Morality and Law
Wikipedia 20 Years On: Intellectual Snobbery vs the Right to Know

It is clear that Wikipedia has fulfilled its task of responding to the global public demand for free information and free knowledge. In doing so, it has made a tangible contribution to the perception of information and knowledge as a global public domain (a global commons), writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

On 15 January 2021, humankind celebrates a very remarkable anniversary. On this day twenty years ago, in 2001, Wikipedia began to exist. Perhaps its main principle was open access to authorship: everyone could write their own version of the article and submit it. The articles are edited not by professional experts on the topic, but by a community of the same interested amateur authors. Thus, the world received its first encyclopaedia, created without taking into account professional editing, peer-review and everything else that distinguishes modern academic science.

How can one assess this event now, after twenty years? Has Wikipedia changed our lives and our knowledge of the world? On the one hand, especially in intellectual circles, it has become almost a necessary rule to scold Wikipedia. They say it is primitive, and that no one knows who writes the articles — amateurs who have nothing to do with a given field of scientific activity and do not understand its depth. In this regard, it is not so rare to accuse individual Wikipedia articles of plagiarism. Students, therefore, are taught, as a rule, not to use data from Wikipedia in their reports and term papers, and not to refer to it in their scientific activity. Instead, they should refer directly to sources and scientific literature on the topic, and avoid using stereotypical Wikipedia clichés.

There is undoubtedly some undeniable truth in all these accusations. However, on the other hand, this kind of approach is underscored with intellectual snobbery, albeit camouflaged. It is, in part, a perpetuation of a well-known bias in academic circles: favouring a limited group of professionals in the processing of scientific data. According to this logic, they alone, thanks to their special education, as well as their positioning in an ivory tower of professionals who cite each other’s work, have the right to produce and present to the public data and conclusions from their field of study. The rest of society need only listen to them reverently and, at best, ask them naive journalistic questions. The Areopagus of professionals, with a certain degree of condescension, will then deign to answer these questions in a confused and vague way.

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This sociological rift between the professional academic community and the broad popular masses is, of course by no means new, and not necessarily negative. There is undoubtedly a degree of social logic in its formation and crystallisation. The problem of the profanation of science in modern society, oversaturated with information, is quite acute. This needs to be fought. Wikipedia, due to its global prevalence and universality of coverage, was in the focus of this rejection and struggle. But let’s be honest with ourselves: when an intellectual needs to get primary information on a topic unknown to him, over these twenty years it has become habitual to open Wikipedia first, only later referring to professional encyclopaedias, textbooks and articles. Thus, another social pattern is revealed: where convinced critics use it when they consider it necessary.

Another frequently heard accusation against Wikipedia (especially in the social sciences) is its politicisation and obsession with the Western-centric intellectual mainstream, as well as its denial of the social achievements, practices and narratives of non-Western countries. We agree with this; there is a significant amount of truth in this statement. Thus, individual Wikipedia articles (especially in the “global” English language) can form preconceived clichés, which are then transformed into stable stereotypes of public opinion.

This is also related to the serious imbalance between the various language segments of Wikipedia. It manifests itself, on the one hand, in the degree of completeness in the scope of the material: here, as a rule, the “global” English-language version of Wikipedia is much more detailed than similar articles in other languages. They are often only abbreviated translations from the English version. This is especially noticeable when the topic of the article is events related to the area of one or another language. In particular, a fairly large number of articles in the Russian-language version of Wikipedia, one way or another affecting Russia, represent only a full or abridged translation from English, without original additional material reflecting the social specifics and historical memory of the Russian-language segment of Wikipedia.

The same picture can be observed in the German-speaking segment: a noticeably large number of articles about Germany on Wikipedia are presented more fully in English than in German. Perhaps the main exception to this is the French version. Regarding almost everything that concerns France and French-speaking countries, Wikipedia articles in French are original text rather than copies of English articles, and are distinguished by the completeness of their coverage of information and the scope of their scientific references.

However, over time, the situation in non-English segments of Wikipedia has begun to change for the better. The Russian-language version, we can say subjectively, is now much fuller and better than it was 5-10 years ago, when many of the articles were, in our opinion, intellectual trash. In this regard, it is interesting to note, if we talk about Wikipedia’s presence in the post-Soviet sphere, that for a fairly large number of articles on neutral universal topics (which don’t address the topics of politics and history) the Ukrainian version is often more complete and original than the Russian version. Meanwhile, both Belarusian-language versions of Wikipedia (which each use different spelling rules), in our opinion, remain quite primitive.

In addition to the completeness of coverage, the imbalance between different-language versions of Wikipedia is to a certain extent also related to differences in assessments and conclusions.

Here, first of all, in the social sciences, different linguistic segments of Wikipedia have become a tool for recording both political differences between individual countries and a country-specific approach to historical memory.

In some languages this is more pronounced (for example, in the French, Italian, Ukrainian segments), while in others, in our opinion, it’s less obvious (in Russian, German, Chinese and Arabic). But in any case, it is sociologically very interesting to compare similar Wikipedia articles in different languages, as well as the open forums of the authors of this or that article.

Is it possible to effectively combat the politicisation of Wikipedia? Is it necessary? This question, perhaps, applies to a wider range of social media and platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), where it is discussed much more sharply than in the case of Wikipedia. Obviously, here the first step would be to equalise the imbalance of different language versions, which we mentioned above. Another way is to participate in the forums of authors, which, as a rule, are attached to the relevant articles and present there a reasoned position with links to sources. In a number of cases, this works, and the team of Wikipedia authors ultimately makes a decision in favour of the completeness and representativeness of the information coverage, and not politicisation. For example, after extremely stormy explanations were provided by the authors of an English-language article on coronavirus statistics for different territories of the world, it was decided to include not only recognised sovereign countries and dependent territories, but also unrecognised states in the article. Moreover, it included both “old” unrecognised states (Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Abkhazia, etc.) and “new” ones, such as the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. As a result, the English-language Wikipedia has become the only major source of global statistical reports on coronavirus (unlike WHO, Johns Hopkins University, Worldometer, etc.) where unrecognised states are represented.

In general, it is clear that Wikipedia, over its 20 years of existence, has fulfilled its task of responding to the global public demand for free information and free knowledge. In doing so, it has made a tangible contribution to the perception of information and knowledge as a global public domain (a global commons). In this regard, whether anyone likes it or not, the question of the choice between intellectual snobbery and the right to knowledge is rhetorical. The answer is obvious.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.