The Future of WikiHistory?

Because my friendly bot knows that I purchase books on Czech and Slovak history, I just received a notice of a new book on Slovak history titled Slovak Republic (1939-1945): Slovaks, Slovakia, Munich Agreement, History of Czechoslovakia (1948-1989). Because this title seemed so odd, and because there are so few good histories of the interwar Slovak state, I thought I would peek at this listing to see if I might want to buy it–thereby justifying the Amazon bot’s existence.

What I found was a very interesting book…but not for the reasons I had hoped. Instead, it appears that this slim volume (priced at $62 for a 136 page paperback) is nothing more than a collection of articles — „High Quality Content by Wikipedia articles!“ — from Wikipedia on the history of Slovakia and Czechoslovakia. Needless to say, this left me a bit puzzled, given that „high quality content by Wikipedia“ is available for free and because content on controversial subjects like the history of the Slovak state of 1939-1945 tends to be fairly malleable on Wikipedia. For instance, the entry on the Slovak state begins by describing the state as „a puppet clerofascist state“ but a recent version describes it as „a quasi-independent national Slovak state.“ So I wonder which of these versions is the high quality content promised in the book?

Given how odd I thought this was, I visited the website of BetaScript Publishing, the company offering this new book for sale. According to their site, BetaScript is „one of the leading publishing houses of academic research. We specialize in publishing copyleft projects,“ and annually they publish more than 10,000 titles. The site itself is not very helpful when it comes to finding out more about the company. For example, the News link takes you to a page that says „No news today!“ It seems that the best one can say about BetaScript Publishing is that the company’s business model is to take content (high quality content remember) from Wikipedia and offer it for sale as books.

While one might be impressed by the business model, as a historian one can also worry that lots of very odd versions of history will begin wandering around as „academic research.“ I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think all Wikipedia content is bad. In fact, much of it is quite good, and I regularly assign my students the task of writing for Wikipedia. What concerns me is that by publishing a dynamic, crowdsourced article in a book, BetaScript is fixing that content in time and space, an act that might well lead to the perpetuation of what a colleague calls „zombie facts“ — „facts“ that once in the record just won’t go away no matter how hard we try to kill them.

The good news is that at $62 for a 136 page paperback, I suspect few people are going to purchase this particular book.

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