The Tyranny of The Wikipedians

 

Transparency: I am a white, CIS academic, who currently holds a contract from Wilfred Laurier Press to edit a print and digital edition of Mourning Dove’s western, Cogewea (1927) using Indigenous editing practices and protocols. In keeping with being a white person working with Indigenous texts, I am and will collaborate with Indigenous scholars and community members. If I am asked not to work with a particular text, document or object, I won’t. It’s neither mine nor part of my culture.

I am having a hard time with a Wikipedian, who goes by the name of Cordless Larry. This Wikipedian takes their job very seriously, and their job is very much akin to the role of a peer reviewer. Peer review has been taking a beating lately and for good reason, implicit bias is one problem, but the other is the anonymous nature of peer review. A reviewer like Cordless Larry is given a model for knowledge dissemination (which seems like an invitation to be a guardian or gatekeeper), and then they defend that model. The Wikipedia model claims to be a repository for all of “human knowledge,” but is it? My experience shows that the rules are western oriented at best and at worst, Eurocentric.

Let’s get back to Larry. If you go to my Talk page on Wikipedia (I’m not a regular, exactly because of Wikipedians like Cordless Larry), you’ll see the argument in full. Check this out: I was refuting the claim that Indigenous peoples  have “vanished,” otherwise known as the “Vanishing Indian Myth.” Larry gets to claim that stating the Okanagan Nation Alliance and Colville Confederated Tribes are thriving is “original research.” I removed the word “thriving,” because I thought Larry might be (correctly) thinking that it was too evaluative. Not good enough and the  statement was called “original research.” They didn’t ask for a reference. “Original research” according to Wikipedia are claims that cannot be verified by reputable and reliable sources. I could have easily done this, but by saying that this statement is “original research,” Larry is virtually erasing Indigenous identity.

I am not saying that their suggestions about tone were not correct and other small edits – indeed, Larry clearly knows what they are doing at the level of language. My issue is with the inability to see other kinds of evidence as vital to bringing balance to Wikipedia’s clear bias. The majority of Wikipedia’s editors are white, male, and have a post-secondary eduction, and these are the editors who get to tell the stories of marginalized others often excluded from privileged forms of knowledge (I hear the irony calling: I am a person of privileged editing an Indigenous text). The assumption of privilege is pretty damn clear when Larry is able to lower the rating and quality of the article by flagging it as containing “original research” and not enough reliable references.

Yep, that’s right Larry is a prominent Wikipedian who has rated the page as not having enough references. If you visit the page, you’ll see that each and every statement beyond plot summary has one or more peer reviewed references. If I dare add anything to the article that is outside Larry’s boundaries, he swoops in and ensures that any and all evidence meets a criteria not of “all human knowledge” but of the knowledge that Larry deems is useful. But “rules!,” you might say, “we need rules to keep things in order!” This claim is true, but what if the playing field is not level?

For years, Mourning Dove’s authorship or her own book was questioned, and by Wikipedia’s standards, this information is accepted knowledge, even though it was patently wrong. Mourning Dove’s Cogewea is a book that has been misunderstand and misrepresented, because the author is an Indigenous woman. Therefore, an article written from an Indigenized perspective is another form of knowledge production that privileges certain ways of knowing outside of Larry’s sphere. But his sphere is the centre from which all other knowledges must genuflect.

If I sound somewhat bitter, it’s been a long couple of weeks trying to fight against an editor determined to undermine rather than uplift. There is no negotiation or debate. What Larry says goes. Look! He has over 35 000 edits! And for this work, which I am sure is excellent within his sphere of understanding, he is given power. The way to level up in the game of Wikipedia is to edit, edit, and edit some more.  But it’s not to seemingly mentor or support. It’s a militaristic enterprise with a strict hierarchy – not really conducive to the governance by consensus that plays a major role in Indigenous philosophy. Wikipedia needs to state openly that it is NOT a repository of human knowledge but western ideals of knowledge production. Sure, it’s community edited, but that community seems awfully limited to a certain type of person.

Finally, Cordless Larry really did not like my inclusion of Indigenous editing practices in the Cogewea article. I want to share the section he removed with you. This is not original research, but an attempt to show the interconnectedness of knowledge production, which is part and parcel of Indigenizing. However, Larry did not see the connection and removed this section without asking why it’s there or inviting debate:

Indigenous editing

Editing as a western cultural, economic, and epistemological practice is grounded in systemic discrimination and colonization [12] This fact has led to a long-standing movement to have Indigneous texts, like Mourning Dove’s Cogewea edited using Indigenous protocols and practices. More examples of such systemic discrimination include the resignation of Write magazine’s editor Hal Niedzviecki (Write magazine is the quarterly publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada). Niedzviecki edited the manuscripts of several Indigenous authors as part of a special issue of Write; subsequently, in his introduction, he argued that there is no such thing as cultural appropriation: it’s a writer’s prerogative to represent and articulate the voice of any culture or people. Subsequently, a number of prominent journalists, including Jonathan McKay, former editor of The Walrus and Steve Ladurantaye, formerly managing editor of CBC’s The National (TV program), publicly denounced Niedzviecki’s firing, questioning those who opposed Niedzviecki’s point of view, which included many of the authors whose work he edited.[13]

The Niedzviecki scandal is not an isolated case. Indigenous authors are often framed by colonial discourse, which has necessitated a general call for an Indigenous approach to editing Indigenous texts.[14] [15]

 

If Wikipedia is about sharing information and educating readers, then this information, which is not original research, should have been left in. True, this information is not fall neatly in Cogewea’s chronological history, but it is linked to Cogewea as a novel that suffered from Western editing practices. If there is an irony here, it’s that Mourning Dove’s novel was embroiled in yet another battle with a controlling editor. I would have appreciated suggestions to improve this section rather than Larry telling me this has nothing to do with Cogewea as a novel. I would have appreciated an actual discussion rather than demands, notifications, and punishments.

 

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9 thoughts on “The Tyranny of The Wikipedians”

  1. All you needed to do was supply a source that supported what you wanted to include in the article. That’s how Wikipedia works: it just summarises what is already published by others.

      1. The sources didn’t support the claims, though. E.g. to say ‘This edition is used widely in post-secondary classrooms’, requires a source that says that, not just a list of examples. That’s where you were presenting original research.

      2. I did have a citation for that but it was removed. The point of my post is the epistemological divide. So when I say that Syilx Okanagan people are thriving and then provide a link to the Nation site as proof, it’s not appropriate to say that this is “original research.” The other issue is the hierarchical too down structure of Wikipedia, which invites exclusion rather than respect. Wikipedia has done better in recent years but has no business saying it respects all ways of knowing. The very rhetorical demands Wikipedia makes show its bias. Your inability to give me even an inch reveals your own desire to be right rather than have an actual debate. Btw, no sealioning pls.

  2. To my knowledge, Wikipedia has never said that “it respects all ways of knowing”. It privileges published, secondary sources.

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