My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

Relevant links:

Archive

Academia and Wikipedia

[Also an M2M entry in direct response to various points in Clay’s K5 Article on Wikipedia Anti-elitism which responds to Larry Sanger’s Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism]

First, let me acknowledge that i have excessive privilege in this lifetime. That said, i’m not convinced that academia operates solely on an aggressive exertion of privilege nor am i convinced that any institution in the United States can be discussed without an assertion of privilege. But that’s another story.

I would argue that many librarians, teachers and academics fear Wikipedia (not dislike it) because it is not properly understood, not simply because it challenges their privilege, just as most new systems and media are feared by traditionalists of all sorts. Have we not had enough conversations about blog fear amongst journalists?

As a contributor to and user of Wikipedia, there is no doubt that i have a deep appreciation for it. All the same, i roll my eyes whenever students submit papers with Wikipedia as a citation. This is probably a source of much Wikipedia dislike amongst academics.

Wikipedia appears to be a legitimate authority on a vast array of topics for which only one individual has contributed material. This is not the utopian collection of mass intelligence that Clay values. For many non-controversial topics, there are only a limited authors and we have no idea what their level of expertise is. Hell, i submitted a bazillion anthropology entries while taking Anthro 1 based on my textbook and most of them remain untouched. My early attempts to distill anthropology should definitely not appear as legitimate authorities on the topics, yet many students take them as such.

On topics for which i feel as though i do have some authority, i’m often embarrassed by what appears at Wikipedia. Take the entry for social network: “A social network is when people help and protect each other in a close community. It is never larger than about 150 people.” You have *got* to be kidding me. Aside from being a patently wrong and naive misinterpretation of research, this definition reveals what happens when pop cultural understandings of concepts become authorities.

I have extreme respect for those who seek to define concepts such as those who craft the dictionary and encyclopedias. It is extremely challenging to define a term because you are trying very hard to capture and convey excessive amounts of information in an abbreviated fashion that cannot be misinterpreted. This takes talent, practice, precision and a great deal of research. Consider, for example, the difference between a good science writer and a bad one. Not everyone can convey large bodies of research in an easily accessible manner.

This does not mean that i dislike Wikipedia, just that i do not consider it to be equivalent to an encyclopedia. I believe that it lacks the necessary research and precision. The lack of talent and practice mostly comes from the fact that most entries have limited contributers. Wikipedia is often my first source, but never my last, particularly in contexts where i need to be certain of my facts. Wikipedia is exceptionally valuable to read about multiple sides to a story, particularly in historical contexts, but i don’t trust alternative histories any more than i trust privileged ones.

My concern – and that of many of my colleagues – is that students are often not media-savvy enough to recognize when to trust Wikipedia and when this is a dreadful idea. They quote from it as though it cannot be inaccurate. I certainly distrust many classic sources, but i don’t think that an “anti-elitist” (a.k.a. lacking traditional authority and expertise) alternative is automatically better. Such a move stinks of glorifying otherness simply out of disdain for hegemonic practices, a tactic that never gets us anywhere.

I don’t believe that the goal should be ‘acceptance’ so much as recognition of what Wikipedia is and what it is not. It will *never* be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes. If the fuss dies down, i’d be exceptionally worried because it would mean that we’ve lost the ability to discuss the quality of information.

Alternatively, i too would love to see a vetted version of Wikipedia, one that would provide a knowledge resource that is more accountable and authoritative.

Update:

“The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.” – Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, Encyclopedia Britannica

[From Tech Central Station via Preoccupations]

Print Friendly

22 comments to Academia and Wikipedia

  • Wikipedia, Google and open access to knowledge

    Is Truth the first victim? Tech Central Station:The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty,

  • srl

    “Such a move stinks of glorifying otherness simply out of disdain for hegemonic practices, a tactic that never gets us anywhere.”

    Well, where do “we” want to “get” with this discussion anyway?

  • I don’t know that a “vetted” version is needed. I view it and use it as a jumping off point. Often times I’ll use it to come up with search terms or other angles that I haven’t thought of, and then apply those terms/angles to sources that I feel are more…umm…respected I guess.

    Anyone who has students who cite it as if they were citing a peer reviewed journal has a duty to inform the student on the difference between the two. Over time, if this some how becomes ingrained, I think Wikipedia might be viewed as valuable to those who currently despise it. The idea being that it carries a large potential to bring more attention to their work from an audience that otherwise would not see it.

  • joe

    There’s also something to be said for the static nature of encylclopedia-like sources (in addition to the fact that they have editors, which tends to be more of a blessing, I’m sure, than a liability).

    That is, aside from the lack of editors and fact-checker research staff, you simply can’t cite to a wikipedia article and be assured that it won’t change tomorrow and say something different. Maybe there’s a way to have an archived link citation format where you can be sure that a citation always pointed to the *page you read when doing research on a particular day*.

  • todd x

    My biggest problem with wikipedia is not that it is not that it for the most part lacks a sanctified peer review. The contributers to Wikipedia do a great job of making certain most of what is online is fairly reliable. The problem i have pertains to the subjects little is written or at the very least written in English, researched, or studied.

    Not that i am an expert or even claim to be in any subject, when something is written on a subject that i know a little about is found on Wikipedia and is either wildly inaccurate or just plain wrong it makes me question the entries i know little or nothing about. This forces me to question the validity of the subjects i am not familiar with.

    There is nothing wrong with accountability especially when it pertains to learning. The very essence of knowledge is not found in accolades but in the quest for understanding. Accountability is not to to much to ask for how someone arrived at the position they wish us to take what they have written as truth.

  • Thanks for providing a guide for USING the Wikipedia. Those who really advance knowledge are those who explain how to use it. (Like you.)

    Wikipedia is fun, in a dangerous sort of way. I think it’s a perfect example of how we’re advancing toward a more sophisticated level of knowledge. The quality of truth depends of your level of inspection.

  • I note Social Network seems to have been redrafted somewhat, sixteen hours later. (Admittedly, I can’t say which is more accurate)

    Joe: You can link to a specific form of a Wikipedia article, although it means a messy URL – if you go to “history” and click on the date of the version you want it brings up a page showing the older version; here’s a link to the last version of ‘Social Network’. (It doesn’t seem to be able to provide a “dated” link to the current version, but there are ways to get around that, I guess – make a small drafting change, which is invariably needed, and link to the “old” one?)

  • Thinking about it, we may be seeing an interesting phenomenon here…

    Something like “social networking” (or “set theory”, or “copyright”) is a concept which is fairly complex, and not part of mainstream knowledge. So, people broadly fall into four sets:

    1) Those who know next to nothing about it.
    2) Those who know some, but don’t know how little they know
    3) Those who know some, but do know how little they know (remember the old joke? Academics are people who’re very well-informed, because they know that they don’t know anything about all sorts of things that the man in the street doesn’t even know about)
    4) People well-versed in the field.

    Those in group 1) won’t write an article, of course. 3) often won’t write the article, because they know they only know some aspects, or understand it sketchily, and are worried about being wrong or misleading.

    Which leaves “people who understand it badly, or only know a facet” versus “people who know it well”. And for most things, there’s a lot more of the former than the latter… so you end up with something like the SN example above. I’m not sure how often this applies, but I suspect it explains some cases.

  • On further reading… huh. This is weird.

    The article linked to in the original post, and in my comment, is hosted at simple.wikipedia.org. The one on en.wikipedia.org, however (here, is substantially more elaborate, relegating the 150-person thing to a footnote. (Not that I like their huge list of social network URLs at the end, but hey)

    simple.wikipedia.org seems to be a spinoff “write easily readable articles” version, which isn’t very heavily used (I’d not heard of it until now, and it’s got under 2,500 articles, so…) – which probably goes some way to explaining it not being edited.

    (Wikipedia has many spinoff language projects – some, like Japanese or German, are large; some, like Anglo-Saxon or Georgian, are tiny. This “simple English” seems to have been set up as though it were another language, thus setting it aside from a lot of the potential user base…)

  • Wikipedia: when is an encyclopedia not an encyclopedia?

    Danah Boyd:I don’t believe that the goal should be ‘acceptance’ so much as recognition of what Wikipedia is and what it is not. It will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for

  • Comment on wikipedia and research

    apophenia: Academia and Wikipedia states an opinion about using articles in Wikipedia as citations in research papers. The author makes a good point: an entry form Wikipedia is often only form one source, and has not been vetted. There fore,…

  • I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons some in academia and other prosessions with particular standards of “official” versions of knowledge dislike Wikipedia and things like it is a confusion of the internet with other written forms of culture. It seems to me the net is somewhere between orality and print, more democratic and changeable than print, but less scattered than conversation, usually. I’m an academic and I think it’s great, but perhaps that’s owing to an appreciation for historical phenomena like the 18th-century London coffee house, where information and knowledge circulated in a similarly free way, in an almost proto-hypertext way, if that makes any sense. Inaccuracy isn’t such a tragic thing if you think of the subjective nature of all “knowledge.”

  • Andrew Gray – precisely. And this is why students write lots of entries while they’re learning about a subject.

  • On users designing for themselves…

    I’ve spent the past few weeks working on and off with others at the Center on a grant application to the IMLS. We’re proposing to build a package of interfaces and extensions to Firefox that will in essence stick…

  • Josh

    You should try looking at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network. The page you cited was from the Simple English Wikipedia, and the one on the regular English Wikipedia is more comprehensive.

    That said, while I enjoy reading and contributing articles on Wikipedia, I do not think that it, or any other encyclopedia, is really a good source for research. As you said, the purpose of an encyclopedia is to provide an overview of a topic to the everyday person. Research usually requires at least some involvement with a primary source.

  • Josh

    Oops, it looks like Andrew Gray already pointed out the Simple English issue. Sorry.

  • Which says a lot about the trust one could have in this article, seeing as a simple matter of checking the source of a disputed quote is beyond the writer’s ability…

    A mistake that is compounded by the quote from this ex-editor of the Brittanica, found through FlackCentralStation even, which makes for a great soundbite, but is wrong in all accounts.

    Anyone can check the history of a wikipedia article, know exactly what the article looked during any given revision and can track the changes in it.

    Try this with any of the commercial encyclopedias.

    Apart from these two issues, this article is breathtakingly daring in its kicking in of open doors: never trust a single source, as astonishing a revelation as the discovery that many students are inclined to be lazy and naive in their research.

    Neither of which, an astute observer may notice, is specific to Wikipedia.

    Only Todd X touched on one of the real problems with Wikipedia: the fact that it is very much shaped by what is already online and of interest to those who use it.

  • Which says a lot about the trust one could have in this article, seeing as a simple matter of checking the source of a disputed quote is beyond the writer’s ability…

    A mistake that is compounded by the quote from this ex-editor of the Brittanica, found through FlackCentralStation even, which makes for a great soundbite, but is wrong in all accounts.

    Anyone can check the history of a wikipedia article, know exactly what the article looked during any given revision and can track the changes in it.

    Try this with any of the commercial encyclopedias.

    Apart from these two issues, this article is breathtakingly daring in its kicking in of open doors: never trust a single source, as astonishing a revelation as the discovery that many students are inclined to be lazy and naive in their research.

    Neither of which, an astute observer may notice, is specific to Wikipedia.

    Only Todd X touched on one of the real problems with Wikipedia: the fact that it is very much shaped by what is already online and of interest to those who use it.

  • Links for 2005-01-23

    Bill Gates plots a Windows future BBC News interview with Bill Gates in which he talks about home entertainment appliances and the digital hub (categories: bbc bbcnews interview billgates homentertainment mediahub appliance appliances homeentertainmen…

  • Wiki Questions

    I was sent a series of questions by a couple of college students ib the south of Sweden doing a study on the use of wikis. These are their questions and my own answers…although perhaps not the right ones….

  • Vob Gurdge

    Your citation of the Simple English Wikipedia rather than the English Wikipedia seems to me very unlikely to be an accident, and for me raises the suspicion that perhaps it was an attempt to make Wikipedia appear less well-written than it really is. No doubt you will have read the full version of the article now. You should also be able to appreciate the benefit of having a Wikipedia written using simplified English for the benefit of those who do not understand it particularly well, for example if they are learning it as a foreign language.

  • Sara

    My experience with wikipedia has been disasterous. Certain articles, not all articles, are grossly inaccurate, some explicitly so, and furthermore, contrary to the oft-used phrase that it is a free encyclopedia that can be edited by just about anyone, the opposite is in fact true. Certain articles are hawked by a select few over-exuberant editors and administrators, who take great pride in spending far too much time online, and these editors &admins, work in tandem with each other to ensure that no changes are made to content, because “some people have spent a great deal of time working on it.” Despite the fact that in my experience, the content was blatantly anti-intellectual and made use of spurious sources that are NOT used nor would ever be used by scholars or even well-meaning amateurs for that matter. These articles are protected, and any “intruders” are then repeatedly attacked and inflamed by the “herd.” In the end, the content remains flawed, in some cases, grossly inaccurate and in my case, absurd!, but at least the “long timers” retain their dictatorial hold on nonsensical articles. I think it is possibly the WORST creation ever. Besides which, when one thinks about the concept, it makes so little sense once one is exposed to the way it works. Wikipedia, at the moment, focuses mainly on etiquette, fraught as it is bound to be with manipulation, viciousness, corruption etc. and NOT on content. Lastly, an “encyclopedia” or even a parody of an encyclopedia should not be editable, is meant to quell inaccuracy, wikipedia only fosters it. Somehow, I feel it is only symptomatic of a general intellectual degeneration.