Wiki and Pseudohistory

It is not uncommon to complain about Wikipedia as a source for poor information. Many of these complaints are justified. There is a lot of humbug, and it often happens that good articles are inadequately improved. At the same time, those who are complaining most, academicians, are the ones who ought to remain silent. After all, Wiki has filled the gap that the universities left open: they have the money, they are funded to serve society, but they rarely made available their knowledge where it matters – online, that is. There’s still no real online edition of, for example, the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions (so I made my own version).

As long as the universities do not make something better, the real question is not whether Wiki is good or bad. It is simply a fact that for hundreds of millions of people, it is the main source of scientific and scholarly information. The real question is how we can make it better, how we can help “good knowledge” defeat “bad knowledge”. Here are two simple solutions, one for Wiki itself and one for academicians.

First, Wiki must start to compete fairly. To understand this, you must know that Wikipedia consists of three levels. The first one is the article you see (like this one); the second level is the page on which you edit an article (like this one); and finally, there is the real code, which normal users will not see. Now at this level, Wiki plays a nasty game. Let’s have a look at the code of two normal links to another website:

The “nofollow” command means that search engines will not follow a link. In other words, while you and I can link to Wiki, it does not link back. You help Wiki achieve good Google ratings, but it does not contribute to yours. This means that when a person writes an article and summarizes a better page, Wiki will be on top, and the better page will be lower on the scales. The nofollow command is, essentially, an anti-competetive practice. It ought to be abandoned, so that better sites can compete more fairly.

Second, open access. The universities have acquiesced in the fact that reliable information is usually stored on pay sites (e.g., JSTOR). As long as this is the case, political activists and other people who are not interested in truth – and there are many of them on Wiki – can refer to online sources and look credible, while bona fide scholars and scientists cannot offer links to publications. Real scholars and scientists are forced to fight with their hands tied, which means that bad knowledge inevitably drives out good.

How to proceed? Perhaps the WWWC can convince Wiki that it is abusing html. I am optimistic, because so far, Wiki has been seriously interested in improving itself. To achieve open access, however, we must expect something of a miracle. Granted, the solution is easy: academicians must simply start to refuse to publish in journals that do not make the research results decently available online within, say, a year. That ought to be simple, but it may be too difficult for those who have, until now, managed to ignore the information revolution we are witnessing.

5 Responses to Wiki and Pseudohistory

  1. praefectusclassis says:

    I think it’s too easy to lay the blame of the academic negligence fully at the door of academics. It’s certainly partially correct: when there’s a disdain for this phenomenon, few academics will be inclined to spend time at Wikipedia.
    But, in Europe at least, the problem exists at another level. Universities are paid by society, and because of that, the taxpayer (or rather, their chosen representatives) wants control over what happens with his/her money. The measuring tool that has been devised quantifies the value of a publication. And as long as internet publications are on the lowest rung of the point ladder, an academic is pretty much told by his ‘managers’ that it’s a waste of his/her precious and rare research allocation and therefore time spent not writing something that gets points in the highest slot, is detrimental to one’s career. Raise the criteria of Wikipedia’s peer review system and the ‘point’ value of internet publications, and you fix the whole problem. I think, anyways…

  2. The system itself is crazy indeed, but our academicians do not fight against it. I can not help but think that young researchers are so much in love with their discipline that they are willing to pay any price to find a job at a university. As a consequence, an organization that has clearly lost sight of its priorities, continues to find employees.

  3. praefectusclassis says:

    Well, young researchers ought to be in love with their discipline. That comes first, an understanding of their responsibility to society later, or not?

  4. Bill Thayer says:

    Miscellaneous thoughts, all minor.

    Wickedpedia yes is operating what’s called a “tower”: links in, but (in effect) no links out. The nofollow tag started about two or three years ago — I’m an inveterate checker of sourcecode (and for them that whiz thru my own site, it’s useful there too!) — but in its defense, it’s designed to prevent a spam use of it by people just coming in to pump up their own sites. Now I almost never refer to, quote, or link to Wikipedia, it’s just so very bad and unreliable (at least in the humanities and history and biography); but if I absolutely have to, usually for an example of something wrong-headed, I put in my own nofollow tag, of course.

    JSTOR too can be defended. Such availability as they provide — to select universities and paying clients — does cost money. The selection and scanning of those journals is very well done, miles better than the crap that Google provides (which is slovenly and maddeningly fragmentary, and very hard to use, to find things in, and link to), and must be expensive. They’re not preventing οἱ πολλοί from subscribing, or even from getting some specific item for a one-shot fee, and in that respect it’s much like selling a book, and no one begrudges an author charging for what she’s written. My solution would be to make all the now public domain stuff freely accessible, and continue limited access to the stuff still under copyright — or else copyright means nothing at all.

    The copyright situation is probably much more to blame for a lot of the things you deplore; and it’s not the academics nor even by and large the universities who benefit from it. The term of copyright in the civilized world is now so extreme — 70 years after the death of the writer! — that what is freely available is only the oldest scholarship. Now there’s a lot of very good stuff among older writers, and many are still authorities now, at least to a great extent, but in the sciences, among which archaeology, this is a disaster (entire sciences remain under copyright, so to speak: plate tectonics, planetary science, modern genetics, etc.), and thanks to the Internet people are almost forced to read nothing but very old stuff. If your author was a young man in 1915 and wrote a good book, then lived to the happy age of ninety-two, his book may still be copyright in the year 2051! And even the United States, a country which doesn’t normally tolerate impractical and undemocratic preserves, was inveigled into falling lockstep in with these European constraints, up to a point. This is by no means what is called an “academic” question: two adjacent books on my bookshelves illustrate this perfectly. Gordon Home’s Roman York, published in the UK in 1924, is copyright thru the end of 2039; and Frank Gardner Moore’s The Roman’s World, published in the US in 1936, is copyright thru 2031: by that time they’ll probably be totally useless. The benefit accrues to the publishers — or at least would, if the normal reaction were not to bypass such books: in sum, the Death+70 copyright term benefits no one. Death+5 seems about right to me: what I write, I should in all fairness be able to benefit from during my entire life; but that my heirs — who often have no idea that they inherited the copyright, are near-impossible to track down, and of course made no contribution to deserve anything — should continue to milk this cash cow unto the third generation is insane.

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