Saturday, May 19, 2012

Comment: On Wikipedia

I am a Wikipedian. Not since long time. And not a very active one. Nonetheless, I am a Wikipedian: I edit time to time articles on Wikipedia. Wikipedia was an amazing idea, and is a great tool. However, there are some things which limit its full potential.

All those who have given homework to students know that way too often, students will consider that doing a copy-paste from Wikipedia is what we mean by "searching on the subject". Whatever the level of the student and of the course, students are surprised that it does not work ... doing a copy-paste from Wikipedia is really easy to detect. Common, we, teachers, are not so naive ! When it comes to University level courses, it becomes even more problematic. First, plagiarism is not well considered in such context (and doing a copy-paste from an open source is still plagiarism. University work relies heavily on intellectual honesty, you can not attribute to yourself work of others). Second, and that is a big issue, Wikipedia is not the true. At a first glance, Wikipedia provides extremely useful information. However, if you are really an expert in the field, or, if you want to become one (let's say, Master and PhD students), Wikipedia contains a lot of mistakes. We had a discussion about that during the last PCA/ACA meeting: I defended the point that, Wikipedia EXISTS, and that it is used ... furthermore, the idea is in the line of the humanist idea of university and sharing human knowledge ... hence, we can not complain about the fact that there are mistakes: we have to contribute and correct them. If we (when I write we, I mean "scholars" in a broad sense, meaning people who are supposed to be experts in their respective fields) do not correct and edit the articles of Wikipedia, how can we complain about it ?

Having said that ... Wikipedia is a community-managed system. There are no control about the quality of the article writers, nor of the editors. All works based on the "good faith" of the community members. And globally, it works rather well. If a mistake occur, the "group intelligence" (so to say) will correct it. A community based system of control to serve the community. In theory, that should work (if we believe in the good hidden somewhere (sometime very deeply) in Human nature J  ). Practically, the risk is that Wikipedia reflects the mainstream opinions rather than the real knowledge. Let me take an example. In one of my fields of specialties, the neurobiology of tinnitus, we have several theories which are rather opposed to each others. Both are backed by complex experimental data coming from complex animal models, with use of complex methodologies, all published in moderate to high impact factor peer-reviewed journals. I am sure all of these theories are more or less valid (mine of course being probably the best ... no no, I am not biased !). The "tinnitus" article in Wikipedia is full of mistakes and non-sense. However, I refrain myself to edit it, because if I do so, I will in good faith write things which may be considered by polemical by other experts in the field. I still do edit some articles in "serious" topics (neuropharmacology, animal behavior, etc ...). But my point is that, even if Wikipedia may attract experts willing to edit the articles, the system of community control may lead to have the "expert edits" being corrected aftermath by non-expert editors acting in good faith.

The concept of anonymity is extremely important. However, in the extremely competitive world in which scientists (and actually all the humanity) live now, anonymity is not really appealing. You can hardly attract an expert to contribute anonymously to an article, since at the end, his real-life salary depends on the amount of things he published under his name ... Then, why loosing time to correct things which you would not be able to add in your CV, and that other people less expert than you will edit ? Not saying that we should not edit articles, I actually am doing it, and a lot of other scientist too. Just saying, it is a limit to attract people able to actually correct the mistakes.

In such "community controlled" system based on "good faith", rules more complex than "common sense" should not be necessary. However, humans are humans, so indeed, rules seems to be required. I will not extend on this last point, but I refer to two Tweets from Rhonda Lowry / Grace McDunnough (I advice you to follow her on Twitter, I think she is one of the person I retweet the most  J  ).

Between the two Tweets, I was defending the concept of "good faith" of the community members (yes, I am both a Kantian and a humanist, I do believe that humans can fundamentally be good  J  ). But her point is extremely important.

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