Friday, January 12, 2007

Wikipedia Update

Since my last Wikipedia Round-Up, there's more to report from print and the blogosphere.

Today's Wired Campus Blog from the Chronicle for Higher Education reports on two initiatives in a "Wikipedia for Scholars -- Take Two." According to its FAQ section, still yet-to-launch Citizendium plans to provide a "gradual fork" off Wikipedia for "expert-led" articles with more scholarly input.

Now there is also Scholarpedia, which adds a layer of vetting through "peer review," to its look-alike interface, so that citations could be taken as more reliable. I tend to be skeptical about online initiatives that promise this layer of "peer-review" without building a sustainable virtual community that will encourage continuing participation. You can see why I have a somewhat jaded view in this paper, which was published by Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education two years ago, if you consider the fate of the once much vaunted and now largely moribund "peer-reviewed" MERLOT.

I poked around a bit in Scholarpedia's Encyclopedia of Computational Intelligence, since I write about technology, and I'd consider myself to be relatively able to define pretty specialized terms like "Bayesian Learning" or "Belief Network" or "Markoff Algorithms" in comparison to someone off the street. I have to say I thought that the accessibility of the prose to lay readers would have to be considered to be pretty poor, given the lack of clarity in the writing and absence of background context, which print encyclopedia editors certainly emphasize. Plus, key entries like "cybernetics" are unreadable.

Of course, I was quite reluctant to side against Wikipedia during my first round-up a few months ago, given that Encyclopedia Britannica was leading the charge. As a writer for the similarly encyclopedic Dictionary of Literary Biography, I knew that the Britannica entry on Sigmund Freud contained some misstatements about Freud's life. This is particularly ironic, since at one time Sigmund Freud was a Britannica contributer, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Bertrand Russell, and George Bernard Shaw.

However, there is something to be said for the work of traditional encyclopedia article-writing being a part of the academy, and Wikipedia makes these enterprises even more likely to be devalued in university departments. From experience, I can tell you it's difficult to write one of these articles, and the fact that they aren't worth anything for purposes of tenure and promotion is discouraging. Just try to boil down a theoretical classic like Civilization and Its Discontents to one paragraph and you'll see what I mean! Unlike Wikipedia, print encyclopedias also check with living subjects for accuracy, which means that scholars sometimes find themselves rebuting the official autobiography of an eminent person. Of course, it also means that sometimes you get some cool mail from your subjects. (Thanks, Claude Levi-Strauss!)

There are two other interesting criticisms of Wikipedia that I've read this week: a short essay by anthropologist and film-maker Jenny Cool in praise of traditional databases and the argument against relying on volunteerism and in favor of building publicly funded infrastructure in Jean-Noel Jeanneney's Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge.



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