Publishing in the echo chamber 
In these two related items, Wikipedian prose appears in print:

1. Dublin student Shane Fitzgerald invented a quotation and attributed it to the recently-deceased composer Maurice Jarre in the latter's Wikipedia entry.* The quote was subsequently printed by several major newspapers in obituaries for Jarre. [coverage in the Irish Times, here]

Regarding Wikipedia, this just corroborates things I already knew. Even though the quote was written to sound like something that the composer might plausibly have said, it was quickly removed from Wikipedia. Fitzgerald had to add it repeatedly until it slipped by Wikipedia's first responders. Even then, it only persisted for about a day. Wikipedia did its usual decent but imperfect job of filtering out fibs.

Regarding the state of journalism, it's more depressing. When people lament the demise of newspapers, they often say that real journalists do important work that citizen bloggers do not. Surely that is true in some cases, but not here. Newspapers played exactly the same echo chamber game that bloggers play.

2. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, has a forthcoming book titled Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Waldo Jaquith at the Virginia Quarterly Review discovered that some sections of the book had been plagiarized. Anderson replied that the original draft had included footnotes, that the editor had decided to eliminate the apparatus at the last minute, and that errors had been made when incorporating attributions into the body text. Both he and his publisher have said that the footnotes will be available as an on-line supplement.

This much seems fine. He tried to acknowledge sources, made honest mistakes, and has made a good faith effort to correct for those mistakes. In any case, the standards are somewhat fuzzier for popular books than they are academic monographs.

The more worrisome thing is that some of the passages relating facts (about usury, for example) are copied verbatim from Wikipedia. One might worry again about plagiarism. It is verboten to repeat text verbatim without indenting it or putting quotation marks around it. Yet perhaps in the original draft, along with a footnote crediting Wikipedia, there were quotation marks.

The more substantive concern is that the text uncritically turns to Wikipedia as a relevant and reliable source. Anderson wrote a popular, nonfiction book and so is effectively operating as a journalist. Just as I expect reporters to take the few minutes required to follow up on what Maurice Jarre said, I expect a book author to follow up on whether charging interest was made a heresy in 1311.

In the case of Jarre, it is possible that many of the papers just took stories from the wire. It might even be that only one reporter knowingly took the quote from Wikipedia, and subsequent newspaper editors just unwittingly traded it around. In Anderson's case, we know that he was the one who did the cut-and-paste job.


* I let this news item pass without comment a couple of months ago, but blogging about it now lets me stick a pin in it. I live in the 21st-century, and the internet is my scrapbook.

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Vanity searches and scholary productivity 
Poking around on Google Scholar, I can check how often my publications have been cited.* Subtracting instances of me citing myself, my most cited papers are Epistemology and the Wikipedia (with 7 citations) and Distributed cognition and the task of science (with 6 citations).

In science studies, the number of citations made to an article is often used as a measure of the article's scholarly impact. It is sometimes even used as a proxy for the article's quality. Citation counts give social scientists a quantifiable handle on ineffable factors. Sometimes, the same measures are used by administrators to assess the productivity of scholars and departments - again because it gives an objective procedure for assessing such things.

As far as I know, nobody uses such measures to gauge the quality of philosophical work.** It is a good thing, too. Citation patterns vary widely across the field, with some specialties cluttering articles with clouds of citations and others providing a few exemplary citations. There is little difference in substance between a footnote that cites 20 articles without comment and one that cites a recent survey article or anthology.

Considering my two most cited papers, neither of them are straight-up philosophy: The first was only a conference presentation. Anyone who has read it found it on the internet - either on my website or the SUNY digital archive. It has been cited mostly by people thinking about IT issues. The second was published in Social Studies of Science, an interdisciplinary journal.

Suppose these two examples are typical and imagine what would follow if citation counts were used as a measure of scholarly productivity for philosophers. Insofar as scholars in other disciplines cite more, one would want to write papers that pique the interest of those guys. One would want to publish outside the mainstay philosophy journals. In short, one would do more interdisciplinary work.

I do not know whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing. In the long run, though, philosophers would probably just start citing each other more in uninformative, cloud-of-reference footnotes.


* Admittedly, Google Scholar's database is somewhat quirky. It has the virtue of being readily available.

** Some time ago, I discussed an attempt to measure the impact of philosophy journals.

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Two dead senators and an extra Wilhelm 
Some people have suggested to me that I should try my hand at writing some newspaper op-ed pieces. One natural topic for me, given where my research intersects with the interests of the guy down at the Dairy Queen, is nattering about the Wikipedia. So last month, in response to then current events, I wrote a piece that essentially recapitulates the thesis of my Episteme paper.

I submitted it a couple of places, but no luck. Rather than leave it in a directory on my hard drive where no one will ever read it, I've opted to put it here on the blog where no one will read it...
Read More...

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There is no 'you' in 'Wikipedia' 
As the NY Times reports, the free-wheeling days of Wikipedia editing may be over. The crackdown follows a recent incident in which Wikipedia entries reported Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were reported to be dead. As the Washington Post admits, the false claims only persisted for a few minutes. Nevertheless, the story is headlined "Kennedy, Byrd the Latest Victims of Wikipedia Errors", suggesting that the misreports somehow harmed or inconvenienced the two old and frail senators. Piffle, of course, and the Post story concludes by giving examples of traditional news media misreporting obituaries. [insert apt quote from Mark Twain]

This has led Wikipedia cofounder Jimbo Wales to call for changes in the way Wikipedia works. Wikipedia visitors who are not logged in as trusted users would no longer be able to change articles and have the revisions appear immediately. Instead, their changes would have to be approved by a trusted user before they would become part of the Wikipedia corpus.

It is unclear how much delay this would produce. Wales hopes it would not be more than a week. There is a tension here: If the restriction is only for some articles rather than others, then there will still be an evanescent flux of falsehoods in the rest of the Wikipedia. If the restriction is extended to all or most of the Wikipedia, then the delay will become intolerable.

Delay is also problematic because several users may change a page before any of the changes are accepted. If they are all adding the same information and making the same corrections, then some editor will need to decide which version to use. If they are making different changes in overlapping parts of an article, then some editor will have to fix the grammar and usage to make the changes fit together. In short: Jumbled nightmare.

In addition to adding delay, the process puts more power in the hands of approved Wikipedia users. Note that this is not simply the divide between registered users and anonymous users; the Ted Kennedy death reports were entered by registered user Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf. So the elite corps of trusted Wikipedia users will have responsibility for what appears in these shielded articles.

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Popping the stack 
Via daring fireball and makkintosshu, I learned that the URL http://www.apple.com/hypercard now redirects to the Wikipedia entry for Hypercard. This is a counterpart to the more common sin of bloggers linking uncommon terms in their prose to the Wikipedia entry for that term.* So I'll talk about that first.

Suppose I am reading a post and come across a word or topic that I am not familiar with. I always have the option of opening a new tab and searching the web for more information; if I were so inclined, I could just start my search with the Wikipedia.

If the author of the webpage has bothered to include a hyperlink, however, it suggests that they are specifically recommending that I look at whatever source they've hyperlinked. Suppose they actually have looked at the Wikipedia entry and deemed it to be quality. They have thus used whatever expertise they have to vouch for the Wikipedia entry. Since the Wikipedia entry might have changed since they vetted it, I might or not be able to trust the present entry. So bloggers who really have looked at the entry to confirm its quality should link to the dated version of the entry that they read, rather than the always-current entry. Alternately, they might link to both. (This argument is part of my forthcoming paper.)

If the author of the webpage inserts the link without really looking at the Wikipedia entry, as seems too often to be the case, then what do they think they are doing? If I am puzzled by the term, then the link doesn't give me anything more than what I would turn up if I did my own web search on the topic. If I am not puzzled, then the link is an annoying distraction. I might waste time clicking on it, mistaking it for seem actual content.** The link is clutter in any case, and it adds no real functionality to the page.

The take home lesson for bloggers: Stop it!

For Apple: If the Wikipedia entry were edited to say that Hypercard assisted in the assassination of Robert Kennedy, then Apple would be somewhat complicit in the fib. At the same time, it is unclear how the redirect is any more helpful than a spartan page which says that Apple no longer maintains Hypercard. Anyone coming across such a page while actually trying to learn about Hypercard could easily go find the Wikipedia page on their own.

It seems that links to Wikipedia are to webpages in 2009 like Comic Sans was to allegedly-funny print outs in 1999.


* What I say about bloggers applies the authors of webpages more generally. Samuel Arbesman discusses the London Tube map in the contect of introducing his really neat map of the Milky Way and includes some gratuitous links to Wikipedia.

** One might change the stylesheet to include a type of link that looks about like ordinary text. At least then the gratuitous links wouldn't be distracting clutter.

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