“Like Athena Out of Zeus”: Why Classicists Need to Contribute (More) To Wikipedia

    1 November 2021

There are a lot of excellent sites, blogs and outreach initiatives in the domain of Classics, not to mention wonderful pages on social media, and some of these activities, such as podcasts, have even multiplied during the pandemic. As a young classicist I enjoy them deeply, especially in these times.

But I often ask myself: what do we know about the unspecialised, broader public, and what more can we do in order to reach it? We can imagine that, if someone has a question about any aspect of the ancient world, they are very likely to look for an answer on the 5th most visited website in the world, namely Wikipedia. I certainly go there if I need to revise the laws of thermodynamics or if I want to learn more about the atmosphere of Neptune: why wouldn’t someone do the same if they wanted to know what papyri are?

I remember that, when I was a bachelor student, a Philology professor showed us a Wikipedia entry related to the matter we were studying. The focus of the class was commenting on the many fallacies of the article, while the goal was encouraging us to rely instead on actual ‘scientific’ sources. This perception of Wikipedia is not a unicum but tends to be shared by many academics1, although the situation is constantly evolving2. Now, instead of complaining about how inaccurate the entries are (and some of them are), we should do a simple thing: make them better. Instead of suggesting students to avoid Wikipedia as a source, we should make it a reliable source. Because we can: a small contribution can take just a few seconds. And, with some effort, it is always possible to make a page a little more informative than the day before.

For this kind of both concrete and idealistic enterprise that Wikipedia is, I believe that the expertise of philologists could represent an asset. In some way, we are always fact-checking the past for the sake of the future. We are used to reconstructing from direct and indirect sources, distinguishing what is reliable and what is not, working with texts as living objects with multiple versions, authors and editors, making absences talk and presences converge. In the era of incomplete and biased information, we can make use of philological rigor as an essential skill.

And there is still a lot of work to do, starting from our field. To cite just some examples, as of today the general page of “Papyrology” is absent in Swedish and reduced to few sentences in English and Portuguese. There is no Spanish, Dutch or Russian entry for “Critical apparatus”. Important works of Cicero do not have a Wikipedia page. Despite the Palatine Anthology was discovered in Heidelberg, there is no German entry for it. Minor authors are often ignored, and a more gender-balanced view in terms of both entries and contributors is badly needed3. So, think about your areas of expertise and those you are passionate about, the topic of your research or the artist you have been obsessing about in the past few weeks4. And do not limit yourself to English: edit and create pages in your native tongue and in minority languages.

Why spend precious time editing Wikipedia? We will remain virtually anonymous and we won't receive any money. Certainly no academic committee will value those hours as much as a single publication for a scholarly journal. But I am convinced that it is worth it. In this way5, we will be able to reach the high school student struggling to grasp a linguistic concept, the retired worker curious about a reference to classical mythology heard on TV, your friend or colleague who won't admit it but just did a quick wiki search on the Late Antique author you are working on.

Most importantly, by giving something back to a tool that helped us in many circumstances of our life, we will contribute to common knowledge in a way that is truly accessible, democratic and universal6. As Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk beautifully put it,

“As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project. It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads, like Athena out of Zeus’s. People bring to Wikipedia everything they know. If the project succeeds, then this encyclopaedia undergoing perpetual renewal will be the greatest wonder of the world. It has everything we know in it — every thing, definition, event, and problem our brains have worked on; we shall cite sources, provide links. And so we will start to stitch together our version of the world, be able to bundle up the globe in our own story. It will hold everything. Let’s get to work! Let everyone write even just a sentence on whatever it is they know best.” 7

To the people who are already helping: thank you, and keep up the good work. To those who have still to start: Athena is waiting to get out of your head!

Eleonora Cattafi
PhD Candidate in Linguistics at Ghent University & FWO Doctoral Fellow


1 - academic.oup.com/gigascience/article/8/12/giz139/5651107
2 - hblog.org/2018/02/07/wikipedias-relationship-to-academia-and-academics
3 - www.theguardian.com/careers/2019/nov/28/making-the-edit-why-we-needmore-women-in-wikipedia
4 - wikimediafoundation.org/news/2018/11/13/five-ways-academics-can-contribute-to-wikipedia
5 - diff.wikimedia.org/2018/03/15/why-the-world-reads-wikipedia
6 - time.com/5930061/wikipedia-birthday
7 - Olga Tokarczuk. Flights. 2017.

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