Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wikipedia - Why Not?

I presented the following chart - which I constructed from David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous - in a discussion about the institutional respectability (or lack of) for Wikipedia. It compares the online (copy-left) encyclopedia with Britannica, symbol of academic kosher-ness.
For those of us unwilling to include citations or references from Wikipedia or grant it 'academic' status, we should at least ask ourselves:
  • What's wrong with Wikipedia being authored by anonymous folks? Why can't we let the knowledge stand on its own?

  • Why don't we give more credit to Wikipedia for at least being forthright about possible non-neutrality of articles? How many citable books do NOT include this (yet expect us to take 'their side' of the debate?)

  • Why don't we credit Wikipedia for providing a discussion area where the issues can be thrashed out? And isn't the on-going, non-definitive (emergent?) nature of the articles a plus? Aren't these (again) yet another improvement over the standard 'acceptable' texts which are (wrongly) 'definitive' and can only point to more references (if at all) for the historical discussion?

  • Why don't we commend the collaborative nature of the articles in Wikipedia? Why are we more impressed with articles which were written by just ONE person?

Finally, on a practical note, when mistakes are made, they are almost instantaneously corrected in Wikipedia - can't say the same for the rest. So, what's "academically inappropriate" about Wikipedia again?


Sensei Michael said...

There are two major reasons, Alwyn, why citations cannot be made from Wikipedia.

1. Citations cannot change. If I make an argument and cite an article to make my point, and reader of my argument cannot go to the citation and discover the citation has changed. My argument would have gone moot because of this.

If my argument is no longer tenable because the article of the citation is no longer current, then I must be able to cite an article that mentions this. Without a permanence, one simply cannot cite!

2. Why should an anonymous article be considered of scientific and academic use? I am really curious about this one. Any ideas should be identifiable, even if it's identified as being "the Greeks discovered...". I cannot imagine mentioning 100 years later "an anonymous internet poster mentioned...".

Some food for thought! :)

alwyn said...

Hi Michael, thanks for the comments. Certainly permanence and 'identifiability' are important - or at least *were* important at one time.

But - and this is the very point of the post - could we consider the possibility that these two 'pillars' may go through some modification over time?

1. Regarding citations, the 'easy' answer is that Wikipedia keeps track of the changes to a document. So an interested researcher could actually 'follow the bread crumbs' to see how the article has changed since the initial reference.

Still, even if not, you'd only be begging the question as to the value of permanence in our knowledge-items. So the entry has been changed 10,000 times since it was cited - great! Doesn't that show that knowledge has progressed, too bad for permanence and thank you very much for pointing me to the present state of the Wiki-entry.

2. You beg the question of the identifiability of ideas. So I don't know who wrote that X can be used to Y - *SO WHAT*?! Yes, so all we can say is that 'an anonymous person said XYZ' - let's focus on the value of the idea and quit asking who said it. This is worth (re)-thinking especially in a world where anonymity is an inevitability. Like it or not, we'll have to deal with it, so all the more why we should question the point of putting a name to an idea.

After all, doesn't a rose by any other name smell as sweet? ;>)

Keep 'em coming,

Sensei Michael said...

Permanence is actually the more important of the two, Alwyn. There is a reason, for instance, why we have to cite the date of viewing when it comes to web references (because they are so easily changeable). It will take even longer for the academic community to accept Wikipedia, which is even more changeable compared to a more static website.

Unless "internet poster" can be as important a culture as "the Greeks", it is difficult to attach any significant amount of weight to that idea, seriously speaking. Until the day the world changes, such that they can consider the words of a random hobo more important than that of the President of the United States, the ability to identify the originator of the idea will always be as important as the power behind the idea. Such is human nature.

Another point to take note regarding anonymity - what is there to stop the researcher (the citer himself) from using an anonymous account to change Wikipedia and cite it for *that* instance? Yes, there would be reversals from the Wikipedia Community, but by then the paper would have gone through, especially if the point of research is quite obscure.

It would be great, though somewhat utopian, if what you mentioned can come true. That academia can learn to accept that citations can change over time. That people can attach similar importance to the words of a random stranger than they would someone whom they trust. I can see the former coming true (because *we* will be the next generation of academia!), but not the latter, unfortunately.

Alwyn said...

Don't look now, Michael, but (on the issue of anonymity) WE are 'random strangers' and yet we can both have a civilised discussion, can't we? i.e. I really don't need to your full background (I only know 'Sensei Michael') yet I've found your comments helpful and I hope you found mine helpful too (regardless of whether you did a background check on me).

Thus, I'd be a lot more optimistic about the future.

Sensei Michael said...

We are able to discuss now for two reasons.

1. We are *not* academia, publishing a research paper.
2. We belong to the generation which can accept strangers and friendship over the internet.

If we are going to have to defend a thesis, for instance, our citation will totally collapse if it can be edited by Mr Anonymous a second later. And the generation before ours look at friendship a whole lot differently from us.

Like you, though, I look forward to that day when the word of the random hobo is given the same weight as His Excellency the President. I am not as optimistic as you are though - man is inherently biased.

Alwyn said...

A quick one rgding yr phrase: "If we are going to have to defend a thesis, for instance, our citation will totally collapse if it can be edited by Mr Anonymous a second later."

Again, for Wiki, no. Because 1) our citation would include the *date accessed* and 2) Wiki keeps tracks of the discussion.

So, whilst the original phrase/comment MAY be deleted, I'm not sure it's right to say the citaton would 'totally collapse'. Academia simple have to get used to the fact of constantly revised and revisable knowledge.

Your point about us being from different generations underscores the purpose of the article: To educate one generation on the norms of a future one (smile).

Sensei Michael said...

Heh, you have a point there - yeah, it is not likely to "totally collapse". I was perhaps too extreme in that view.

I think it'd take a long time for conservative academia to reach that stage of utopia though. But who knows if one day Prof Alwyn Lau or Prof Michael Chan may take up the gauntlet of change!

Alwyn said...

oh, so it's you, Michael! gosh I'm pretty slow when it comes to aliases and pseudonyms (grin).

thanks for visiting...yeah, it'll be exciting to see how it goes in the (near) future.

Anonymous said...

I think you should spend some time studying in a research dept. at a top 100 university. You will soon realise the painstaking research processes which go into the journals and articles which are subsequentially cited. These articles generally do not change from one day to another, they are not listed as "needs improvement". etc.

Academic research is in a totally different league to wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

What is it about Wikipedia? It didn't exist in 2001. Not so long ago, it was just an obscure website full of biographies of sports figures and esoteric details about TV shows such as Star Trek.

But now it is big business. Wikipedia has unexpectedly become the most dominant "scholarly" source on the web. Now its aim is no less than "to become a complete record of human knowledge".

It is regularly in the top ten of sites visited. No matter what inquiry you put into Google, by curious alchemy up pops a Wikipedia page to answer it. This in large part explains why last year the online "encyclopaedia" was consulted 700 million times.

If it once was easy to dismiss, it isn't any more. Journalists doing research turn to Wikipedia. Students write essays based on its entries. Professors grab lecture notes from it.

But it's still a funny mix. Of the two and a half million articles in English, nearly half are in the "entertainment category", with science and the arts a miserly 6 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. But, significantly, the category "politics and history" is the second most popular (15 per cent).

According to a study by Anselm Spoerri, an academic at Rutgers University, statistics suggest that readers favour a diet of the Wikipedia introductory pages followed by entries for "the United States", "World War Two", "sex", "Naruto", "list of sex positions" and "PlayStation 3". You won't get all those in your dusty Britannica, and you might not want to. But now what you want is not important. Wikipedia's version of reality has already become a monopoly. And all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators are imposed too.

To control the reference sources that people use is to control the way people comprehend the world. Wikipedia may have a benign, even trivial face, but underneath may lie a more sinister and subtle threat to freedom of thought.

Thus on Wikipedia we must learn that Mao's political philosophy is essentially the use of violence to suppress dissent, that Socrates was "Plato's teacher" who left behind "not very many" writings, and that Hitler greatly admired Russian Communism, saying: "The whole of National Socialism is based on it."

Wikipedia itself began as "Nupedia" in 2000 as a conventional encyclopaedia to be written and peer-reviewed by "experts".

But experts take an awfully long time to produce very little. Hence Wikipedia, an offshoot in which articles could be written by anyone. That certainly got the numbers up, but did it risk losing reference value? Would knowledge emerge from "the wisdom of the crowds", as the "wiki" model assures us, or does it necessarily have to be painstakingly gathered by a scholarly elite?

Wikipedia itself gives a clue. Articles considered approved for being accurate, neutral, complete and stylish are given a bronze (although it looks like a gold) star.

Of the 2,453,541 pages in English to date, some 2,130 articles have earned a bronze star - apparently cause to congratulate the monkeys at their virtual typewriters! On the other hand, 99.9 per cent of articles failed to make the grade. Evidently they're inaccurate, unstylish, biased and a mishmash.

So why should we want to read them? It is because what matters on Wikipedia is not your sources but the "support of the community". The Wikipedia community that is, within which there is much talk about consensus, civility and reliable sources. Yet on closer examination, Wikipedians seem an unappealing bunch - computer fanatics, generally male, usually teenagers. They see the world only from a youthful cab driver's perspective. If anyone disagrees with the Wikipedian consensus, their edits are "reverted" and they can be banned - "indefinitely".

And now it is these "editors" who are regularly trumping the fuddy-duddy professors in their ivory towers, plodding patiently through dusty books to produce yet more ... dusty books. Books! Because, on Wikipedia, knowledge is tracked instantly via Google searches, online newspapers and other internet encyclopaedias, not so much by consulting primary sources as "tertiary sources" - other internet sites.

But since it is free and has vastly more topics, Wikipedia tends to steamroller other conventional encyclopaedias into the ground. Britannica hoped to charge for access to its pages and soon had to abandon that idea.

Even the popular French encyclopaedia Larousse, for which every topic has to be rewritten to feature the pre-eminence of French thinkers, is attempting to supplement its old, staid pages with new ones submitted by users. As Mr Spock might say, at least on Wikipedia: "It's knowledge, Jim. But not as we know it ... ".

Alwyn said...

"Academic research is in a totally different league to wikipedia."

Notice how you're assuming that all or most knowledge on Wikipedia is devoid of research or the kind of research done in top 100 universities. You're also implying that Wiki can't ever help those researchers (since they're not in the same league, right?) or that the research cannot 'find its way' into Wiki.

You're also assuming that 'pain-staking' work is a domain exclusive to the Top 100 (and at least that Wiki articles do not have this at *all*).

In a word, unfortunately, you seem to be making pretty strong assumptions of Wiki and/or that there's no way they can emulate the best qualities of academia. You seemed to have ignored how Wiki is 'better than' academia in some areas, which was the whole point of the blog post.

Finally, you've also assumed that knowledge which does not 'need improvement' is an absolutely good thing. Ok, this is a philosophical issue, though I think it'll help to state that Wiki-fans (and certain post-modern critical theorists) wouldn't be as impressed with this 'kind' of knowledge as it, really, assumes too much about what can be known. But I won't hold that against you (smile).

Is it possible to have a world where both Top 100 Uni research and Wiki knowledge is accepted/respected and used? My thoughts are: Why don't we at least try?

Alwyn said...

"It is because what matters on Wikipedia is not your sources but the "support of the community""

I like this and is essentially sums up the 'social nature of knowledge' emerging today.

~Paula Wong~ said...

Not many notice this especially people of older age... true we cannot(or are not advised) to use wikipedia as a citation but you have to admit that there had to be ONCE in your lifetime no matter what your arguments may be that you used wikipedia as extra reading material or to guide you directly or indirectly in your course of work/study or knowledge.

Wikipedia is not all bad. It's not that far off from scholarly/academic research. It is a good base to learn more and to learn fundamental theories but further research under your own efforts through books helps you to decide if it is relevant or otherwise. NO one is forcing you to believe or follow blindly what wikipedia states.

Change in information is inevitable. Futher research into a topic can reveal more things or different outcomes. Take for example the theory of gravity. Everyone at 1st thought that the heavier item would drop 1st but later on it was discovered that it falls the same time. Different is it not?^^

So take a chill pill, Alwyn is right, "Wikipedia-Why not"?^^