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Humanist Archives: Jan. 16, 2019, 9:20 a.m. Humanist 32.346 - My Thoughts on Wikipedia, part 3/3

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 346.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2019-01-15 20:42:34+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman 
        Subject: My Thoughts on Wikipedia, part 3/3

[continued from part 2/3]

-- Citations and Sources

Several people have pointed to a seeming paradox. The question was nicely put by
Andre Pacheco on the Humanist List: "Wikipedia entries often have a variety of
paper citations. Is quoting an idea from Wikipedia invalid, but citing the
original paper where that idea originates from valid enough?'

Anyone who works as an editor knows the answer to this question. The problem is
often not the validity and reliability of the cited sources. The most common
problem is care and responsibility of the way that the citing author refers to
and uses the sources.

At my journal, we send authors a guidance document on citations. Relatively few
Wikipedia articles follow current best practice on these issues. An article
should '4. Use precise fine-grained references. These permit the reader to
locate citedmaterials at their exact place in the source document. Fine-grained
references allow the reader to examine, question, challenge and learn directly
from cited sources. 5. Treat direct quotations, indirect quotations, and
paraphrases the same way. Give explicit references to the exact page or section
in the cited sources for all quotations and paraphrases. This serves readers
while building and supporting the knowledge of the field. 6. Review cited
passages in the original sources to ensure exact quotes and accurate
paraphrasing. Reviewing sources helps authors to use source text well. It allows
the author to reflect on the quoted material for added depth and development.'

In the guidelines, I explain that 'major disciplines such as psychology have
now changed the common referencing style to require fine-grained references on
direct and indirect quotes alike as well as other forms of evidence. This is
also the case for disciplines that use version of author-year citations
colloquially known as APA Style. In APA authors must show exact page numbers
allowing readers to find the material providing the warrant for the author's
claim. (See, for example, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological
Association, 2010:170-171).

'...Many of the classical humanities have long held to this standard.'

Reference: American Psychological Association. 2010. Publication Manual of the
American Psychological Association. Sixth Edition. Washington DC: American
Psychological Association.

If you want to read the guidance document with my full argument, you'll find
it here:


The loose and often vague references that support many Wikipedia articles
demonstrate several common problems. First, the author may not have read the
cited document properly. Second, he may not have understood the cited author's
point. Third, the cited document may not, in fact, support the issue for which
it is offered in evidence. Even when a cited document is serious and valid,
there is no way for most readers to work their way through a 300-page book to
find the supposed documentation that a Wikipedia editor cites in a loosely
structured paraphrase. As an editor, I find many cases in which authors offer
careless citations to excellent books and articles that I know well -- and I am
aware that the cited document does not support the author's claim.

The value of a cited source does not lie simply in the fact that the cited
source is recognised as reliable. The cited source must by used by the citing
writing in a. Valid way: it must be properly understood, carefully applied,
relevant, and it must support the citing author's assertions. If it does not,
the cited source may be reliable and valid -- but it will not permit citing a
Wikipedia article that makes inappropriate use of the cited source. There is a
second problem, as well -- volatile content. One reason that citations to
Wikipedia articles are more problematic than most Internet citations is the
rapid and frequent change to Wikipedia articles.

In the citation, guidelines we also warn authors not to trust second-hand
citations. If an author claims that a document states something, the author
should read that document directly, providing a direct citation. Given the
problems of many Wikipedia citations, one can neither rely on the Wikipedia
article nor on the cited source until one has read and evaluated the original
source at first hand.

-- Comparing Wikipedia to other Encyclopedias

Most of the work done in this area seems to suffer from one or more flaws. If
articles are compared carefully and directly, this can only be a tiny number of
articles from the whole. Wikipedia has millions more pages and articles. By
2012, English Wikipedia had more than 30 times as many articles as Britannica.
This means that any comparison must be flawed. Wikipedia has many more articles,
but many of them cannot be compared at all. Selected high quality Wikipedia
articles seem to be roughly comparable to Britannica or to other encyclopaedias,
but these are always a chosen group. To genuinely  compare Wikipedia with other
encyclopaedias requires addressing challenging methodological problems. These
involve more than any simple head-to-head comparison of selected articles. This
requires methodologically appropriate sampling, content analysis, and the use of
multiple methods to answer what would probably be around a dozen or so

On some questions, Wikipedia is unquestionably different. If the sheer number of
articles makes an encyclopaedia better, Wikipedia is hands-down the best in the
world. But that is not a valid question with respect to a reference work.
Reliability and validity come into play.

In philosophy, for example, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is far
better than either Wikipedia or Britannica. Its method and the massive support
provided makes this possible for the 1,600 articles in the SEP:


To do better, one must look to outstanding paper reference works such as the
massive, 8-volume The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy from Macmillan. My 1967
edition is still useful, though rendered out of date by the 10-volume 2006
edition from Thomson Gale. If I want to read about Martha Nussbaum, I need to
use a library and read the 2006. In contrast, the Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy lacks an article on Nussbaum. While Wikipedia has an article, it
suffers from minor gaps and flaws. Who knows whether any among the 500 or so
archived versions is better? Are any more useful than others? This is more than
an interesting place to start, but Nussbaum is one of the most distinguished
philosophers writing today. In a well edited reference book, I'd expect a
better article. It's not a bad article but it is not as solid and well
developed as I'd expect. You can vote either way.


-- Active Wikipedia Users?

One of the most interesting comments on the Humanist list came from Bob Kosovsky
of the New York Public Library. Aside from the encouraging idea that librarians
have become engaged in Wikipedia, Bob writes:

'the majority of people who 'use' Wikipedia use it solely to look up
information. I expect more than passive interaction from academics.

'Wikipedia is so much more, particularly for scholarly communities. A larger
portion of the attendees at New York City's Wikipedia Day program were
librarians; another larger portion of attendees were academics who either use
Wikipedia as part of their teaching or are interested in incorporating it in
future classes.

'There's no question in my mind that writing for Wikipedia is growing as an
academic phenomenon. The Wiki Education is helping to guide teachers in
integrating Wikipedia into a variety of curriculums. ( https://wikiedu.org/). 
From talks with students and teachers, I believe many
academics find writing for Wikipedia is very different from writing for
academia. In an academic environment one is constantly being encouraged to
assimilate and synthesize information and come up with novel ideas.  Wikipedia
is exactly the opposite: synthesis of information is discouraged in favor of
unbiased reportage.  Even more so, the citation of sources for information is a
priority.  Being able to be fluent in these styles I believe to be a
valuable asset to anyone (not just academics).  Sometimes I think if the typical
news reporter was studious in requesting sources for information from
politicians, we'd have a much better citizenry.'

I am quite sympathetic to these issues, and to the issue of good writing. At my
journal, we work on the quality of writing as well as on content, and we work
with a copy editor to produce the final version of most articles.

Concluding Thoughts

Wikipedia is an enormous social success. It has massive size and broad scope,
together with massive data preserved in comprehensive archives. This makes
Wikipedia a unique resource for research on many issues of the current era. It
is also a valuable teaching tool. Nevertheless, the value of Wikipedia as a
research object and a teaching tool is distinct from the question of reliability
as a reference source.

So far, no responsible study shows that Wikipedia equals the quality of any
normal reference tool except across small, selected groups of the best Wikipedia
articles. To do this, Wikipedia requires more active participants, and it
requires a culture that will welcome them and welcome their contributions. At
the size and scope of Wikipedia, this means recruiting and retaining a large
number of expert newcomers, bringing them into the Wikipedia community in a
reasonable and effective way.

The current behaviour of Wikipedia editors and administrators toward newcomers
suggests that Wikipedia would not welcome or accommodate this many new
contributors. Current patterns suggest that most people who become active
editors don't last long in the Wikipedia environment.

This leaves Wikipedia with a problem that is difficult to solve. If anyone can
solve it, Wikipedia could become the major contribution to human knowledge that
many hope it will eventually be. But this involves more important issues than
becoming the most used reference web site through size and first-mover

This requires a kind of conversation that doesn't seem to interest the vast
majority of Wikipedia editors and administrators who exercise authority over
Wikipedia as it exists today.

These questions have been puzzling me. I have no answers, but I'd be curious
to know if anyone does.

Best regards,


Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The
Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in
Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation
| Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Email: ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com | Academia
| D&I http://tjdi.tongji.edu.cn


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