Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Op-Ed: Wikiphobia: The latest in open source

Op-Ed: Wikiphobia: The latest in open source
Neil Waters
Issue date: 4/11/07
Section: Opinions

It seemed like a no-brainer. Several students in one of my classes included the same erroneous information in final examination essays. Google whisked me immediately to Wikipedia, where I found the source of the erroneous information in under a minute. To prevent recurrences of the problem, I wrote a policy for consideration by the history department, in less than two minutes: " 1)Students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and they cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors. 2)Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source."

I brought up this modest policy proposal, suitably framed in whereases and be it resolveds, at the next meeting of the department, and it was passed within about three minutes, and we moved on to more pressing business. And that, I thought, was that - a good six minutes worth of work, culminating in clear guidelines for the future. Some colleagues felt I was belaboring the obvious, and they were right. The history department always has held students responsible for accuracy, and does not consider general encyclopedias of the bound variety to be acceptable for citation either. But Wikipedia seemed worth mentioning by name because it is omnipresent and because its "open-source" method of compilation makes it a different animal from, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Campus published an article on the departmental policy, and the rest, as they say, is history. Alerted by the online version of The Campus Tim Johnson of The Burlington Free Press interviewed me and a spokesman for Wikipedia who agreed with the history department's position, and published an article. Several college newspapers followed suit, and then Noam Cohen of The New York Times interviewed Don Wyatt, chair of the History Department, and me, and published the story. Within a day it received more online "hits" than any other New York Times feature. Another interview followed with the Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, and additional articles appeared in El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in England, and then in literally hundreds of newspapers in the US and abroad. Along with other members of the History Department, I found myself giving interviews almost daily - to radio stations, newspaper reporters, inquisitive high school students, WCAX television news in Burlington, and even to the NBC Nightly News, which sent correspondent Lisa Daniels to Middlebury to interview me and students in my History of Modern Japan class. A stream of phone calls and e-mails from a wide range of people, from Wikipedia disciples to besieged librarians who felt free at last to express their Wikipedia misgivings, continues to the present. Somehow the modest policy adoption by the History Department at Middlebury College hit a nerve.

Why this overwhelming spate of interest? I can think of three reasons immediately: 1) Timing. Wikipedia has existed since 2001, but it has expanded exponentially, and reached a critical mass in the last couple of years. With over 1.6 million entries in its English language edition, Wikipedia has something to say about almost everything. Its popularity has soared with its comprehensiveness and ease of use, and its ease of use in turn has been enhanced by popularity-driven algorithms; Google lists a Wikipedia article in first or second place more often than not. 2) Passion. There is something exciting about the growth and development of an entity to which anyone can contribute.

At its best, Wikipedia works wonders. Anonymous editors actually improve entries over time, including new material, editing away mistakes, polishing the writing. Accordingly, some of Wikipedia's defenders approach their task with near-religious zeal. But Wikipedia at its worst excites similarly intense passions, because anonymous, non-accountable editors can include, through ignorance or malice, misinformation that may or may not get "fixed." Further, thousands of high school teachers as well as college professors who try mightily to induce a measure of critical thinking in their students' approach to sources for research grow quietly furious because the very ubiquity of Wikipedia tempts people to use it in lieu of other, more reliable sources of information. 3) Scandals. The Wikipedia entry for John Siegenthaler, Sr. in 2004 contained spurious accusations that he was a suspect in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The entry was unaltered for four months (thereafter authors of new entries, but not editors of existing entries, had to register their names with Wikipedia). A Wikipedia "policeman" turned out to have bogus credentials. Sinbad was declared dead (he has since risen again). All this keeps the pot boiling.

In the final analysis, Wikipedia's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Anonymous, unaccountable, unpaid, often non-expert yet passionate editors built Wikipedia, but their anonymity and lack of accountability assures that Wikipedia cannot be considered an authoritative source. And yet it is frequently used as if it were, Wikipedia's own disclaimers notwithstanding. College professors and high school teachers alike need to remember that the impressive computer acumen of their students does not automatically translate into impressive levels of critical thought, particularly when it comes to evaluating the reliability of the new tools at their disposal, and of the information those tools provide. The internet has opened up new highways of information, but we need to know how to spot the potholes.

Neil Waters is Professor of History and Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College.

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