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Road trippin’ with Footnote: Day 3

You can’t believe everything you read – especially online.

It’s one learning we’ve come away with after hearing plenty of stories of history buffs being misled or finding their research being appropriated by others without credit.

Moreover, many felt that their willingness to help often went unappreciated. To paraphrase one interviewee, “I’m not answering any more questions unless someone says, ‘thank you.’”

When it comes to describing the problems of trust and collaboration, just about everyone we talked with cited Wikipedia as the poster-child for the problems online.

What’s interesting is that although many people immediately object to the idea of collaborating or sharing their research with others, that’s what they’re doing all the time.

There is also a reluctance, at least when asked, for people to see themselves as experts in anything. This is not unusual. In studies we’ve done, most people will say they are an “intermediate” even if they’ve been doing research for decades. It’s a modesty peppered with a dash of pragmatism – if you don’t proclaim to be an expert, you won’t be a lightening rod for criticism.

But it’s more useful to see the web as media where you publish first and edit later. This is a hard paradigm to swallow for historians who, more than most, sweat the details of their research, sometimes toiling away for years before publishing.

The web turns the traditional research model upside-down and, for those willing to participate, provides a much more powerful way to discover and share.

Update: As a little experiment, a SUNY Buffalo academic seeded false data into Wikipedia articles. How long did it take before his acts were noticed? (Via Arts & Letters Daily)

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