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Original research

dbear's picture

By David Bearman - Posted on 18 February 2010

Material culture is not considered a reliable source by Wikipedia, while "third-party, published sources ", are. This is at odds with the museum tradition that privileges the real thing. Wikipedia is poorer for not having a way of using material culture as a source when published accounts are unlikely to be available or useful. For example, the Wikipedia article is not referenced by actual examples of real locomotives that show these parts or demonstrate how they evolved over the course of a century of steam transport. It could be, and I would argue would be much more authoritative, valuable and interesting if it was, except that Wikipedia thinks 'references' are only to publications.

Perhaps we can develop a set of examples that would delineate the ways and places that other sources of evidence than published texts can be used within Wikipedia? If so, we could find quite a few ways that museum curators could contribute to building encyclopedic knowledge.

wadewitz's picture

The goals of the museum community are (among other things) to contribute new knowledge and new understanding of art works (broadly defined), while Wikipedia merely aims to summarize and present existing knowledge. That is a difference - we want to help disseminate the knowledge you are producing and preserving. Referencing primary sources is what knowledge-makers, like scholars and curators, do. This does not mean that we cannot and do not integrate primary sources into articles on Wikipedia - it just means we have to do so very carefully.

Our policy on the issue ("No original research"), linked below, outlines some of the problems with allowing any and all primary sources to be used. I'll quote from it briefly here:

"Reliable primary sources may be used in Wikipedia, but only with care, because it is easy to misuse them. Any interpretation of primary source material requires a reliable secondary source for that interpretation. A primary source can be used only to make descriptive statements that can be verified by any educated person without specialist knowledge. For example, an article about a novel may cite passages to describe the plot, but any interpretation needs a secondary source. Do not make analytic, synthetic, interpretive, explanatory, or evaluative claims about material found in a primary source. Do not base articles entirely on primary sources. Do not add unsourced material from your personal experience, as that would make Wikipedia a primary source of that material." (

One of the reasons Wikipedians lean so heavily on this rule is because without it, the encyclopedia would be a free-for-all of interpretations when it came to articles about art. The articles would simply reflect the interpretation of the editor writing the article rather than a summary of the published research.

That said, there is a place for referencing primary materials. To use the example of locomotives above, we could not have an article referenced entirely to a collection of locomotives in a train museum, as the argument about the development of steam transport that would result from that assemblage of material would be the argument of the person writing it. We need the arguments to come from published (hopefully peer-reviewed) sources. However, we do use many internal government documents in other articles that fall on the borderline of the primary/secondary divide in order to construct articles about history, law, and suchlike. Would museums be willing to make more of their internal documentation available so that we could use it to construct articles in this manner?

dbear's picture

All arguments are those of the people making them, and in Wikipedia it is the argument of many persons true. The question isn't whether there is 'truth', it is what constitutes a source? There is a difference betwewen opinion/interpretation and evidence as reflected in primary sources; opening the way to the use of primary sources does not lead to a 'free-for-all of interpretation', any more than relying on references to published sources helps prevent one.

Many primary sources are or could be online. According to current Wikipedia guidelines that doesn't make them published. But if primary sources could be ok, sometimes, we need to work on when and how they should be used. If material culture is a primary source, it is governed by the same guidelines. Again, I'd suggest that the museum community provide some examples here so that we can make progress discussing it.




David Bearman

Mpellegrini's picture

"Many primary sources are or could be online. According to current Wikipedia guidelines that doesn't make them published." - A few disreputable websites not withstanding, web publication on a reliable website is usually suffecient to qualify as published under the "no original research" guidelines. If a musuem were to publish some objective fact on their website, 99 times out of 100 that would be OK to cite.

I'd also like to point out the pragmatic origins of the "No Original Research" guideline. It's not there because we want to give people a hard time. It got put in place because back in the day, the early Wikipedia editors (circa 2001-2002) decided they didn't want to deal with cranks who had their own brand-new theory of relativity, or explanations of what really happened to JFK. So the goal in this conversation should be in ways we can distinguish legitimate "knowledge makers" (as Adrienne puts it) from cranks interested in pushing their pet theories into Wikipedia. The publication requirement seems, to me, like a fair place to draw the line. 

erikajoy's picture

Great idea!

I gave a paper at the National Museum of Australia in 2008 about using material culture as a source of research. The transcript is here (for all speakers)

some good examples.

Personally I have worked on our collection of historic wool samples, that we have had scientifically tested, and used this as a primary reference material for my research about the Australian Merino Industry. We have 7000 pieces of wool dating from as early as 1804 (the first pieces to be exported back to England)

Erika Taylor.