Where are the academics on Wikipedia?

The Guardian just ran an article on a study designed to understand the barriers that academics face in contributing their knowledge to Wikipedia. According to the article, academics are more inclined to use the crowd-sourced encyclopedia as a starting point of inquiry, but, like their students, they remain consumers rather than producers of the knowledge it contains.

The Guardian posits that “the biggest barrier may be the academic ego.” They cite that academics “worry about genuine, well-researched contributions being changed or overwritten by others.” While this rings true, the other evidence of ego they provide — the lack of a reward system for contributions — misunderstands the changing labor conditions within academia.

There is perception that academics have stable jobs that allow them the time and resources to contribute to public knowledge. The pipe smoking white haired intellectual who sits in a leather chair and chats about his esoteric ideas is dead. The labor structure of higher education has changed and most universities no longer invest resources in providing knowledge as public service. Like other contemporary corporations, universities invest in marketing, fund-raising, and cutting labor costs. In the US context especially, the pressure is on to increase enrollments, decrease tenure lines, and outsource the costs of research to faculty themselves. The condition of contingent faculty and growth of graduate programs is the most extreme outcome of this shift. But tenure track and tenured faculty also face institutional pressure to teach larger courses, take on additional administrative tasks, and seek out their own funding.

Wikipedia exists in an environment in which information wants to be free. Academics once had a premium on the discovery and distribution of scarce information and they stand to loose out completely if they fail to participate. But that failure to participate is more than a matter of ego or backward thinking. Wikipedia is radically transforming the value of academic work at a time when academics are paid by the piece and institutions of higher education are downsizing their investment in knowledge production.

I’ll be curious to hear the results of the survey to see what others think. You can take it here: http://survey.nitens.org/index.php