Friday, December 7, 2007

Has Jimmy Wales Discovered the Value of Editing?

According to a report by Alistair Coleman of BBC Monitoring, Jimmy Wales wants us to believe that Wikipedia has entered a brave new world in which there will no longer be questions about the authority of its content:

Speaking at the Online Information conference at London's Olympia, he dismissed the long-running controversy over the site's authority.

He said he now thinks that students should be able to cite the online encyclopaedia in their work.

Previously, Mr Wales believed that the website, which is edited by users, lacked the authority for academic work.

As long as an article included accurate citations, he said he had "no problem" with it being used as a reference for students, although academics would "probably be better off doing their own research".

"You can ban kids from listening to rock 'n' roll music, but they're going to anyway," he added. "It's the same with information, and it's a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia."

In 2005, at the height of the controversy over the site's accuracy, Mr Wales told the BBC that students who copied information from Wikipedia "deserved to get an F grade", and that the site should really be used as a "stepping stone" to more authoritative information.

New editing and checking procedures have made Wikipedia more trustworthy, said the Wikipedia founder.

This raises a variety of questions, the most important being, "When did these new procedures go into effect?" More specifically, did they go into effect after last August's efforts by the CIA to tamper with the entry for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Did they go into effect because those CIA efforts were revealed to the public through the news media? Just how effective have the procedures proven to be; and, for that matter, what are the procedures?

Coleman provides us a bit more information addressing that last question:

Since the controversy, in which it emerged that the "free editing" policy had allowed articles containing inaccuracies and bias to appear, the site has introduced a system of real-time peer review, in which volunteers check new and updated articles for accuracy and impartiality.

The way Coleman began that sentence should raise some eyebrows: It gives the impression that Coleman is willing to accept at face value Wales' assertions that the controversy has been laid to rest. Now readers of some of my recent music posts know that I tend to use Wikipedia more than I used to as a supplement to whatever material is provided in the program book of any concert I attend. I have acknowledged this, even to the point of admitting my own surprise in doing so. On the other hand, while the worlds of musicology and music theory are not without controversy (which can sometimes get quite heated), basic bread-and-butter items like the chronology of major works by a major composer tend to be relatively settled. Put another way, I have enough experience with the academic music literature to have a basic intuition that distinguishes between "raw data" and "interpreted data," as it were; and I know enough to steer clear of anything "interpreted" unless I have a good idea of who is doing the interpreting! Thus, while it is possible that one musicologist may "have it in for" another musicologist with that same level of emotional energy that at least one CIA agent had it in for the current government in Iran, I know enough to steer my own course away from such "minefields of content."

This then takes us to the more serious question in Wales' claims: Should students be allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source; and is it a "bad educator" that bans Wikipedia? First of all we should sweep away the inflammatory rhetoric, which is based on a specious premise. My guess is that this was a swipe at the history department of Middlebury College, which, as I reported back in February, had issued the following policy statement:

Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source.

This was clearly not a ban on Wikipedia but a perfectly reasonable statement of academic discipline. I suspect I would accuse anyone who tried to ban investigating any source, even one as blatantly reprehensible as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of being a "bad educator;" and there are definitely cases in which Wikipedia has addressed such troubled waters with what I found to be an acceptable level of objectivity and balance. On the other hand the Middlebury policy statement was actually a special case of a more general principle of academic discipline: Any assertion you read needs to be substantiated. There are two basic was to substantiate:

  1. Cite a source that has made the assertion and, if necessary, affirm the credibility of the source.
  2. Provide your own warranted argument on the basis of substantiated evidence that you have already stated in your text.

In other words it does not matter if you read the assertion in a Wikipedia entry or in The New York Times (to invoke a favorite sore-spot example): If you cannot substantiate it, you cannot claim it as evidence in any subsequent argument you wish to make. So much for Wales' rhetorical persiflage.

Should students be allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source? The answer to this question is that the "law of substantiation" still applies. The issue is not flat-out resolved by a voluntary peer-review process, no more than such a process provides the ultimate criterion for academic publication. There is still an editor (perhaps more than one), who sits between the author and the reviewers; and my real beef with Wales is that he has not yet grasped just what the editorial process is or why it is valuable in substantiating the reliability of content. To put this another way by parodying that motto that the National Rifle Association so loves, "Bad writers do not provide unreliable content; bad editors provide unreliable content!" Thus, whatever Wales may be claiming about how things have changed at Wikipedia and whatever rabble-rousing he may invoke with phrases like "bad educator," the Middlebury policy is a sound one. Not only does it not need to be reexamined, but also we would all benefit from generalizing it along the lines I have suggested here.


America Jones said...

I have mixed feelings about Wikipedia. I think people who criticize its accuracy relative to Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, are somewhat short-sighted: Britannica has been around a lot longer.

At the same time, Wikipedia is essentially predicated on a logical positivist program, and has many of the same shortcomings (which is not to imply it is without value).

A couple months ago I got into a dispute with another Wikipedian. I wanted to include in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's page a reference to his influence on the American Revolution. Despite producing numerous verifiable sources indicating that Rousseau was an influence on the thinking of the Revolutionists, this other Wikipedian (whose profile suggested s/he was an expert on Rousseau) kept reverting my changes, saying my additions were not true.

I pointed out to no avail that the criterion for inclusion in Wikipedia is not truth or falsity, but verifiability, and produced a citation from Encyclopedia Britannica that proved unsatisfactory.

Eventually I relented, once personally satisfied that, as an intellectual problem, the solution would be to assert that "many consider the ideas espoused by Rousseau foundational to the Constitutional Democracy established by the American Revolution" rather than to directly implicate Rousseau as an influence on the American Revolutionists.

Which highlights the point made by a friend of mine, mainly that Wikipedia, more than a research tool, is also a discursive tool. Unfortunately, it would seem, discourse analysis is not widely taught in the United States...

All of which left me with the interesting notion that we cannot know why something may not be part of recorded history. As Rousseau posed a challenge to the Monarchial rule of the Colonies, it would stand to reason that the Revolutionists would not have advertised the fact that they read his writings on the Crown's dime. The presence of his thinking in the foundational documents of the United States, however, seems clear.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I think your observation about logical positivism is a good one. If you follow the link I provided for the Middlebury College policy statement, you will see that the title of that post was "
Research is not about the Answers!
" It gave me the opportunity to pursue a topic that I had previously explored, addressing the "question
of whether or not tools such as Wikipedia and Google are eroding our skills for being critical readers." This then reflects on the problem of trying to fit any study of the social world onto the Procrustean bed of logical positivism.

Your point about discourse analysis certainly provides one way to get off that bed. Ironically, Wales once told an interviewer that the "real" content of Wikipedia resided in the discussions, rather than the articles; but that dog won't hunt. Unedited discussions can err on both extremes: There can be way too much (in which case you need an editor to distill the signal from the noise) or hardly any at all (which leaves the reader uncertain about the value of the article). Thus, Wales' comment provides further support for my claim that he has not "discovered the value of editing!"