Banner
    Wikipedia all potholes, no street; Find alternate route
    By Fred Phillips | January 24th 2010 11:22 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Fred

    After a dozen years as a market research executive, Fred Phillips was professor, dean, and vice provost at a variety of universities in the US, Europe...

    View Fred's Profile
    Today Grant Barrett, co-host of Public Radio’s A Way with Words, complained, “Wikipedia is not reliable. There are times when I’ve entered information into a page, gone back later, and found someone has, excuse me, crapped all over my work.”

    I have long advised my students not to cite Wikipedia as a source, and not to believe anything found therein without cross-checking other sources. After learning what I will relate to you below, I’ve revised that advice: Now I tell 'em, don’t go to Wikipedia at all.

    (Disclosure of potential bias: I too have written paragraphs for Wikipedia on topics on which I’m an acknowledged expert – and returned later to see that some self-appointed guardian has removed most of it and, yes, crapped on the rest of it.)

    This from the New York Times:[1]

    MONDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2005

    NEW YORK According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Seigenthaler's biography, true?

    The question arises because Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he "was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby."

    "Nothing was ever proven," the biography added.

    “The case,” the Times continued, “set off an extensive debate on the Internet over the value and
    reliability of Wikipedia and, more broadly, over the nature of online information."

    Mikayla Gilbreath was a 15 year-old jazz saxophonist and journalist when she became a a columnist for All About Jazz. She claims “jazz legend Sonny Rollins, international jazz star Candy Dulfer, and President of the Jazz Journalists Association Howard Mandel” as her mentors, and has interviewed sax legend David "Fathead" Newman. Mikayla and her performances have been profiled in AllAboutJazz.

    The guardians of Wikipedia, hiding behind screen names and protected pages that prevented replies or queries to them, removed the article about Mikayla. Eventually a dialog ensued at the noted URL; Mikayla is “not famous enough”; “Wikipedia is not a place to ‘promote’ anyone or anything”; too much of the article seemed to be taken from a previously published magazine article.

    As an interviewer, Mikayla seems to be the Larry King of the jazz world. As a musician, she tours nationally, has been covered in the press, and has enjoyed accolades from jazz cognoscenti – quite unusual for a 15-year-old. So much for ‘not famous enough.’

    Wikipedia pages include articles on Moe's Southwest Grill (and the unrelated Mo's Restaurants), both mass-market chains that offer, I suppose, good food, but no other signs of distinction that would merit an encyclopedia entry. And there’s a very odd page of military market research, titled “List of Hawker Hurricane operators”. So much for ‘no promotion.’

    There may have been something to the copyright violation accusation. Then again, the articles were written by Mikayla’s grandfather. Gramps may have held onto the copyright, enabling him to use the material freely on Wikipedia. But the guardians didn’t bother to ask.

    Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales wrote, “People like us write Wikipedia…. We want to keep it growing… inviting participation from everyone.”

    And then crapping on it.

    An open-source encyclopedia is actually a fine idea. But Wales has not yet found the right model – the right set of rules and guidelines – to make such a thing work.

    I hope a better model comes along, and when it does, it will recognize writers’ tendencies to want to “own” their articles. And their resulting habit, especially if they have too much time on their hands, of lurking on the wiki and erasing everyone else’s attempts to improve it.



    [1] “Wikipedia: Open-source, and open to abuse.” By Katharine Q. Seelye The New York Times, December 5, 2005.






    Comments

    logicman
    I don't write for Wikipedia any more, or any other site which is supposed to provide scientific facts in response to questions.  It seems that personal opinions and politics tend to trump science on those sites.

    I'm glad I discovered scientificblogging.com.  Anyone can argue with my science here, but they can't delete my articles or get me banned.  Yes!  I was banned on one site for daring to suggest that an excess of fuel can put out a fire - a scientific fact known to every shoveller of coal on every steam engine.
    Hfarmer
    I think the problem you and the person on NPR had with wikipedia is this.  One cannot reference their expertise in writing for Wikipedia.  One has to cite secondary sources.  If the paragraphs you have written were not sourced to some other published work they would be deleted.   They would have been dubbed WP:OR Original Research which is not allowed on Wikipedia.  The rules must be followed. 
    That said Wikipedia's policy of totally open access leads to people coming in who don't respect those rules, and who are not experts, who want to make changes.  On some contentious issues these are changes to suit a particular POV. 

    Here is what I would say to students about Wikipedia.  Go to a Wikipedia article and look at the cited sources.  Use the sources cited to write your paper.  Don't rely on the actual wikipedia text for facts. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Fred Phillips
    Use the sources cited to write your paper.
    Very sensible. Students will appreciate this suggestion. I hope they don't restrict themselves just to these sources; if they do, I'll know they've been lazy.
    in writing for Wikipedia.  One has to cite secondary sources.
    Yes, but, what secondary sources for Moe's? Could only be the local freesheet tourist magazine...
    Hfarmer
    That's the thing.  If there are no secondary sources on something (i.e. at least news paper articles or books) then it's deemed not notable enough for WP and deleted all together, eventually.
    The rules there and how they are implemented are arcane.  It took me a couple years to learn how to work within, and through them. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    logicman
    One has to cite secondary sources
    Such is my habit, Hontas.  I once cited George P. Marsh, America's first environmentalist, regarding anthropogenic effects on the human environment.  The citation was edited out!

    The Earth as Modified by Human Action should be required reading for all students of sciences relating to the human environment.  imho. :)
    Hfarmer
    Yeah I hate when that happens.  That's where the rules are on your side about reverting edits.  You can go to the articles history and find your edit and restore it.  (Just don't do it three times in a row.)  Then you have to discuss it with the other person on the talk page and try to reach a consensus on the language.  
    That process of reaching consensus is one of WP's weakness's. Not everyone has equal knowledge of many of the topics there. 

    My favorite example is a article on the Battle of Xuan Loc.  The last major battle of the Vietnam war. Histories from both sides describe it as a tactical victory for and tough last stand of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.  Yet some people, who seem to be Vietnamese Communist want to go in and change it to total communist victory, and insert the US into it, and remove pictures from it.  (Removing pictures, reducing the amount of text, etc seem to be ways that people lash out at things they don't like in real life through Wikipedia.) They do the same thing to other articles on battles that South Vietnam actually won. Like inserting language saying that the 1972 Easter Offensive wasn't meant to conquer actual territory...but to wear the south down for their real offensive in 1975.  Etc.   

    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    logicman
    That's the problem with history, Hontas: observer bias beats facts every time, as does whimsy.

    If only historians knew the meaning of veracity, then generations of kids would know for a fact that the Battle of Hastings was won only because William contracted to do battle on Sunday, but his men sneakily landed in the early hours of Saturday and took all of the best defensive positions.

    Again, if truth be told: Sherwood Forest once completely obstructed the view of the citizens of Nether Langwith, preventing them from seeing the beautiful village of Bilsthorpe.   Prince John ordered the cutting down of most of Sherwood forest to enhance the landscape.  The timber was used to build a school and hospital for poor people at Prince John's own expense.  Robin Hood was just some treehugger who happened to stand in the way of progress.

    I should, at this point, apologise to Fred for subverting his article to my warped sense of humor. :)
    Hello Dr. Phillips,

    My name is Micheal Gilbreath and I am Mikayla Gilbreath's grandfather. I was quite surprised to see that your article on Wikipedia addressed the issue of the article I wrote about Mikayla. I initially became interested in writing the article simply because it came to my attention that Wikipedia had made "fair use" of Mikayla's interview article on legendary jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Since Wikipedia had shown interest in her work, I thought they might have an interest in including an entry about her.

    Because I believe so strongly in Mikayla's talent and potential, I must admit to being somewhat of a "promoter" for her. So I guess Wikipedia was correct in questioning my motives in writing the article. However, I genuinely felt that she was worthy of an entry, particularly in view of some of the truly questionable blather that I have since encountered there. In support of that premise (and because I continue to be an unrepentant promoter) I'd like to detail a few of her accomplishments since the Wikipedia article was deleted.

    1 - Since November 2008, Mikayla has written three articles that have reached #1 on All About Jazz's "Most Read" list.

    2 - In December 2008, Mikayla played her first improvisation on soprano sax, which was met with cheers from the crowd of approximately 200. You can see that performance at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6gQ7zFhmao

    3 - in February 2009, Mikayla was named "Outstanding Soloist" at the 2009 NAU Jazz Festival for the performance that can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi6khgnW6AA

    3 - In March 2009, Mikayla became the youngest person in history to write Liner Notes for a jazz CD.

    4 - For all of 2009, Mikayla's interview article entitled "Russel Blake: Transcending Expectations" was the #2 "Most Recommended" article, and the #7 "Most Read" article at All About Jazz. You can see those lists at: http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=35178 .

    Thanks for "taking up the gauntlet" for Mikayla, and for giving her proud grandfather another opportunity to "brag" about her.

    Cordially,

    Mike Gilbreath
    Scottsdale, AZ

    Fred Phillips
    Patrick, I always appreciate a sense of humor, and yours is spot on.

    Mr. Gilbreath, thanks for writing. I am a jazz fan, but as you see my blog was a critical look at Wikipedia, rather than a defense of your granddaughter per se. I've watched one of her performances on YouTube, look forward to more, and wish her all good luck. The passage below suggests the possibility (however outlandish) that the people who deleted your article were simply ultra-competitive fans of other jazz artists.

    This from Foreign Policy magazine, March/April 2009, page 26:
    What do Jennifer Aniston, Nikola Tesla, and soy milk all have in common? All three were subjects of protracted editing wars on Wikipedia, fueled by the competing claims of people in several nations (Greeks, Brits, and Americans tussled over Aniston; Serbs, Austrians, and Croatians battled for Tesla the inventor; and Koreans and Chinese fought over soy milk.)

    Such seemingly trivial debates over national celebrities and products usually have a conclusive ending, unlike the heated, intractable online disputes over geographic areas - be it the Sea of Japan or Macedonia...
    Bottom line: Wikipedia is just another online battleground, not a credible source of archival information. Unless the subject of your research is the battle over who invented soy milk; then the wiki history page will give you lots of perspectives!
    Fred Phillips
    Go to Wikipedia to read [vaccine advocate] Paul Offit's biography, and, as often as not, someone will have tampered with the page. (WIRED magazine, 11/09)
    Tampered, as in scurrilous libel.

    Actually, Offit expresses his sympathy for parents of autistic children who are desperate to find answers, including centerfold-turned-vaccine-activist Jenny McCarthy. He simply notes that the science points to the opposite conclusion, namely that vaccines do not cause autism.

    This, though, induces wikimeddlers to post clumsy lies on Offit's bio page, and to post new lies when the old ones are removed.

    Accurate archival sources are most needed when events or people are controversial. WIRED notes that in some regions of the US, "childhood diseases are reaching pre-vaccination rates," the presumable cause being willful ignorance about the benefits and risks of vaccines - and the deliberate spread of misinformation on same via Wikipedia.