Friday, March 16, 2007

Openness Versus Rigor: The Wikipedian Conundrum

Back when I was a college student, literature research was done the hard way by visiting the library, locating the hardcopy publication, and reading it. If the publication was not available, which could be frequent when it is a foreign dissertation, then one had to resort to inter-library loan via the mail system, which might take several days and even weeks. But we persevered, and got the job done.

Today, the Internet has become the preferred source of information because of its immediacy and 24/7 availability. Seizing upon this growing tendency to move from the printed medium to the virtual realm, some enterprising folks came out with the idea of online encyclopedia, which at the beginning was nothing more than a passive document of the same. Then audio tracks were added, following by video bytes, followed by interactivity.

However, any updating and augmenting was still done the conventional way: assembling expert contributors, peer reviewing, proof-reading, then uploading, usually after the hardcopy updates were completed and in circulation. Thus was sown the seed for an online encyclopedia that could be edited/updated on the fly, practically.

Then on a quiet day on 15 January 2001, Wikipedia was born. The day was quiet to me as I came to know about its existence only after I have moved to US three years ago. Since then it has been my online reference of choice.

However, its popularity did not strike me until I read the article, Wikipedia’s Role in Science Education and Outreach, appearing in the 13 March 2007 issue of EOS, a weekly transaction of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) of which I’m a member, several days ago.

According to the article by several US university dons in the earth and space sciences (MB Moldwin, UCLA, N. Gross, Boston U, and T. Miller, UCLA), “an informal survey of 300 University of California, Los Angeles freshmen indicates that Wikipedia is their first stop when researching essentially any topic.”

The purpose of the article is “to inform the community [understood to be the geophysical community] of the popularity of Wikipedia for introducing our field to students and the general public and to urge you to take a look at the Wikipedia entry for your area of experience.” In comparing with other top Google sites, they found that “for many of the space physics key terms and concepts, Wikipedia was the most complete source of information". Hence, they reason that “Wikipedia will appear to students to be an excellent reference for space science topics.”

The quick updates that have become the hallmark of Wikipedia are made possible by the liberal policy that its founders have instituted: “that any one with an Internet connection can write an article about any topic or edit any existing article”, unleashing the power of real-time updating and that latent in the large reservoir of potential authors.

However, as pointed out by the authors and which has been the bone of contention of many well-intentioned critiques, this strength is also its weakness. Anonymity and misrepresentation come to mind.

In academia, anonymity is reserved for the reviewers, but not the authors. This system of peer review has served the academic research community well, helping to ensure that academic honesty and excellence is upheld to the highest standard.

Putting one’s dhoby mark on a published article is a great responsibility, symbolizing a readiness to own up to one’s work. Therefore, one would invest time to pore through the draft for errors, veracity and authenticity being paramount. On the other hand, many an unsubstantiated claim has been made under the cloak of anonymity, virtually a license for irresponsible comment behavior especially in blogosphere. The removal of accountability has emboldened people to display an element of uncouthness that they are normally not wont to.

This in no way implies the absence of unsung heroes, who spend time contributing their time and expertise toward a noble goal as enunciated by the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, as “to create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” And yet they do not clamor for recognition. The fact of the matter is those in this latter category are in the majority as borne out by the fact that the sometimes sensational revelation of Wikipedia fraudsters is far and between.

A related issue is misrepresentation, claiming expertise when there is none or inadequate. This onerous task of verifying the credentials of the contributors belong to the Wikipedia administrators, and we just have to hope that they do their due diligence, well, diligently.

So whither are we heading? The openness route? Or the peer review complete with full disclosure of the author’s credentials? Expediency versus rigor?

A little of both, and then some, I suppose. Echoing the sentiments of the authors of the EOS article, first, the scientists are urged “to be familiar with how their fields are described on Wikipedia”, and "to write Wikipedia articles or edit articles that contain errors or are incomplete”.

Second, the scientists are called upon “to contribute to Wikipedia”, albeit anonymously, which means no citation reference. And they will have to put aside their “publish or perish” mentality.

Third, the scientists should “invest the time and effort to provide an expert’s alternative to “open source" Wikipedia articles”. I believe this would find wide acceptance in the research community, it being a good outreach effort that would surely endear them to the general populace.

And lastly, though this is implied rather than explicitly stated by the authors, the students and the general public should "develop their information literacy skills", including cultivating the habit of cross-checking and going back to the original source instead of relying on secondary quoted information. It’s not unusual to witness the propagation of mis-quoted information through articles simply because the authors have not bothered to read the original source for themselves. This is part and parcel of academic integrity. Anything less would be unconscionable.


Kitty Girl said...

I do not remember the first time I came across Wikipedia, but I do know that it has come to be my no. 1 source for all things under the sun. I know that some information may be incorrect, especially on more obscure subjects with less experts checking the facts, and so I try to make sure to check another site. I do remember doing things the old-fashioned way, though--by poring through our encyclopedia set!

In college, while a lot of research was conducted online, perhaps it was because I was a journalism major, but a lot of it was also done the traditional way, by scouring through old magazines, newspapers, and government documents. Although it would make one seem more hardworking if one conducted all research the old way, standards have changed now, and students are expected to come up with their research fast, so now one must be efficient... Ugh, I'm getting longwinded. Anyway.

I read an article a long time ago about Wikipedia, whereby loyal and diehard Wikipedia-ers (or whatever they're called) will constantly patrol the site, checking for pranks and errors and correcting them.

So, have you done your part by checking out the entries related to coastal engineering? ;)

Say Lee said...

The story about a young guy posing as a learned professor reported recently is unsettling, to say the least. But I think he writes on religion or theology, a field that is of less concern, to me anyway.

And No, I don't use Wikipedia for coastal engineering stuff because they are other more 'authoritative" online reference web sites where we know who the authors are.

In technical writing, it's essential to attribute the sources, to give credit where it is due, that means by name, not anonymous contributors. So I'm afraid citing Wikipedia just won't do.

Kitty Girl said...

Oh, actually I meant if you had checked the related entries to see if the information listed was correct. But in journalism as well, the source of your information is extremely important.