insulting, degrading, or offensive material that has little/no encyclopedic or project value and/or violates our Biographies of living people policy. This includes slurs, smears, and grossly offensive material of little or no encyclopedic value, but not mere factual statements, and not ‘ordinary’ incivility, personal attacks or conduct accusations. When attack pages or pages with grossly improper titles are deleted, the page names may also be removed from the delete and page move logs.”

    2. “Purely disruptive material that is of little or no relevance or merit to the project. This includes allegations, harassment, grossly inappropriate threats or attacks, browser-crashing or malicious HTML, shock pages, phishing pages, known virus proliferating pages, and links to web pages that disparage or threaten some person or entity and serve no other valid purpose, but not mere spam links.”

    3. “Non-contentious housekeeping including correction of clear and obvious unintended mistakes in previous redactions, changes to redaction based upon communal discussion and clear consensus, adding information to the delete logs, and converting traditional selective deleted edits to RevisionDelete. (The action must not be likely to be contentious or controversial, consult if needed)”

    The implementation of these criteria, and the personal judgment used to identify “offensive” and “purely disruptive” language, is by its nature — problematic. For example, is it possible that posts relating to the Arab Spring could be redacted? One might find a first-person account of a military attack on civilians in Syria or Libya as offensive and purely disruptive to the Wikipedia entry — yet — this information might be important for a preliminary international, juridical discovery process for a war crimes indictment.

    Again, redaction, by its inherent nature, is problematic. Perhaps, an alternative process could be the re-organization of the material on a page so that an entry remains intelligible, yet all content would be retained.

    Thank you once again for your comment,

    Best,
    Roger Martinez, Ph.D., UCCS History Department

  3. Okay, so let’s use your example: an anonymous editor turns up on an article and posts on the talk page a first-person eyewitness account of a military attack on the civilians of Syria. What would happen?

    I spoke to two admins I know, one of whom is also an oversighter. Both said they would remove the section and politely warn the user that the post is outside of the scope of Wikipedia. One hinted that there might be reason to use rev-del but not oversight if and only if there was personally identifying information that might potentially cause trouble for someone else in that country. (I’ve seen elementary school kids who have added each other’s phone numbers to articles, and I’ve had that oversighted to protect their privacy.) The mere presence of violent descriptions would not be enough to cause someone to rev-del the content, only the potential for it to cause harm to another.

    The removal of the discussion would still leave it accessible in the historical logs. But why remove it at all? Wikipedia has a long standing policy specifying it “isn’t a forum”. Talk pages shouldn’t be used for discussing the topic. The point of the talk page is to discuss how to improve the article, not for discussing the subject of the article. This is to try and enable neutrality: on a topic where there is political or social division on the rights and wrongs of the topic, it shouldn’t become a debating chamber, it needs to be a collaborative place to work on providing a neutral representation of the topic.

    You rightly point out that there are risks to redaction, but an important point to note is that there are checks and balances. With rev-del, the material remains on display to other admins and they can, if they feel it necessary, override the earlier decision to rev-del. With oversight, there’s an audit committee who can bring sanctions against oversighters if they misbehave.

    Wikipedia does have to do these kind of redactions occasionally but I think the process that has been built around it is pretty good, and there haven’t so far been major cases of abuse. There are rules by which the redaction occurs, a system of rule auditing and the threat of penalty for failing to adhere to the rules.

    The research you link to points out that there are 56,000 edits per year which are redacted. To put that in perspective, there are over 100 edits per minute} on English Wikipedia.

    One final thing to note: Wikipedia may do this kind of redaction, but so do many, many media sources. Newspapers do it, academic sources do it: the difference is that with Wikipedia, the rules by which it is done are publicly accessible, as are statistics about how it is done. Unlike other knowledge production enterprises, you can see the sausage being made. This may be a bit sickening, but that doesn’t mean nobody else is making sausages the same way, it just means you don’t get to see it.

  4. Tom,

    Thanks for your most comprehensive reply…it really is quite helpful! Best, Roger

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