Open Source History Hurdles

Response to "Can History Be Open Source"

In the article “Can History Be Open Source?” Rosenzweig attempts to outline the revolution in open source information management. Namely, he talks about the inner workings of Wikipedia, basic usage facts, and accuracy of historically related articles compared with more “respected” information sources like Encyclopedia Britannica, and American National Biography. Basically, Wikipedia has revolutionized how people search for and create, all kinds of information, including historical topics. Rosenzweig pointed to studies that show that Wikipedia, while having nowhere near the writing fluidity and quality of other works, does not have significantly more factual errors…and its free. It does, however, seem unbalanced, paying more attention to geek culture and more popular topics than what history textbooks would typically focus on.

The article is meant to address the questions of whether a more scholarly historical work can be open source and free to the people. The author seems to think that it is possible. He does acknowledge, however, that it would not be easy and there are a slew of potential problems.

My initial instinct is that a more scholarly historical work (such as an open source textbook that would be used in classrooms) is not possible. That being said, I would not have thought Wikipedia to be possible. Like Rosenzweig, I believe that the problem lies in oversight(individuals to be have final say), and therefore, would need to be structured more like open source software projects like Linux. Without central oversight, factual accuracy and fluidity cannot be guaranteed.

If we move away from the Wikipedia model and implement oversight in addition to some form of contributor credit, then it might be possible to create such a work. Giving credit would be the only way to incentivize contributions from a smaller pool of potential contributors. But if people do not want credit, how is it possible to only let qualified individuals contribute? Furthermore, if unqualified people submit, editing will essentially cause the moderator to be the author, which would defeat the idea of open source. It is different than contributing code because code either works or does not. If it works and the idea is good then only executive approval, not complete review, is necessary. Lastly, how can the work be given out for free without a ton of money to cover moderation and (printing?)? Without a wealthy philanthropist, an open source textbook project is doomed.

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