Today I was on NPR Talk of the Nation discussing the latest controversy around the editing of the [[Haymarket affair]] article in Wikipedia. [See the NPR page here].
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor Messer-Kruse documented his attempts to update the Wikipedia entry over a two year period to reflect his groundbreaking research. He was rebuffed and wrote:
The “undue weight” policy posed a problem. Scholars have been publishing the same ideas about the Haymarket case for more than a century. The last published bibliography of titles on the subject has 1,530 entries.
“Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.”
I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books.” Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.“
Therein lies the problem.
Wikipedia depends on secondary sources. If recent scholarship, though accurate, still accounts for a minority view, Wikipedia will wait until the majority view recognizes these new advances as canon. Only then will the article reflect those changes.
What we’re seeing with the new evidence published by Messer-Kruse in August 2011, is that there is a lag time before scholarship is generally accepted. To wit, on the radio show, I read the blurb from the professor’s book and showed why it was perhaps the “perfect storm” of conditions such that Wikipedia would not include his findings right away (emphasis mine).
In this controversial and groundbreaking new history, Timothy Messer-Kruse rewrites the standard narrative of the most iconic event in American labor history: the Haymarket Bombing and Trial of 1886. Using thousands of pages of previously unexamined materials, Messer-Kruse demonstrates that, contrary to longstanding historical opinion, the trial was not the “travesty of justice” it has commonly been depicted as.
Every bolded word is in stark contrast to Wikipedia’s policies of verifiability, reliable sources and undue weight given to minority viewpoints. That is, this book is the first revelation of these new findings, and they haven’t been taken as a consensus view, at least not yet.
In time, if the facts hold up, and there is every reason to believe they will, the rest of Haymarket affair scholarship will reflect the new research, and Wikipedia will reflect that.
So chalk this up under one of the more unusual and modern complaints about Wikipedia you almost never hear:
Can’t you move faster? You’re going too slow.