Wikipedia

I have previously discussed Wikipedia in relation to the way it is run and edited. I would like to turn now to discussion of Wikipedia itself.

A friend of mine is a year into his PhD, and in the grand tradition of grad students everywhere, is helping teach courses to the undergrads. Having spent some time teaching, I asked him how that aspect of the program was going. His one complaint? Students were using Wikipedia as a source, and could not understand why this was not allowed.

The answer to that was mentioned in class, and is simple. Professional editors vet each article; they are written by scholars and fact-checked before publication. Once published, it would be hard for someone to break into your home and edit the articles. Even though such vandalism is often caught quickly on Wikipedia, it is still possible. And while encyclopedias have been found to have nearly as many mistakes, they are still considered, for these reasons, to be a more verifiable source.

Although I do have to ask – who uses encyclopedias period as a source for a college paper? I seem to remember that being something that ended in seventh grade, when our subject matters turned more complex and more in-depth research was required. Except for the occasional tangential topic, you’re going to need a more heavy-handed resource to cite.

In any case, one of the ideas I came across in my venture into Wikipedia article writing was that it was, after all an encyclopedia. This is one of the 5 Pillars of WP itself. It states:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia incorporating elements of general encyclopedias, specialized encyclopedias, and almanacs. Wikipedia is not an indiscriminate collection of information. It is not a trivia, a soapbox, vanity publisher, an experiment in anarchy or democracy, or a web directory. Nor is Wikipedia a collection of source documents, a dictionary, or a newspaper, for these kinds of content should be contributed to the sister projects, Wikisource, Wiktionary, and Wikinews, respectively.

Wikipedia is not the place to insert your own opinions, experiences, or arguments — all editors must follow our no original research policy and strive for accuracy.

So, for example, you are not to make an entry about your mom. She may be grand, it may be 100% true, but it doesn’t pass the notability test. It is worth noting that even this is not a rule of Wikipedia in the true sense. Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia, (and fellow at the Berkman Center, which is behind the course itself) has given his official imprimatur to the notion that there are no rules etched in stone. Nonetheless, as discussed previously, there are some policies and guidelines that have gained such universal acceptance on WP that they are, for the most part, followed.

Even this idea cannot be followed consistently. If you do make that entry about your mom, one of the volunteers who has devoted enough time to editing to gain sysop status will likely flag it for deletion and insert a section on your user talk page about why. I assume that most will accept such a decision, as I did. (my entry was not about my mom, but fell in more of a grey area that nonetheless fell outside the strictest sense of the notability standard)

But what about entries for current events? In the WP article about spinach, there is a section on the recent e coli outbreak. Is this notable? Certainly. Is it encyclopedic? Well, not quite. If you traveled 20 years into the future and opened the Encyclopedia Britannica (assuming, of course, that Wikipedia and other online sources don’t kill it), I think it is unlikely that the entry on spinach will contain a paragraph, letalone a long section, about the outbreak. It is notable here and now, but in the greater scheme of things it is not a notable part of the definition and history of spinach itself.

Is there a little warning box marking it for deletion? No. Although one like-minded person on the discussion page did state that:

IMO the outbreak, while notable as news, is not particularly relevant to the spinach article and deserves footnote status at best. Perhaps a note that spinach, like all leaf vegetables, has been occasionally contaminated with E. coli. — WormRunner 19:42, 19 September 2006 (UTC)

and there is a box suggesting a split (the event itself would be an entry), by and large the discussion has been limited to the nature and content of the section itself, not its propriety. The WikiPolice have added boxes for expansion, cleanup, and an update on the section, giving a tacit confirmation that it does belong in the article.

And so we see a contrast between things that are just plain not notable and those that do not warrant notability in a timeless, encyclopedic sense. This may well be entirely proper – it is, after all, a constantly changing and updating medium. As time passes, the article will be further edited. I suspect that when enough time has passed, the section will shrink, become its own historical section (in the broadest sense of ‘history’ imaginable) or even be edited down as that one user suggests to a mention that there have bee, from time to time, outbreaks.

In an ever-changing medium like Wikipedia, is timelessness necessary or even desirable? And if not, have we created a new kind of encyclopedia (aside from the obvious ways in which we have) one which documents notable elements of the here and now?

One Response to “Wikipedia”

  1. Caiden Says:

    So I want to know does any body else use wikipedia and what for?
    what was the most informatibve artical you found there?
    What was the wierdest one you found?
    I use wikipedia mostly durring my lunch time at work to just read up on stuff. the most informative artical I found was on the mineing and refineing
    process for copper (because I learned about the job I have, and got to show off to co-workers ;p) the most interesting was probably on cheese witch I
    actualy e-mailed to my self so I could finish reading it after work.
    oh well, got wiki?