Session G-8: Knowledge Equity and the Promise of Public Scholarship on Wikipedia


Presenters: Dr. Dylan Dryer (University of Maine), Dr. Dana Comi (Auburn University at Montgomery), Dr. Melanie Kill (University of Maryland), Dr. Matthew Vetter (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), Chair and Roundtable Leader: Dr. Tarez Graban (Florida State University)

Overview summary

In this session, members of the CCCC Wikipedia Initiative Committee considered relationships between public scholarship, public pedagogy, and knowledge equity in relation to their work on Wikipedia Initiative. As session chair Dr. Tarez Graban explained in her in introduction, “the Wikipedia Initiative at large considers the urgency of developing Wikipedia content informed by research and scholarship” from fields including literacy, rhetoric, composition, linguistics and language studies, and technical communication.

Though individual presentations were prerecorded, the roundtable offered a live Q&A session for audience members to consider possibilities knowledge production and public-facing scholarship through Wikipedia contribution. Together, the roundtable panelists underscored the need for scholars to bring research-informed disciplinary knowledge to public constructs of language, writing, communication, and literacy.

Dylan Dryer, “Those Who Fail to Learn from the ‘View History’ Page Are Doomed to Reversion”

Dr. Dylan B. Dryer began his presentation with an overview of Wikipedia’s mechanisms for archiving each article’s edit history. Explaining that the edit history page for any given article often includes a description of editors’ reasons for revisions, reversions, and additions, he noted that the edit history of Wikipedia articles can tell us much about the ways public representations of writing, language, and literacy constructs are established over time (as well as how contributors might engage in that work).

Observing that academics in fields like Writing Studies have, generally, operated under a “tacit policy to ignore Wikipedia and hope it will go away,” Dryer described a key exigence for scholars to engage in Wikipedia editing: Although a good number of articles related to Writing Studies work (i.e., “Language,” “Essay,” “Standard English,” “Literacy,” “Grammar,” and so on) receive high daily traffic from Wikipedia visitors, many of these articles not only “represent little of what [we, as a field,] know, but also are written in ways so that visitors come away from their page views with “dominant and oppressive beliefs about language and language variation intact.”

Reviewing the edit history pages of articles relevant to WikiProject: Writing, Dryer identified three interlocking patterns that perpetuate construct under-represented beliefs about writing and language and some of the consequences of those patterns:

  • Past attendance by various editors, especially related to early organization of and contributions to Wiki articles, (re)stabilizes dominant operating constructs of writing and language. A key corollary here is that, because these ideologies have persisted over time, addressing the ideologies baked into the organizational structure of such pages is a challenge especially given the time and degree of engagement it takes for any contributor to develop the ethos needed to make effective change.
  • The most easily observable characteristics of a given concept tend to receive the most focus, thus becoming exaggerated. This pattern suggests substantial construct-underrepresentation of writing by many contributors to these articles. For example, the heavy focus on inscription in the “Writing” article conflates writing with writing systems; focus on difference in the “Literacy” article draws on discourse of remediation in ways that are challenging to sift out.
  • Edit history pages indicate that certain beliefs about language and writing do not require the same (or any) degree of citations of others (“for example, that Standard English is ‘the’ language of business and government”). This pattern indicates that such claims are viewed as inherent to the ‘nature’ of language and writing, rather than an assumption or as knowledge developed from a specific perspective.

In closing, Dryer offered three questions for the roundtable discussion:

(1) The steady trafficked articles like grammar or usage or essay far exceeds the articles where we are doing most of our heavy editing. This traffic indicates a need that we are not filling and that others are happy to, creating wrong and even harmful conceptions of writing, language, literacy, and so on. What would it take to get us more involved on those pages?

(2) How can we support new editors in the rhetorically sensitive challenge of engaging entrenched misperceptions in which their fellow editors are sincerely proud?

(3) What can we do to get more K-12 teachers involved in Wiki-editing?

Dana Comi, “Locating, Learning, and Creating Wikipedia Meta-Genres”

Foregrounding her position as a “newcomer to making contributions to Wikipedia,” Dr. Dana Comi invited attendees to consider what practices and strategies can promote more widespread engagement on Wikipedia by Writing Studies scholars. Offering one way forward, Comi reviewed the kinds of meta-genres with which editors and contributors engage, to describe ways newcomers might take up those meta-genres, as well as additional needs that adapted or newly implemented meta-genres can offer.

Meta-genres refer to “atmospheres of wordings and activities, demonstrated precedents or sequestered expectations” that surround a genre and indicate how readers and writers should appropriately take it up (Giltrow, 2002; p.195). Drawing on this understanding, Comi explained that Wikipedia is “a self-identified encyclopedia genre” that defines itself and outlines its purposes as much by what sort of texts it is not like, as much as those it is like. For example, a primer for new contributors indicates Wikipedia “is not a soapbox, not an advertising platform, not a vanity press, not a blog, not an experiment in anarchy or democracy, not an indiscriminate collection of miscellaneous information, nor a web directory. It is not a dictionary, not a newspaper, nor a collection of source documents.” Rather, it “brings together information one might expect to find in other general and/or specialized encyclopedias, almanacs, and gazetteers” in a manner that “must be balanced, representing multiple perspectives and sharing them accurately, in proper context, in proportion to the prominence of each viewpoint in reliable sources, and not pushing any particular point of view as ‘the truth’ or ‘the best.’” In this way, the editing practices that operate on Wikipedia involve “way[s]of writing and thinking that takes time to learn and understand [because these practices]operate distinctly from the processes of peer-reviewed and scholarly venues.”

In the service of supporting new contributors, Wikipedia offers a range of resources, all of which are available through the site map. For academics, the WikiProject: Writing page includes a number of meta genres designed to “bridge the gap between [academic]work and the public knowledge work of Wikipedia,” including a page with advice for academic contributors, a page specifically for Writing Studies scholars, and a set of tips for individuals who wish to contribute to pages related to the field’s areas of study. However, as Comi noted, the meta-genres currently available are descriptive in nature rather than illustrative in ways newcomers may need.

To promote academics’ participation, Comi concluded that more resources are sorely needed, particularly “meta-genres that include action-based, concrete strategies for addressing misconceptions and misinformation related to writing, communication, literacy, and writing pedagogy.” In light of this need, Comi closed by proposing a question for the roundtable discussion: What kinds of meta-genres do we need to promote sustainable engaged contributions to Wikipedia? What might those materials look like?

Melanie Kill, “Teaching Knowledge Equity in Public”

Co-founder of the Wikipedia initiative, Dr. Melanie Kill, focused her talk around the question, “What does it mean to edit Wikipedia as a way of teaching knowledge equity in public?” Referencing Wikipedia’s charter pages, Kill identified knowledge equity and knowledge justice as two systemic goals that align, in principle, with Wikipedia’s overarching goals. However, while “the project can support an ideal of openness…that [ideal]in itself does not guarantee genuinely diverse knowledge-production.” Although volunteer contributions made by a broad, public collective offer one avenue toward knowledge-equity, it can also rely on and – as Dryer noted – perpetuate construct underrepresented, commonplace assumptions about writing, literacy, and language. To address this absence in knowledge-equity and production, Kill identified higher education and G.L.A.M. (galleries, library, archive, and museum sectors) as two key allies. Writing Studies and Composition-Rhetoric scholars are particularly well-situated to take up these efforts because of their fields’ understanding of writing and knowledge-making as “practices of power.”

Historically, institutions of higher education “have been slow to recognize the potential for Wikipedia as an academic good” and in turn, Wikipedia “has been slow to recognize higher education and G.L.A.M. as resources for improving knowledge equity.” Though members of both the G.L.A.M. and higher education sector are currently engaged in some important work that supports knowledge justice and production on Wikipedia, more efforts are needed to “support potential and current contributors in their communities.” In closing, Kill argued for academic contributors to consider strategies that “draw on diverse frames of reference on knowledge traditions” to address problematic aspects of language-related articles. Taking up Comi’s call for concrete strategies, Kill offered three ideas:

  • “It matters who you cite.” Thus, contributors should consider referencing “influential research from a diverse body of scholarship.”
  • “It matters where you edit.” Field-specific topics, particularly those that include highly-trafficked articles necessitate more attention by Writing Studies and Composition-Rhetoric scholars.
  • “Actively shar[e]knowledge beyond academic circles to inform educated discussion.” In so doing, we might better establish “a culture of professional responsibility for knowledge equity and justice.”

Matthew Vetter, “Understanding Motivations for Disciplinary Editing”

In the final talk, Dr. Matthew Vetter examined a range of internal and external motivations that drive community participation by Wikipedia-editors, academics, teacher, and student-editors. Vetter illustrated a range of complexities involved when “encouraging academics in rhetoric and composition to participate in Wikipedia” and offered a few possibilities for encouraging future engagement by academics in the effort to “improve representation of disciplinary knowledge in the encyclopedia.”

Drawing upon Heng-li Yang and Cheng-yu Lai (2010), Vetter noted that community engagement is often “informed by confirmation of internal standards of quality,” such as when contributors receive positive feedback from other editors on their work.  Additionally, volunteer contributors experience external motivations. Summarizing Kuznetsov’s (2006) findings, Vetter described external motivations as those that “depend on the participation in the social community of Wikipedia – rather than a disciplinary discourse community” and include values such as reputation, autonomy, and reciprocity. For instructors who incorporate “Wikipedia-based educations practices” in their teaching and scholarship, Vetter posits that similar motivations may include “outcomes-based motivations” such as providing students with experiences that support the development of digital and information literacies; “social equity motivations,” and “interactive motivations” that include community engagement, collaboration, and information-sharing. Interestingly, though Wikipedia editors “are motivated by a number of diverse factors,” Vetter notes that much of the literature on those factors do not indicate that expertise is one of them.

This finding seems to align with Wikipedia’s own requirements for substantive engagement: “Wikipedia editing doesn’t always require expert knowledge. Instead, it requires access to and interest in existing secondary sources of other experts or reputable sources.” In light of these requirements, contributors with higher education affiliations may be well-positioned to take up Wikipedia-editing work, given institutional access to library databases and research that other contributors cannot access due to paywalls.

Vetter concluded by urging academic contributors to consider the value of approaching Wikipedia engagement not as “experts,” but rather “as interested and open newbies, who happen to have specialized knowledge and are prepared to work within a value system separate from the academic economy.” Towards those ends, Vetter detailed three recommendations for adopting a productive-novice position in relation to Wiki-work:

  • Consider making use of resources offered by Engaging Wiki Education, an organization that assists instructors who develop Wikipedia-based projects with their students;
  • Approach Wiki-work with an open disposition, particularly one well-informed by Wikipedia policies (such as those Comi described in her talk);
  • Develop an appreciation for “the social opportunities” that Wikipedia community membership can provide.

Open discussion

The second half of this roundtable turned toward an open Q&A session. Using presenter’s framing questions as a guide, attendees offered solutions, sought advice related to teaching with Wikipedia, negotiating editor ‘gatekeeping,’ and representing public facing work on Wikipedia as valuable labor to administrators and other stakeholders in higher education.

Attendees sought recommendations for engaging with editors who participate in “Wiki-wars” over new content, particularly those who seem to view “cultural content” as “opinion.” Kill, Vetter, and Dryer offered some strategies for such encounters: Vetter described the usefulness of familiarizing oneself with the “particular policies” that “editors who gatekeep” tend to invoke. Confirming this strategy, Dryer also acknowledged that developing a sufficient knowledge of those policies can pose a barrier to newcomers and student-editors, especially. Offering an alternative, Dryer suggested that instructors and students “can also edit [on articles]where those people don’t hang out,” and on articles that such editors do not keep on their ‘watchlist.’

Detailing Dryer’s earlier suggestion, Kill explained that members of the Wiki-community can “add pages to [their]watchlist and wait for edits.” Depending, then, on who is watching a given page, different kinds of sources, edits, and claims will be accepted. Kill noted, too, that these challenges may be amplified for academics in the humanities, particularly because of the ways humanities fields make knowledge around ‘social facts.’ Carrying Kill’s point regarding reception of social facts by some Wikipedia editors, another attendee wondered if the challenges described are only likely if a contributor “comes up against a specific editor.”

Referring back to Dryer’s early description of ways that page organization delimits what knowledge is represented about a particular topic, Vetter also explained that pages with sections like “critical or popular reception” offer contributors space to bring in what other secondary sources have said about a given topic (i.e., how a certain television show treats race), thereby drawing on well-established social facts.

The second half of the Q&A session focused on institutional perceptions of Wiki-work. As one attendee noted, a major barrier to engagement by academics is that such labor is often not ‘counted’ towards tenure and promotion. Guiding questions included, “How can we work to get Wikipedia contributions to ‘count’ as academic labor,” and “How can others get involved in the Wikipedia initiative?”

One important, discipline-wide action that the Wikipedia initiative has taken is establishing the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4C’s) Wiki Editor Award, as well as a Graduate Fellows program. Though these two steps are only “initial” forms of recognition, members of the initiative continue to develop these efforts. In terms of what individual academics can do, Dryer, Comi, and Graban described the accumulative impact of “extensively documenting [Wikipedia-related] work in annual reports” to deans, chairs, and other administrators. For those in the first few years of an academic position, uncertainty about how stakeholders will value (or not) such work can create considerable barriers. For mid-career academics, this kind of documentation can establish norms (that is, get administrators “accustomed to seeing it”) in ways that may support early-career and future faculty. In addition, documentation of reporting metrics related to Wiki-editing can be usefully woven into service and research narratives.

In light of the discussion about how such labor is valued by education administrators, an attendee offered one potential pathway forward. Responding to Dryer’s initial question regarding how to involve K-12 teachers in editing, the attendee noted that “K-12 folks are often required to log a number of professional development requirements… to keep their license up to date” and that it could be worthwhile to offer some form of credentialing for teachers who participate in workshops, training modules, and editing.


Wikipedia is a juggernaut of information in the global, public domain. Currently, the English Wikipedia site includes 6,497,742 articles and averages 583 new articles per day. As this roundtable made apparent, Wikipedia’s position as a dominant site of public-facing knowledge-(re)production creates a profound exigence for more attention to public scholarship by institutions of higher education. Taken together, these four talks and the following Q&A illuminated a number of roles that academics can take up in support of public knowledge production, knowledge-equity, and bringing specialist knowledge to bear on Wiki-articles related to the content of our disciplines. Writing expert knowledge into Wikipedia is one important way we can address knowledge gaps, imbalances, and misinformation online.

From the session, three overarching takeaways of particular importance for Writing Studies and related fields emerged:

There is a keenly invested community of Wikipedia-scholars in Writing Studies and related fields who offer support to newcomers through the WikiProject: Writing page. Editors are often sincere and passionate about the labor they volunteer in the service of Wikipedia’s goals. However, in the attempt to ‘protect’ those goals, some editors make it difficult for newcomers to make meaningful change or share knowledge form diverse perspectives. Thus, engaging with the editing practices necessary for Wikipedia requires that newcomers, especially those who are more habituated in writing practices typical of academic, not only become familiar with policy guidelines, but also learn to negotiate the social expectations of the Wiki-community. The Wikipedia Initiative provides substantial support for new contributors navigating these expectations.

Institutional beliefs about the value of public-facing scholarship can be (and are) changing, but more effort on this front are needed. As with other forms of public-facing work, Wikipedia editing is not ubiquitously valued as scholarship by academic institutions. If we intend to change that paradigm, it is important for current academics to make their public-facing work (including labor hours, its impact, ranking metrics, and so on,) visible to administrators and to articulate its value to institutional stakeholders. Furthermore, efforts such as credentialing, awards, and other forms of recognition may both increase contributions from K-12 and postsecondary instructors and emphasize the value of Wikipedia work in educational institutions.

Academics are well-positioned to support knowledge-justice in the public domain. Knowledge-production and knowledge-equity are central to Wikipedia’s core values. Academics can be allies to the good work and sincere intentions of editors by bringing our knowledge about writing, language, literacy, and other constructs to bear on page content. Wikipedia is one of the most highly referenced information resources used globally; if we are in the business of making equitable, research-backed, specialized knowledge matter in meaningful ways, then Wikipedia is our business.


  • Giltrow, Janet. (2002). “Meta-genre.” In The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genres: Strategies for Stability and Change. Eds. Richard Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko. Creskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 187-205.
  • H.–L. Yang and C.–Y. Lai, 2010. “Motivations of Wikipedia content contributors,” Computers in Human Behavior, volume 26, number 6, pp. 1,377–1,383.
  • Wikipedia: A Primer for Newcomers. (2022, February 17). In Wikipedia.
  • Open Knowledge. (2022, March 1). In Wikipedia.

About Author

Kelly Hartwell

Kelly Hartwell is a doctoral student in the Joint Program of English and Education at the University of Michigan, where she studies writing assessment, literacy, and language ideologies.

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