April 01, 2008

Inside Higher Ed - "Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia" - April Fool?

I wasn't inspired to do an April Fool's post. The best I could think of was something along the lines that I'd received a big grant from the "Patton Foundation" and the "Open But Not So Open Our Brains Fall Out Minded Institute", to set up a "Center for Internet Skepticism". And that sort of post sounded like a self-indulgent waste of everyone's time.

But fate provided me with blogging material today, in the form of the article "Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia". If this isn't an April Fool's joke, it should be:

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful.

If the writer is serious, I'm going to save this for proof of one reason I'm so critical of Wikipedia. Namely, the proposals that experts should work for free, donating their time and energy in terms of grunt work to support the deliberate design choice of Wikipedia to favor quantity over quality.

It's really a triumph of marketing over academic standards. Set up a system where any troll, vandal, or axe-grinder can mess up a carefully worded article. Then get experts (and others) to volunteer to fight off the trolls, vandals, and axe-grinders. THEN claim this is the "wisdom of crowds", where the result of all that uncompensated effort and perhaps burned-out contributors shows that, magically, openness produces respectable material.

Someone's being fooled ... :-(.

[Update - bonus link: Hillary Clinton Wikipedia article vandal-fighter

Schilling is the man who protects Hillary's online self from the public's hatred. He estimates that he spends up to 15 hours per week editing Wikipedia under the name "Wasted Time R"--much of it, these days, standing watch over Hillary's page. ... "You constantly have to police [the page]," he says, recalling the way Rudy Giuliani's Wikipedia article declined in quality after its protectors lost interest. "Otherwise, it diverts into a state of nature."

Sigh ... But it's fun, right? :-( ]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on April 01, 2008 09:10 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


I think Professor Wilson hit all the tropes!

1. Wikipedia/blogging changed my life!
2. If there's another online collaborative encyclopedia, one chartered to be built by academics, I haven't heard of it!
3. Besides, if it does exist, somebody will mention it in the comments!
4. I don't have to respond to comments-- even one is left by a guy I named in the story, and he tells me the name of the other online collaborative encyclopedia! (Larry Sanger, with the lead pipe, in the Citizendium)

We're all word-pushers. We try to inject our words into some larger datastream-- often at cost, of course-- with the hope of building something selflessly or getting a brain gig in return.

Where you divide your word-pushing time is another matter. It would have been wild had he written something like "why I gave up blogging to edit Wikipedia."

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at April 1, 2008 10:27 PM

If Wikipedia had a decent reputation system then professors would have joined in already (even if such a reputation system didn't permit importing of 'repute').

When a professor's edits/words hold the same weight as those of a preschooler (and such weight cannot be adjusted in light of merit) then participation is considerably discouraged.

Wikipedia is democratic. Perhaps it should be meritocratic, but then maybe I'm missing the point? Perhaps the mother of invention has already conceived a meritocratic encyclopedia, we're just waiting for its birth (whereafter it'll educate itself from Wikipedia before forking off).

Then we will see which form of self-governance results in a superior work. It could be that Wikipedia is superior - possibly precisely because it is egalitarian, and thus inspires input from all, whereas a meritocratic version would soon stagnate into a stuffy backwater wherein were erected a few highly polished ivory towers.

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at April 2, 2008 02:47 AM

When the Center for Internet Skepticism gets going, I want to apply for a fellowship there. Although I may be insufficiently skeptical at times...

Posted by: walt crawford at April 2, 2008 11:39 AM

But they wouldn't be working "for free," surely? They're publicly funded, and the intellectual products of their labour are commensurably public goods. Why shouldn't they go to where the public actually are to inform them? There are problems with the Wikipedia platform, certainly, but the thrust of the case being made there isn't that Wikipedia is amazing; it's the Wikipedia is where people are reading things. Public institutions are failing their constituents if they don't contribute to public understanding.

Posted by: C. C. Pugh at April 2, 2008 04:15 PM

Jon: See why it looks like an April Fools? 1/2 :-)

Crosbie: When "democratic" means "anti-intellectual", there's a problem. Some people really are more qualified to write about academic topics than others.

Walt: You can be one of the "name" Fellows (i.e. the people who are Fellows for their celebrity value).

CC Pugh: Academics are funded to produce research, not to grunt-work on other organization's projects. In fact, one of the sad things is that too often, informing the public counts against an academic career (considered slumming). Heck, too often, *teaching* counts against an academic career. It's called "publish or perish" for a reason (and editing Wikipedia doesn't count as publishing - nor, for that matter, does blogging). Moreover, this case is one of "moral hazard", that Wikipedia has no incentive to fix things if experts will work for free so that it doesn't get even worse than it is already. Further, it should then be made very clear it's work "under protest", so as not to feed the false claims of "wisdom of crowds".

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at April 2, 2008 11:48 PM

Yes, but why should I pay professors to produce Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries that I won't be able to afford to read, even though I already paid?

Research is of little value if people don't know the outcomes from it. I don't really think Wilson's point was that Wikipedia was amazing, let's all love it and make even better babies - it reads like *the internet* is amazing, let's all love it... etc.

The situation you describe in your comment is as much a problem, if not more, than the failings of the Wikipedia platform, and there's an interesting discussion about scholarly communication somewhere in his piece, which I think focusing on the former detracts from unfairly.

Posted by: C. C. Pugh at April 3, 2008 04:09 AM

If you want to ask the question Why Do We Have Public Funding Of Professors In The Humanities, well, that's an oft-discussed topic. But it's pretty clear that the answer has no part of "to provide free labor so sites like Wikipedia don't have to pay for quality control". Wilson proposed, per above, that academics should join *Wikipedia* in specific - not contribute to public understanding in general, like going on talk shows or writing articles for local newspapers, or even contributing to the many sites which don't have an anti-intellectual culture. The idea was directly and specifically to volunteer to prop up Wikipedia's weaknesses ("watch over a few wikipages").

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at April 3, 2008 04:29 AM

It's not necessary to regard the links of wikipedia as anything more than any of the other links around the web. Whether some people put their information and ideas on this link or that link, a wikipedia link or another link, it's all of the general exchange of ideas.

Posted by: the zak at April 3, 2008 10:30 AM