Wikis fit wee locks

Sat 06 Jan 2007 05:06 PM

As any regular reader will recall, I have misgivings about the epistemology of the Wikipedia. Other wikis inherit these misgivings, although it really depends on the details of what information the wiki is meant to provide and who participates in maintaining it.

Two recently-established wikis share information of use only to professional philosophers. As with any public wiki, there is the danger of deliberate misinformation. In what follows, however, I want to consider specific misgivings.

(Hat tip: I learned about both of these by way of TAR and LR.)


Some background for those who might not know: Most tenure-track philosophy jobs follow the same rough timetable. A job is advertised in Jobs for Philosophers in October or November. Applicants send in their materials. The hiring committee meets to select a dozen or so candidates for interviews. Interviews are conducted at the Eastern division APA meeting at the end of December. Three or four of the interviewees are selected for fly-outs in January or February.

Depending on the job, there may be 50 or 100 applicants. Committees are reading files at the same time as finishing their teaching for the semester, so decisions can be made very late. This can make for a real mess, and candidates get no timely information unless they are called for an interview.

The Academic Careers wiki began to provide candidates with more information in those tense days leading up to the APA. Schools that advertised in JFP were listed in a block on the page. Anyone who knew for certain that University X had begun to schedule APA interviews could edit the page and move University X out of the starting block and into a list of schools that had scheduled interviews. The change might be made by a candidate who had been contacted for an interview or by a member of the search committee at University X. I was on the search committee for our ancient position, and I updated the page myself when we had scheduled interviews.

There was some vandalism, of course, and it is hard to check the reliability of the page. Nevertheless, I think it provided a useful service. Given the short span between committee decisions and the APA, schools do not have a chance to notify candidates who don't make the cut. Yet candidates juggling several interviews or making last minute plans can profit by even modestly reliable rumors about which schools have or haven't made decisions yet.

There may be 50some people waiting for any information in the short window of time leading up the APA. The wiki might be updated by any of the dozen or so interviewees; they are apt to consult the wiki because they want to know about the 50 other jobs for which they applied. So the wiki seems likely to be updated by people who know what's going on.

Now the Careers wiki has entered a new phase. Organizers hope to trade information about which schools have or haven't scheduled fly-outs. There were only about a dozen interviewees for each position, and about a third of those will lead to fly-outs. So the community who can profit by the information is rather small. Moreover, time is less pressed. Matters are more fluid. Most schools will notify candidates who are no longer in contention, but candidates who are not flown out immediately might be flown out later if the first fly-outs are not to the department's satisfaction.

APA interviews are decisive, develop over a very short time, and affect a large group of people. Fly-outs are simply not like that. The wiki now seems ill-suited for conveying relevant information to people who genuinely need to know.


Delays and miscues at philosophy journals are a common problem. Some of the best craft knowledge one can acquire is about which journals reach their decisions quickly, which provide substantive, helpful referee reports, and which are editorial blackholes. Douglas Portmore has started a Philosophy Journal Information wiki designed to aggregate this sort of information in a public way.

Brian Weatherson worries that the wiki might collect unrepresentative information, if contributors preferentially record only their gripes and horror stories. One might also worry that the community of folks apt to contribute to a wiki is also a skewed sample. The Academic Careers wiki would function merely if its contributors were honest; the Journal wiki requires moreover that they be a representative, even-handed group.

It seems to me that a wiki is simply the wrong tool for aggregating this information. Contributors indicate how long the initial decision took, what the initial decision was, how long the final decision took, and so on. Each item of information is listed as a new item at the end of a list, and there is nothing to stop these lists from going out-of-synch.

This problem is compounded because the information is stored on one continuous page. It would have been more natural to give each journal its own entry. Then, any disputes that arose could be handled distinctly.

It will be interesting to see how this develops.


These examples illustrate wikis used in three different contexts. (1) The job market wiki leading up the the APA provided a reasonable way of disseminating information about interviews. (2) The job market wiki after the APA seems like a poor way of disseminating information about fly-outs. The pool of interested parties is rather small, the pool of informed potential contributors even smaller, and the information more subtle than the wiki's categories allow. (3) There is a real value in sharing the kind of information that the journal wiki is meant to aggregate, but the wiki seems like the wrong tool for the job.