Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wikipedia, Truth and Citations

"With little notice from the outside world, the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has redefined the commonly accepted use of the word 'truth'" so writes Simson Garfinkel in a thoughtful analysis of "Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth."

Garkinkel's central point is that Wikipedia is based on a principle of verifiability as a basis for inclusion. Here is the policy statement:
"The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or likely to be challenged, or the material may be removed."
The Wikipedia policy statement goes on to define what is meant by a reliable source and distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary sources. This is a very thoughtful presentation of about the idea of verification and the distinctions between different types of sources. I would suggest that this presentation is as good as any common introduction to the use of source material when presenting ideas. Indeed, I would suggest that many faculty in high school and college could use this site as a basis for explaining to students about appropriate uses of source material. It should also be noted that this is not remarkably different than how other secondary sources (e.g., paper-based encyclopedias, reference books, textbooks, etc.) are created. That is, they are compilations of "verifiable" information from primary sources that are put together to provide information. In short, Wikipedia's verifiability standard is quite similar to other common ways in which teaching and learning materials has been created.

Garfinkel's other major complaint about Wikipedia is its refusal to allow "original research" to be posted. Here is the general policy:
"Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought. This includes unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, and ideas; and any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position. This means that Wikipedia is not the place to publish your own opinions, experiences, or arguments."
This seems like a very sensible policy and is again a common, but rarely stated policy in regards to printed encyclopedias and textbooks. The place for "original research" is in journals and other forums in which other scientists and peer colleagues can carefully analyze the content, methods and assertions. Wikipedia is correctly acknowledging that its "editors" do not have the technical expertise to make judgments about the quality of "original research." This seems like a reasonable policy. Garfinkel correctly notes that this means that sometimes there are odd results such as when a person seeks to correct an entry or citation about themselves. He gives a good example in which Jaron Lanier (see Digital Maoism) was only able to get his own biography corrected by citing another source as a basis for statements about himself. This is problematic and does point out the that the "no original research" policy is not perfect, but it does not make a convincing case that Wikipedia would be substantially improved by the addition of orginal research in general. Wikipedia is simply acknowledging its own limits as a generally reliable "secondary" source, not a primary source. When it is treated as a secondary source, it is doing a pretty good job.

1 comment:

Nauda said...

Great stuff, thanks!