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:
- Cite a source that has made the assertion and, if necessary, affirm the credibility of the source.
- 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.