ModernityBlog

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Edwin On Wiki.

with 4 comments

I am indebted to Adam Holland for pointing me towards Edwin Black’s essay on Wikipedia:

“By way of background, Wikipedia’s 2.3 million-plus unvetted entries are contributed by anonymous users known only by colorful and sometimes bizarre and shadowy pseudonyms, often in a sort of “anything goes” perpetual intellectual wrestling match. In the 2008–2009 period, an estimated 132 million edits were logged and viewed by 342 million unique visitors worldwide. A pillar of Wikipedia doublespeak establishes this rule: “Wikipedia has no firm rules.” But actually, there are rules—and many of them. Original research is forbidden. For example, the world’s leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, sea turtles or methanol could not contribute their knowledge based on their peer-reviewed findings. But anyone with an ax to grind on either topic could.”

Update 1: Thanks to Bob for pointing out this book review from LRB (not my favourite publication!):

“Part of the reason the astonishing growth of Wikipedia took even its founders by surprise was that this wasn’t their first attempt to set up an online encyclopedia. Wikipedia was an offshoot of something called Nupedia, which Wales had established in 2000 with the aim of using online volunteers to produce a new work of reference that would be free to use. The mistake Wales and his Nupedia collaborators made was to assume that any encyclopedia has to go through a formal editing process if it’s going to be reliable. Editors were appointed whose job was to decide on appropriate topics, open them up to online editing and then approve final versions once an agreed standard had been met. The editing process had seven stages from ‘assignment’ to ‘mark-up’, and was a slow, frustrating and ultimately fruitless business. By the end of the first year about two dozen articles had been completed, while the drafts of a few hundred more were still being fretted over. It looked like the vast additional resources and manpower that the internet had made available for checking reference books was going to overwhelm the capacities of anyone trying to process the information.

Hence the Wikipedia solution, stumbled on more by chance than by design: don’t try to process the information. It is generally assumed that what is distinctive about Wikipedia is that it is open to anyone to contribute, but that was true of Nupedia too. Wikipedia is different in that it doesn’t try to frame the creation of new entries with commissioned beginnings and fixed endpoints. It is open to anyone to initiate an entry on Wikipedia, and no entry is ever formally closed, since it is also open to anyone to keep editing and altering whatever is already there. Wikipedia still uses a large volunteer army of editors and ‘janitors’ to oversee the whole process, looking out for flagrant abuses and sounding the alarm when disputes get out of hand. But it is not the job of any editor to decide what counts as an entry. If there is any doubt about whether something is too trivial to take up space even in so limitless a space as Wikipedia it is put to the vote of others users (and any vote can always be overturned by another vote further down the line); otherwise, if you don’t like an entry it is up to you to change it. The editors are there to try to ensure this is done in as non-abusive a way as possible. But it is not up to anyone to call time on anything.”

Written by modernityblog

15/04/2010 at 14:10

4 Responses

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  1. I always assumed that prohibition against original research was simply meant to stop individuals airing completely new theories on wikipedia, not to stop people communicating the results of peer reviewed, published research – whether those people happened to have done the research themselves or not.

    Sarah AB

    16/04/2010 at 09:47

  2. I am not sure.

    modernityblog

    16/04/2010 at 10:18

  3. The prohbition is for the former reason. It does not stop Wikipedia being used to do the latter, as original published research is the best thing to cite. The prohibition is against wikipedia editors doing research and writing it up in wikipedia. It’s a good rule.

    I’m short for time now, but have more to say. I recommend an article about a year ago in the London Review of Books on Wikipedia, can’t remember the author – will dig it out.

    BobFromBrockley

    16/04/2010 at 13:42

  4. ahh,

    Bob, I have updated with what I think is the article/book review that you’re talking about? Is that right?

    modernityblog

    16/04/2010 at 13:50


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