When a social network writes science history: How
Wikipedia frames innovation processes

Arno Simonsa,b, Marion Schmidta, Wolfgang Kircheisc, Martin Potthastc, Benno Steind

a German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), Berlin
b Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
c Leipzig University
d Bauhaus-Universität Weimar

Socio-technical innovations are networked processes in which reflexivity plays a crucial role. The way in which actors link up in these processes depends on how these actors interpret the course of events. One aspect of this is how they interpret their common past, i.e. the events that they believe have led to the status quo. Borrowing a concept from Science and technology Studies (STS), we call the practices of drafting and circulating the past ‘retrospective accounting’. During innovation processes, retrospective accounts are produced all the time, often by the innovation actors themselves, but in particular by journalists, or later in the process by historians. Retrospective accounts interact with one another by means of repetition, contradiction, and modification, and they can form competing narratives about why things are as they are, giving rise to, for example, priority disputes and patent battles.

In this paper we present ongoing work on Wikipedia as a new site for the collective production and circulation of retrospective accounts: As the world’s leading online encyclopedia, Wikipedia plays an increasingly important role in producing public knowledge on virtually any topic, including innovation processes and their trajectories. Wikipedia operates on a model of commons-based peer-production that is intrinsically ‘networked’. Thousands of anonymous editors collaboratively copy-edit existing and write new Wikipedia articles every day, undergoing multiple decentralized negotiation processes, which STS has already begun to acknowledge and to investigate. Combining text and data mining, bibliometrics, and qualitative discourse analysis, we are studying the ‘making’ of current science history in Wikipedia in the biomedical domain. We focus on controversies between editors and their use of academic literature to support or undermine priority claims relating to past and current innovation processes. One
finding is that some editors are themselves involved in the innovation processes whose histories they co-edit. Our analysis reveals the networked character of science history on Wikipedia in terms of both social and textual linkages, and it showcases how distant and close reading techniques can be combined to study socio-technical controversies and innovation processes in an increasingly digitalized and thus networked world.