Wikipedia again: an addressable knowledge base

Sometimes when you write something, related stuff just piles up. So I did a note on Wikipedia the other day.
Then I was looking at an announcement on the University of Edinburgh’s site about The British Academy Warton Lecture on Poetry, to be given this year on Yeats by his biographer Roy Foster. A distinguished event! I was interested looking to the bottom of the page to see links to the Wikipedia pages for both Yeats and Warton.
This seemed to me to show Wikipedia’s growing role as an addressable knowledge base. It makes further information about a topic available at the end of a URL. It relieves people of having to create their own context and background. As in this case, context, or condensed background, about Warton and Yeats is available for linking, relieving the developers of having to provide it themselves.
Condensed background is a phrase used by Timothy Burke, history professor at Swarthmore, and author of the Burn the catalog piece of some years back. I was rereading Burn the catalog earlier and was interested to come across his blog discussion of Wikipedia.

I’m using Wikipedia this semester where it seems appropriate: to provide quick, condensed background on a historical subject as preparation for a more general discussion. Next week, for example, the students are having a quick look at the Malthus entry as part of a broader discussion of critiques of progress in the Enlightenment. [Easily Distracted]

And he goes on to comment on the Middlebury decision which is discussed in my post of the other day.

Big deal. The folks at Middlebury are perfectly correct to say that students shouldn’t be using Wikipedia as an evidentiary source in research papers. That’s got nothing to do with Wikipedia’s “unreliability”, or the fact that it’s on the web, or anything else of that sort. It’s because you don’t cite an encyclopedia article as a source when you’re writing an undergraduate paper in a history course at a selective liberal-arts college. Any encyclopedia is just a starting place, a locator, a navigational beacon. I’d be just as distressed at reading a long research paper in my course that used the Encylopedia Britannica extensively. As a starting place, Wikipedia has an advantage over Brittanica, though: it covers more topics, is easier to access and use, and frankly often has a fairly good set of suggestions about where to look next. [Easily Distracted]

He uses Wikitedium in the title of the post, and I thought how apt an expression this was to characterize the periodic library discussions about Wikipedia which pitch authority against editorial permissiveness.
Wikipedia is a collection. Some entries are excellent, some less so. One cannot summarily judge its value in the way that one might have done when deciding whether or not to buy or recommend a reference book. Judgements about ‘authority’ and utility have to be made at the article level, and who has the time and expertise to flag individual articles in this way? Rather than continuing a tedious Wikipedia good/Wikipedia bad conversation, we should recognize the attraction it has as an addressable knowledge base, understand the variety of uses to which it is put, and remind folks of the judgments they need to make depending on those uses.
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10 thoughts on “Wikipedia again: an addressable knowledge base”

  1. You make a really good point about Wikipedia articles needing to be judged individually. I think there is a big role for libraries/librarians in the issue of “how does one evaluate the reliability or ‘authority’ of a particular Wikipedia article?”
    Experienced ‘wikipedians’ have certain techniques—for instance: The longer an article has been around; the _more_ discussion and debate on the Talk page (because that means people had to hash out a compromise); the more edits an article has had—all are some markers that some experienced wikipedia contributors and authors use to suggest article quality.
    There are probably others, including many as of yet undiscovered.
    Our professional and research (such as it is) community should be involved in explaining to our users how to judge wikipedia article quality (not just disuading them from using it or giving them a blanket ‘be cautious’ statement, but giving them specific tools and rubrics); in evaluating specific wikipedia articles for users, in giving them reccommendations; and in continued investigation in _how_ best to evaluate wikipedia articles, what rubrics are useful.
    It’s a part of the information landscape. Our job is to deal with it, and figure out what value we can add to it for our users, same as anything else. Not to simply try (futilely) to dissuade people from using it.

  2. I’m increasingly impressed by Wikipedia, and I think it represents something unprecedented, almost a socially-constructed organism. When Anna Nicole Smith’s death was reported yesterday, I went to the web for background and discovered that the Wikipedia article had already been updated with the information. (All the verbs had also been changed to the past tense.) What also struck me was that controversial statements in the article were identified as such and had discussions attached identifyingthe points of contention and related evidence. When I picked up my daughter from her after-school anime club, she mentioned that she had looked up some obscure anime-related topic in Wikipedia and got more than enough information. While I’ve come across numerous “stub” Wikipedia articles—usually on obscure topics—I have no doubt these will ultimately be filled in, as people with an interest in them begin contributing some time. The topics covered in Wikipedia, and the depth of coverage, seem to me to be an accurate reflection of the interests of the society at large in those topics, and when I think about it this seems inevitable. I’m becoming something of a Wikipedia addict, using it not just as a source of information but as an object of fascination, watching as it comes to grips with the problems posed by going where no encyclopedia has gone before. If I had to identify the major milestones in the history of the encyclopedia, I would select Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the Britannica (especially the 11th edition), and Wikipedia.

  3. At Oregon State, we send all of our beginning composition students to Wikipedia to explore their proposed topics before they start finding sources to use as “speakers” in their (argumentative) research papers. We do require them to find a page with an active discussion, so that they can evaluate the connection to what’s going on behind the scenes with what ends up on the main page. And we ask them to look at the activity on the history pages.

    One thing I have found really interesting when I read the students’ thoughts about Wikipedia and the information they find there is the extent to which their confidence in their articles IS tied to how much activity they see on the history pages. These observations are completely unscientific and anecdotal on my part, but I have been struck by how many of my students think that lots of activity on the history pages means that lots of people are looking at the page, and that the information on the page is more likely to be accurate and current . Even though my students are mostly novices when it comes to using Wikipedia (they’ve used it before, of course, but they usually are looking at the history and discussion pages for the first time in this assignment) it sounds like their gut reactions to what they see dovetail with some of the techniques Jonathan (above) describes experienced Wikipedians using to evaluate the quality of individual pages.

    Don’t get me wrong – a lot of the answers read as if the students are actively looking for reasons why Wikipedia is a good background source. They like using it, and they want to conclude that it’s okay to use it. But that’s why it is so interesting to me that when they DO express skepticism, it is usually because the history pages suggest to them that people aren’t looking at the page, or that they’re not making additions or corrections to the page. They could use that inactivity to conclude that a consensus had been reached on their topic if they really wanted to, but most of them don’t.

  4. I am often struck by the similarities between the remarkably friendly and useful Wikipedia and Douglas Adam’s _Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_. In an excessively idle moment I dug around in the Wikipedia and on the Web (citation below) and found the following excerpts from Adam’s books. They may assist our thinking, in their odd way, about the Wikipedia.
    “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passages that simply seemed to its editors like a good idea at the time.”
    “The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.”
    “The editor, like all the editors of the Guide has ever had, has no real grasp of the meanings of the words “scrupulous”, “conscientious” or “diligent”, and tends to get his nightmares through a straw.”
    “The history of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of idealism, struggle, despair, passion, success, failure, and enormously long lunchbreaks.”
    And my favorite:
    “I like the cover,” he said. “Don’t Panic. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”

  5. Your conclusions are stronger than your argument (which is rarely the case for you). You seem to be saying that Wikipedia is easy to use, therefore we should set aside questions about its authority.
    It may well be that there are good reasons to trust Wikipedia–your readers have raised some valid points. But you don’t quite get there. We clearly do not have the time to rate Wikipedia at the article level. But that is neither here nor there. What do our users need, beyond an addressable knowledge base (which describes a print encyclopedia in a time when people would consult such a thing)? That is the question.

  6. In spite of my advanced age I am becoming (as Ed Jones does) much more impressed by Wikipedia. Without going into specifics, it works. However it is new. And it is obviously disruptive – especially to our established academic traditions.
    What is interesting to me is how the “web” or the network sometimes enables a great idea or a framework to succeed and all the unintentional outcomes of this success.
    The Wikipedia is a great example of this…

  7. Karen
    I am not offering a view about whether Wikipedia should be used or not: I am observing that it is used and used in many contexts which suggest that serious folks value it. I suggest that a part of that value is that it is an addressable knowledgebase which can be used in the way that Timothy Burke and the University of Edinburgh use it. This value is more than ease of use: it makes context readily available.
    I deliberately avoided making any assertions about its ‘authority’, except to note that the quality of articles is variable.
    As I say in the post I think that the terms in which much of the library discussion about Wikipedia take place don’t help much. We need to understand why and how it is used.
    One reason that I think this is so interesting is that it raises the historic link between the library and published materials. Much of what libraries have done is to select from already published materials, materials that have already gone through a selection and quality filter. The nature of selection, assessment and recommendation is altering. I will return to this some time in another post.
    And Wikipedia does raise nicely the issue of judging sources which is surely a part of the educational role of the library.

  8. Lorcan, you wrote: “He uses Wikitedium in the title of the post, and I thought how apt an expression this was to characterize the periodic library discussions about Wikipedia which pitch authority against editorial permissiveness.”
    Not to beat a dead horse, but I’d argue that whether you intended to or not, you were taking a position about “authority vs. editorial permissiveness.” Words such as “wikitedium” (I know, not your term) and “pitch” have weight. I’m not saying your points aren’t valid; I’m merely making the point that this particular post has some rhetorical fuzziness not characteristic of your writing. Not pernicious, just not characteristic.
    I am also not sure I agree these discussions are uninteresting or unimportant. I do agree that “The nature of selection, assessment and recommendation is altering.” It may even be altering for the better.

  9. One of my favorite Chaucer quotes is from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue: “Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, is right ynough for me…”

    It’s probably a medieval cultural vestige of libraries and academia that ‘authority’ factors in so greatly, and can become more important to egos than the facts themselves.

    Let’s devise a thought experiment here.
    Many disicplines have hotly-contested debates among recognized scholars, with findings and conclusions that are sometimes mutually exclusive (e.g. What caused the extinction of the dinosaurs? Where is Vinland from the Viking sagas?) If a student were to write a paper on a topic, and used only one side of polemics, the instructor should deeply penalize the student — for failing to arrive at a holistic understanding of the topic. This has less to do with authority vs. non-authority, but rather an factual distribution/sparseness problem.

    Arguably, libraries are missing the boat in the rising era of free/authority-less information. We should be imparting on the student a holistic information literacy, and offshoring the skill of “resource selection” to researchers themselves. If Fact XYZ was correct, and properly cited in a term paper according to the citation style required by the professor, of what difference does its origin really make?

    I realize I am being heretical here, but I’m under-40 and a technologist — so that perhaps brands me innately heretical twice over. It may be somewhat skewed by discipline also — in the realm of logic/math/algorithm things are demonstrably correct — or not — and authority (or its absence) cannot change inherrent characteristics about facts.

    I wonder at times whether we have this carry-over from Chaucer (and earlier) in which facts were not really free-ranging entities, but wholly politicized elements of orthodoxy. Much more important, then, perhaps to get the facts wrong but to stay on-target with regard to authority? Galileo comes to mind.

    (The other personage who comes to mind is René Descartes, who seems to have made his greatest contributions in areas outside of his own formal training.)

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