Much of my online book-browsing is a quest for the understandably but undeservedly neglected: the search for titles on little-known authors, unsuccessful political movements, and forms of music that many people flee. With a narrow niche, you soon get to know what’s available. But there are occasional surprises. Over the past year, though, my search results have shown wave after wave of new books on topics of very limited appeal. It began to feel as if someone were custom-editing them just for me.
But all of them were outrageously expensive -- paperbacks of fewer than 100 pages that sold for $50, while anything bigger than a pamphlet tended to cost nearly twice that. Often, no author was listed, and I never recognized the publishers. And then a few reviews by people who had purchased them began to appear, complaining that the were print-on-demand books consisting entirely of material from Wikipedia.
Caveat lector. At some point, the Amazon listings began to identify the source of the content. Even so, the whole thing seems shady. It's as if the books were being created in order to take advantage of any researcher desperate enough (or librarian overworked enough) to order a book strictly on the grounds that nothing else on the subject is available.This seems to me to be drawing the line between scholarly publishing and con artistry much too thin.
Not that a book consisting entirely of reprints from Wikipedia is, by definition, worthless. A lot has changed since five years ago, when Stephen Colbert could create the "fact" that Africa's elephant population had tripled in the last three months. The entries remain susceptible to vandalism, or to invasion by the chronically misinformed, but a substantial community of regular contributors and editors has developed that exercises a degree of control, and numerous studies show that its level of reliability compares favorably with other reference works.
Meanwhile, an interesting dialectic of popularity and authority is at work as major institutions begin to find it necessary to deal with the site, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. In May, the first Wikipedian in Residence began assuming his responsibilities at the National Archives. Around the same time, the Association for Psychological Science announced its Wikipedia Initiative, encouraging members “to participate by adding new entries and enhancing existing ones with more complete and accurate information with references.”
A few years back, universities were debating whether to ban citation of Wikipedia in student papers. The APS, by contrast, makes an appeal to “teachers and students who can make updating or creating Wikipedia entries part of coursework” as a practicum in learning “the importance of logic, strength of argument, flow and clarity of writing, and citations of the appropriate literature.” Wikipedia has undertaken a number of other initiatives to academe, as reported last month in Inside Higher Ed. And according to a paper published earlier this week, the online reference is being both analyzed and cited with some frequency in the peer-reviewed literature of several disciplines.
"The Visibility of Wikipedia in Scholarly Publications" by Taemin Kim Park appeared on August 1 at First Monday, a peer-reviewed online journal of research on the internet. Park notes that more than 50 theses or dissertations on Wikipedia have been written around the world, along with 200 monographs.
Park writes that “authors affiliated with [research] institutions in the U.S. appear to cite Wikipedia more often in their scholarly publications than authors in any other country," with scholars “affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Indiana University [being] most active in citing Wikipedia.” (Universities in China run a fairly close second.) These citations appear in papers that may not be focused on Wikipedia itself.
The author of the paper is an associate librarian and adjunct in information science at Indiana University at Bloomington. Gathering information from the Institute of Scientific Information’s Web of Science database (covering 10,000 journals in the humanities as well as the natural and social sciences) and Elsevier’s Scopus (incorporating 18,000 journals and book series, plus 3.6 million conference papers), she found 1,746 works containing research on Wikipedia that appeared between 2002 and 2010.
Researchers in computer science accounted for the largest share of the work on Wikipedia (42 percent in WoS, 72 percent in Scopus) with information/library science following (26 percent in WoS). “The fields of mathematics, social sciences, and engineering are also highly productive,” writes Park. “In Scopus, an exceedingly small portion of publications, about 1 percent of Wikipedia research output derives from the arts and humanities.”
Some of the findings are in keeping with fairly well-established trends in many fields of research. A small number of authors and journals produce a disproportionately large share of the publications, for example. And multiple authorship of papers is the norm: “For example, one publication about Wikipedia research in Scopus was coauthored by 37 individuals.”
The U.S. proves to be “far stronger in producing research on Wikipedia than any other country, accounting for about 22 percent of the publications in Scopus and about 37 percent in WoS.” The U.K., Germany, and China follow, by fairly large margins, with other European and Asian countries producing under 5 percent each. The citation of Wikipedia in scholarly articles (whether or not the topic is Wikipedia) tracks fairly closely, with U.S. authors producing 27 percent of the citations in Scopus and 43 percent in WoS.
Anglophone preeminence will almost certainly change as Wikipedia continues to diversify. At present, there are Wikipedias in 282 languages, and last year Microsoft launched the beta version of WikiBhasha, a tool “enabl[ing] contributors to Wikipedia to find content from other Wikipedia articles, translate the content into other languages, and then either compose new articles or enhance existing articles in multilingual Wikipedias.” At present, WikiBhasha works with more than 30 languages, with an initial emphasis being on making English-language entries available “in Arabic, German, Hindi, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish.”
It’s like something Jorge Luis Borges might have imagined: the Encyclopedia of Babel. Or H.G. Wells's dream of a comprehensive reference work he called the World Brain.
In any case, we seem to be getting used to the idea. An element of moral panic used to emerge in discussions about Wikipedia; this has faded. It’s a tool that has to be used with caution. But that is all too true of reference books of the old sort as well. And I doubt the Encyclopedia Britannica is ever going to have an entry explaining the difference between goregrind, deathcore, and technical death metal.
And anyone who finds a set of Wikipedia entries to be authoritative enough to deserve preserving them between covers can do so without spending a fortune. Ignore the dubious volumes sold by online retailers and make your own instead. Wikipedia has its own book-publishing service called Pedia Press. It already has an extensive catalog. But readers can also edit their own customized volumes of entries that will then be printed on demand, at a reasonable price. Instructions on how to do so are available on YouTube.
Most academics are content to teach their classes and publish their research – usually for a small number of scholars in their subfield. Yet, there have always been academics who want to reach a much larger audience, to have influence beyond their classrooms, scholarly journals and the faculty club. For them, the call to become a public intellectual is strong. But as long as there has been this desire to “cross over,” there has also been a tension between those who do and those who do not.
Scholars who manage to break beyond the narrow scholarly niche are often derided as mere popularizers, lacking the disciplinary rigor of their more professional colleagues. To some, they are lightweights who jump onto the latest in intellectual fashion and leave no lasting mark on intellectual life or academia. And this is largely because, crossing over, or, as my agent calls it, ‘going trade,’ too often means consciously leaving disciplinary concerns behind, as writing and speaking beyond a narrow academic community requires new skills and a much more interdisciplinary approach.
It is problem-focused, not discipline-focused. The irony is that scholars who decide to break into the mainstream risk being taken less seriously by their departmental colleagues, even if they are taken more seriously by the general public.
Until recently, those who cross over have been intellectual lone wolves, easily singled out for praise or ridicule. But a new group of scholars, who share a method, which combines social theory with a reporter’s sensitivity for a story rooted in a narrative, coupled with a scholarly agenda, concentrated around American studies, seem poised to break out of that box in a way that could change the role of the intellectual beyond academe. They are the purveyors of scholarly reportage.
Popularizers or Something More?
The trend toward larger public engagement has lent itself serially to various disciplines over time. But, it seems dominated by historians, sociologists and most recently by American studies faculty. The Progressive Era historian, Charles Beard, had a huge impact with his Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution.
Other historians soon followed -- Allan Nevins, Matthew Josephson and Caroline F. Ware, to name just a few. Historians continued to cross over throughout the 20th century: think Douglas Brinkley, Stephan Ambrose, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. But the mid-20th century seemed to truly belong to sociologists such as Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, and William Whyte, who looked at the development of the white-collar world. All these scholars wrote trade books and spoke to the nation as a whole. They happened to also be college professors. And, there seemed to be no contradiction in this.
What these scholars all shared was certainly not a method, but rather two important traits. One, they could write -- I mean really write! And let’s face it, the ability to string sentences together into a coherent and powerful text seems to be a declining art. Most disciplines have become so myopic in their training that new Ph.D.'s come out with an inability to reach more than the 500 subspecialists in their field.
The second trait these scholars shared is a critical eye to issues facing their culture. They were plugged into the world. These writers became popular because they recognized big issues that grabbed hold of the larger public’s imagination. They were well read, and not just in their discipline. They seemed to read everything: magazines, newspapers, journals, fiction and nonfiction well beyond their disciplines. They inhabited the zeitgeist of their times and trained their analytical minds on the big issues of their day without fear of professional subcultures.
Yet, I am not sure we can call what these scholars did a movement in the traditional sense. Many shared a political sensitivity; some were part of the postwar New York intellectual scene. But their impact on the culture of academe did not transform it per se. It could not be replicated, although many tried. And, in fact, their disciplines eventually retreated into themselves. And these scholars increasingly became outliers in their own fields.
We are now witnessing a trend that is offering academics a mode of engagement that might just have a lasting impact on the place of the intellectual beyond academia. In short, it might be a movement precisely because it offers a replicable method.
First popularized by the American studies pioneer Andrew Ross, scholars are combining scholarship, memoir and journalism in an effort to explain some of the biggest cultural shifts of the late 20th century. “Scholarly reportage” is what Ross calls it, “a blend of ethnography and investigative journalism.” Originated by Ross in his last three books, it has been picked up by others.
The sociologists Sharon Zukin and Dalton Conley and the historian Bryant Simon each have refined the methods of this approach, and they are not alone. Others are combining memoir and political commentary with serious scholarship making their writing more personal, more intimate, and thus more readable. They have applied this method to understanding urban gentrification, trends in home-work balance and the reshaping of public space, to name a few. Most have given up on scholarly objectivity, a nod to the post-post-modern moment we inhabit.
This, combined with the move many professors are making toward civic engagement, might provide a model that can be both carefully studied and replicated by the next generation, creating a true transformation in academic culture and paving a road towards a more publicly engaged intellectual class.
What these scholars have done is significantly different from what Malcolm Gladwell or Richard Florida do – writers to whom they are often compared. Gladwell and Florida write popular books, no doubt, that are built on a narrow theme, aimed at a larger business readership. Ross and company are writing scholarly books that by their style and nature are also accessible to nonacademic readers. They address scholarly matters with appropriate scholarly methods (they do real original research), for a cultured, creative class of readers.
That these works are emerging from cultural studies, American studies, and urban studies is important. Andrew Ross recognizes the freedom provided by these interdisciplinary spaces, with porous borders. Writing in the Minnesota Review, he argues that these programs are a “haven where the gatekeepers of disciplinary turf had no authority.” Because they are interdisciplinary, no one method owns them. These liminal spaces, fraught with their own tensions, provide the room for risky scholarship.
Ross and company are not without their detractors, however. Many have called Ross too trendy and only interested in his own celebrity. Some have sneered at photos of him in GQ or his reference in a novel. But Ross and these others should be read seriously because they are pushing for a new model of engaged academics that is sorely needed. And right now there are not too many models available.
Richard A. Greenwald is the dean of graduate studies and a history professor at Drew University in New Jersey. His next book is The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works (Bloomsbury, 2012).