Wilson on Wikipedia

Geologist Mark Wilson has an interesting opinion piece at Inside Higher Ed,Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia.” While it was published on April Fool’s Day, one can take it in full seriousness. I don’t agree with it fully, but I believe the points it raises are well worth discussing. Here’s the nub of his argument:

What Wikipedia too often lacks is academic authority, or at least the perception of it. Most of its thousands of editors are anonymous, sometimes known only by an IP address or a cryptic username. Every article has a “talk” page for discussions of content, bias, and organization. “Revert” wars can rage out of control as one faction battles another over a few words in an article. Sometimes administrators have to step in and lock a page down until tempers cool and the main protagonists lose interest. The very anonymity of the editors is often the source of the problem: how do we know who has an authoritative grasp of the topic?

That is what academics do best. We can quickly sort out scholarly authority into complex hierarchies with a quick glance at a vita and a sniff at a publication list. We make many mistakes doing this, of course, but at least our debates are supported with citations and a modicum of civility because we are identifiable and we have our reputations to maintain and friends to keep. Maybe this academic culture can be added to the Wild West of Wikipedia to make it more useful for everyone?

And here’s his proposal for action:

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful. We can add new articles on topics which should be covered, and argue that others should be removed or combined. This is not to displace anonymous editors, many of whom possess vast amounts of valuable information and innovative ideas, but to add our authority and hard-won knowledge to this growing universal library.

An old saying has it that of all kinds of politics, academic is the nastiest, because the stakes are the lowest. One might fret that legions of quarrelsome professors would trample all over the pages pertaining to the controversies in their own specialized fields, bringing all the fury of the Dawkins/Gould or Fodor/Dennett deathmatches to the world of Wikipedia. However, I know of no evidence suggesting that these arguments would really be any more vituperative than the ones which already occur. Furthermore, Wikipedians with advanced degrees already exist; Wilson’s proposal would only bring in a larger number of them, perhaps with a shared ethos or sense of common purpose.

Wilson lists the following positive outcomes which he believes could result:

The advantages should be obvious. First, it is another outlet for our scholarship, one that may be more likely to be read than many of our journals. Second, we are directly serving our students by improving the source they go to first for information. Third, by identifying ourselves, we can connect with other scholars and interested parties who stumble across our edits and new articles. Everyone wins.

Wikipedia’s “No Original Research” policy makes the first point a subtle one. Essentially, you can’t write about something unless an external source has written about it first, and you can’t synthesize multiple sources in a way which they haven’t been synthesized before, either. This is naturally appropriate for an encyclopedia; if it’s not what you want to do, then go somewhere else (like I did).

Recently, there was a bit of a fuss over some physicists who wanted to reuse material (graphs and the like) from their journal articles in venues like Wikipedia, even though the licensing policies of the journals forbade it. As long as the physicists’ work had already passed through the peer-review process, this would stay within the letter of the NOR policy, and based on my personal experience with Wikipedian physicists, if the people reusing their own content openly declared their identities, I don’t think there’d be much fuss over the policy’s spirit, either. Wilson’s proposal raises a similar question, which is why I’m glad he emphasizes that academics should become “identifiable editors.” (Privacy can be the enemy of accountability. Rather than expounding at length upon a complex and touchy subject, I’ll just pause to note that the single most unpleasant confrontation I witnessed during two years of active Wikipedia work could have been defused before it began, had the true names of the participants been known.)

Wilson’s second point has something of the Teddy Roosevelt about it: do what you can with what you’ve got, and all that. His third point is also interesting; even an encyclopedia project which aims to create a static text is a social process.

One point which Wilson does not address also deserves a few words. In my experience, it is much harder to find coherent and reliable expositions of basic scientific topics than should be necessary. To borrow the phrasing of the magician Andrew Mayne,

People only know what they can understand. There’s a lot of great information out there, but not enough is being doing to make it widely accessible to the masses. Most science entries in Wikipedia read like they’re written by graduate students for other graduate students. Even the basic science stuff is written that way.

We need to put ourselves into the perspective of someone who hasn’t had the science exposure that we’ve had and find ways to help make this information more accessible.

People who have experience organizing freshman courses and teaching to different levels of sophistication might be able to resolve this problem. I don’t know for sure, but it’d be worth a shot.

Now, for my complaints:

Wilson writes of Wikipedia, “The vision of its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, has become reality,” but as far as I understand the history, Wales and Sanger had no vision. Back in 2001, they were trying to find ways to make a free encyclopedia called “Nupedia” get off the ground, and Sanger suggested that a wiki could be a good way to gather content:

It’s an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not. […] As to Nupedia’s use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE “open” and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk. They’re also a potentially great source for content. So there’s little downside, as far as I can see. We can make wiki versions of all new Nupedia articles, too, and that can be a place where additional changes and commentary can be gleaned (authors could ignore what goes on on the wiki, of course — it’s up to them). The content can be licensed under an open content license.

Nobody in 2001 imagined the Wikipedia of 2008, or if they did, they kept it to themselves.

Wilson also fails to mention Citizendium, the knowledge-base project currently being championed by Sanger. For the past several years, Sanger has been saying that the role of experts within the Wikipedia editing community has to be revised, and accordingly, Citizendium places a much greater value on training and qualifications. I like the idea, I gotta admit, although it doesn’t seem to be taking off with any great speed, and for all practical purposes, it’s Google-invisible. I suspect that trying to build a general encyclopedia from scratch using volunteer effort — whatever the credentials of the volunteers — will be a thankless and arduous task. Perhaps the wikis which trump Wikipedia in reliability and scholarly utility will be subject-specific ones.

Whether a credentialed expert in some academic field prefers Citizendium or Wikipedia probably comes down to personal taste, as much as anything. Wilson should have raised the option, but hey, maybe he had a length limit I don’t know about.

POSTSCRIPT: I have complaints about Wikipedia which aren’t exactly covered by Larry Sanger’s gripes, but they didn’t quite fit into the flow of this post. Maybe I’ll think of the right way to express them some other time.

4 thoughts on “Wilson on Wikipedia”

  1. I think there’s a case for “over-encylopediazing” information. I used to be more critical of Wikipedia, but then found the sources on the bottom of the page to be quite useful. If I were a teacher I wouldn’t accept Wikipedia as a source, but its sources, yes. I see Wikipedia as an overview of a subject and if you want to dig deeper there’s little difficulty finding “expert” information online, so Citizendium seems pointless to me. Most experts have a website or their papers are in arXiv or similar. Google has replaced the card-catalogues and microfilms of yore: LexisNexis now has pay-per-view access and search engines are better. I have yet to find any problem in getting expert information, especially regarding science.

    One encyclopedia I’m looking forward to is E.O. Wilson’s idea of the Encyclopedia of Life, though I’d like it right now and it won’t appear for another decade or so.

    I gather those two odd-looking French brothers still bug you, if that’s what you’re referring to.

  2. Actually, I only chanced upon the Bogdanov Affair after it had largely been settled, and the Arbitration Committee had decided to ban all “external participants in the affair” from editing the article. My involvement in that story was limited to cleaning up the article and making it a well-referenced essay (on occasion, I had to help revert sockpuppetry, but that was a fairly low-key task). The nasty incident I was thinking of when I wrote this post involved this guy; again, I watched from the sidelines, but I got to see it in real time.

  3. I waded once into Wikipedia after a student in my class brought to my attention some stupidity in an entry on consciousness. I made some corrections of the most egregious errors, but the fool author just reverted the article claiming that I’d failed to understand his point. I spent too much time in comments explaining in detail how he was mistaken, how the text didn’t support his account, etc. etc. A well-known expert in the field (cited in the article) even weighed in to try to get the guy to back down. All to no avail. He just moved to some other texts to support his confused readings and made some minor changes that left the fundamental flaws there. I don’t have time to fight the sort of battle that would be required to actually get the article fixed up, so I just walked away.

    I think the Wikipedia is great overall, but one needs to be cautious. It’s good for some things not for others. (I should get back to work; I’m supposed to be writing an entry for a moderated peer-reviewed encyclopedia — and it was due a couple days ago . . .)

  4. I recognize the Langan name, though math crackpottery is not something I pay much attention to. Per WKP he said, “you can prove the existence of God, the soul and an afterlife, using mathematics.” And he’s dubbed “the smartest man in America”? God closes the loop of universal creation! (God is a goalpost.)

    The one and only time I corrected something on Wikipedia was for a mere spelling error and some weird syntax (I’m better at seeing others’ mistakes). Within a few minutes the author reverted it and sounded annoyed thinking it was a bot, but then about an hour and half later came back and corrected the misspelling and changed the syntax in some way. I thought, why didn’t he pull up a dictionary before reverting it? It took him an hour or so to realize he was incorrect?

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