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You Know the Moon is in the Seventh House…

When Michael Gorman and I are in agreement, as we are today with his comments to Good Morning Silicon Valley. I could sigh that Gorman has now become the poster child for reactive statements, but on Wikipedia, I don’t think he’s wrong. Call me a fusty old Pleistocene fuddy-duddy with sleeve garters and a bustle–and you will–but I agree with this statement from Gorman: “If you look at the Encyclopedia Britannica, you can be fairly sure that somebody writing an article is an acknowledged expert in that field, and you can take his or her words as being at least a scholarly point of view.” The Brittanica isn’t immune from error, but an “encyclopedia” anyone can edit doesn’t stir trust in my heart. The “reforms” proposed by Wikipedia–requiring registration before adding articles–are rather thin, given that any anonymous person can edit the articles.

Before you conclude that Jupiter has aligned with Mars, let me hasten to add that Gorman is incorrect in criticizing the “online” format of the encyclopedia. Brittanica is online, as well, and it’s more accurate for it: the encyclopedia can absorb updates and corrections on a far more timely schedule than the print encyclopedia.

Why not let a thousand flowers bloom? What harm does it cause? First, arguing the merits of a user-contributed encyclopedia dumbs down the discourse about evaluating information on the Web. Second, the direction of the Web is that free is better than accurate. This is not a good direction, should you happen to believe that factually sound information is important.

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  1. My problem with the recent uproar over the wikipedia is that everyone seems to assume that the fact that “you can be fairly sure that somebody writing an article is an acknowledged expert in that field” is somehow comforting.

    It’s not, as far as I’m concerned.

    I again point to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Alan Sokel/Social Text incident…heck, more recently even the Brad Vice plagiarism incident as proof that just because someone is an authority, doesn’t mean we should accept their statements. The best proof against falsehood is _research_, and lots of it. Verification should be the skill we’re teaching out in library land…multiple sources = better research.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2005 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  2. Joe Schallan wrote:

    But verification through in-depth research is precisely what Wikipedia cannot guarantee has been performed. An entry may or may not be in the hands of a careful researcher. Since Wikipedia’s contributors are self-appointed and sometimes anonymous, there is no authority and little accountability, and certainly no easy way to determine the quality of the research if you are not already thoroughly acquainted with the topic.

    As someone who has contributed several Wikipedia entries, I can attest to how difficult it is to do a proper job. Since Wikipedia encourages “jumping in,” how can it guarantee any level of quality?

    A moderated Wikipedia — a Wikipedia with greater editorial oversight — would be a more accurate and trustworthy online resource.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2005 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  3. GenY Librarian wrote:

    I wonder if this boils down to the question:
    “Are people inherently good?”

    Perhaps an individual’s view on Wikipedia directly corresponds with that answer.

    *thinking out loud*

    Wednesday, December 14, 2005 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Couldn’t that be expanded beyond the realm of good and evil to that of skill and competence, e.g. “Are people inherently skilled at research questions?” “Does edit access inherently equal good judgment?” (Remember the episode of Friends where Elaine thought she could dance?)

    Wednesday, December 14, 2005 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  5. I’m not suggesting that the writers of the Wikipedia verify…I’m suggesting that the readers of the wikipedia verify.

    We’ve all seen the new article from Nature by now. Why aren’t we up in arms suggesting that Britannica should be questioned? That’s my point. All writing is suspect, and the researcher should verify their positions via multiple sources rather than allow one source to be the end of their inquiry.

    Thursday, December 15, 2005 at 7:27 am | Permalink
  6. You may already have seen the interesting article in Nature which runs EB and W through some evaluation. W does not do at all badly.

    Thursday, December 15, 2005 at 7:30 am | Permalink
  7. I have seen it, ad infinitum. I would expect the Big W to do well on science and technology. Gretel Ehrlich, women in the military, etc… not so well.

    Thursday, December 15, 2005 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  8. Lesli wrote:

    There is an excellent entry at Many-2-Many that defends Wikipedia as a good source of beginning research.

    Saturday, December 17, 2005 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

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