I went to the the Schol Comm Working Group‘s brownbag yesterday, where Justin Watt, Jim Ovitt, & Mark Simpson-Vos gave a talk about Wikipedia.

First of all, they did a great job: Justin did a terrific job of explaining wikis for those in the room who didn’t know how they worked, while managing to still interest those of us who did. Jim introduced the issue of authority & made some entertaining comparisons with the Davis reference section, complete with photos. Mark presented the university press’ point of view, which is always interesting in these discussions, as university presses, for reasons I can’t fully explain, have not tended to be early adopters of new tech.

Authority was of course the big issue of the day, hence the name of the presentation (also the name of this post). This of course has been my bone to pick with Wikipedia all along: without authoritativeness there’s no way to insure accuracy, and without accuracy you’re writing fiction.

Of course, even with authoritativeness there’s no way to insure accuracy; witness this article from Nature Magazine. It took them a whole month to issue a correction, and nearly another year and a half to issue a retraction. Justin mentioned a that study showed that graffiti in Wikipedia entries is corrected within seconds. (Anyone have a citation for this?) That’s more than just a difference in degree, that’s a difference of dozens or thousands of readers.

Anyway, my thinking changed on this whole authority issue when Jim asked if the academics in the room would want their writing edited by others. My response was that my writing is edited by my peers all the time. Indeed, the whole premise of the peer review process is that community effort improves individual work. Wikipedia of course isn’t trying to replicate the peer review process, but it’s the same premise: community effort > individual work. I then went on to argue that we need to get away from the notion that single-source authority is good. There is no such thing: I’m the author of record on my work, and therefore ultimately responsible for it’s content, but fundamentally it’s a group effort between me, my colleagues and students, and the journal’s reviewers & editors. A community creates better work than an individual, the fiction of the mad scientist in the basement lab toiling away in obscurity & ultimately winning the Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Just ask the open source community.

Stephanie recently gave me The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax to read, a collection of essays on linguistics. In one of the essays Pullum writes about the trend (in the 1980s) of linguists to write too much about the philosophy of science as it applies to linguistics, & to not write enough about, well, actual linguistics. In it is this really superb passage:

If one found one’s Toyota repair mechanic writing analyses of Toyota repair argumentation instead of fixing the damn carburetor trouble, one would naturally and rightly get quite annoyed. And in the actual car repair world this does not happen. But trying to keep linguists from philosophizing inexpertly about their craft when they ought to be practicing it is like trying to keep a dog from barking at the mailman.

There has been quite enough pissing and moaning about Wikipedia & whether or not it’s worth using as a reference source. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, probably more than most. Well, that must stop, and here’s why:

  • Fact: Wikipedia exists & there’s no reason to think it’s going to cease to exist any time soon.
  • Fact: Because it exists, naïve users are going to use Wikipedia, and without bringing to bear our vast experience in evaluating the quality and reliability of information sources.
  • Fact: We’re the ones with vast experience in evaluating the quality and reliability of information sources.
  • Conclusion: It’s our professional responsibility to make Wikipedia a reliable information source.

We’ve done quite enough hand-wringing about why Wikipedia is an unreliable information source; we need to insure that it & other projects like it are reliable. Indeed, not just librarians, but experts in all fields need to contribute their expertise to open projects. I’m thinking specifically of McHenry’s article on Wikipedia. McHenry is the Former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica, for heavens sake. If he doesn’t know a thing or two about how to make an encyclopedia reliable, then who the hell does? But instead of actually fixing the damn carburetor trouble, he writes analyses of Toyota repair argumentation. As, indeed, I am doing now.

My point is, as experts in subject areas & in information seeking, if we don’t pitch in to fix a known problem with an information source, then we have no leg to stand on when we kvetch about the huddled masses being ignorant of fill-in-the-blank topic. We have the forum to contribute to the education of the world, people, even if only in a small way. We didn’t start Wikipedia & so some might argue that it isn’t our problem. But it is our problem. Librarianship is education; let’s expand the scope of who we’re educating & how.

As soon as I’m done writing this, I’m going to create an account for myself on Wikipedia, & if I see a factual error I’ll correct it. If I think an entry is incomplete, I’ll add to it. And you should do the same.

Update: I’ve made my first edit to Wikipedia, to the entry on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, subsection on Linguistic determinism. Appropriately, my correction came from the Pullum book: this Wikipedia entry mentioned the idea that the Inuit have a vast number of words for snow. Pullum has an essay in his book (the title essay, even) that debunks this myth. I corrected some text in the Wikipedia entry & added a reference to Pullum’s essay.

Update 4/20: Alison, in her comment, points to the citation! Behold, the power of community.

Viégas, Wattenberg, & Dave. Studying cooperation and conflict between authors with history flow visualizations. From the 2004 CHI Conference.

The relevant finding to Justin’s point:

…half of mass deletions are modified within 3 minutes, and half of vulgar mass deletions are modified within 2 minutes. (p. 579)