Wikipedia and Knowledge

Last week an article came out in the New York Times discussing the western research bias of Wikipedia.  Let me summarize.

The western tradition of knowledge is based on a chain of source material upon which further scholarship can build and grow.  Primary source material is something that is wholly original, such as personal papers, video and audio from events, direct scientific experimentation, and other sorts of realia.  Secondary source material is a step removed, where a scientist, historian, or other type of commentator discusses the primary source material and its meaning. Tertiary sources are compilations of primary and secondary source material, things like textbooks and encyclopedias.

Wikipedia operates under a similar modus operandi as traditional encyclopedias, which requires citation of documented sources.  Unlike traditional encyclopedias it doesn’t require that the contributor be an expert in the topic in order to contribute, only that the contributor document the origin of the claim.  The documentation doesn’t have to be available online, but that does help when verifying the accuracy of the statement.

However, there are untold multitudes of information which are undocumented, especially in countries which don’t follow Western academic traditions.  This undocumented life is trying to find its way onto Wikipedia, specifically in their indigenous language variants.  But Wikipedia, holding the line on being a tertiary source.  As a matter of policy Wikipedia doesn’t want people to contribute original research.  The argument is that this policy is culturally biased, and that Wikipedia will be forever incomplete because of this.

But there are ways to make this work, without going direct to Wikipedia to explain these things.

The first thing that came to my mind in this was the story of the woman who taught the reporter how to make this indigenous drink.  Say there is a video of her brewing.  Why can’t this video get posted onto Wikimedia or the Internet Archive?  Along with say, three videos of different other women from other parts of the country where this drink is made?  That would compile a list of sources from different places that could provide an objective viewpoint into the brewing of this drink.  The sources would be housed at Wikimedia or Archive.org, and the article on Wikipedia could reference back to those videos as the context for the piece.  Yes it is original research, but the resulting follow up from the community could expand from there.

In the context of the children’s game from India, the problem is that this is a game that everyone knows about but no one has written about.  Again, Wikipedia doesn’t have to be the first step.  India is a very tech savvy country.  Someone could encourage people across the country to blog about the game and their experiences as children playing the game.  There could be video footage of children playing saved in various places.  This could create a body of work for the Wikipedia community to build from.

Yes, these are both end-run arguments that continue to operate in the context of textual citation.  The alternative is to have Wikipedia change its policy to allow original research to happen directly on the site.  Wikipedia doesn’t want that to happen, and it has good reason.

The word that has been going through all of this is “verify.”  The reason why Wikipedia does not want to have original research presented directly on the site is because original research is impossible to verify, and this deems the material untrustworthy.  Wikipedia wants to be a resource that is seen as trustworthy.  Someplace you can go and see what something is about, and have a degree of confidence that what you’re seeing has been verified by a number of people, and that you can check because it lists all of its sources.

This is why academic journals go through a peer review process.  If someone is making a new claim, there needs to be a degree of confidence among people within that field that the research was done in a sound way, that the claims can be verified against the method and sources used, and that the community can respect.  This is also why the scientific community abhors people who try to do an end run around the peer review process by holding a press conference.  You probably don’t have the think back to far to remember the Arsenic-based life story, and the resulting backlash that came from the scientific community.

Bold claims from original research can be extremely challenging, and sometimes those claims are flat out wrong.  This is not something on which you would want to stake the reputation of an entire encyclopedia.

But if you look back at the history of famous encyclopedias, they are often riddled with bias and the spurious claims of the day.  Often too filled with original research from experts in the field who believed they were correct.  Take for instance the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1910-1911.  It’s in the public domain now, so you can just go and take a gander at it all over the internet.  But the content is so grossly outdated that even Wikipedia points it out.

This edition of the encyclopedia is now in the public domain, but the outdated nature of some of its content makes its use as a source for modern scholarship problematic. Some articles have special value and interest to modern scholars as cultural artifacts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yup.  And this is where Wikipedia is valuable.  Articles don’t have to suffer because they were written incorrectly a century ago and scholarship has moved on.  The content of the article can change as new scholarship comes out and the piece as a whole can be modified indefinitely, subject to citation.

Could Wikipedia be a venue for original research and documenting the undocumented history of the world?  Yes, it could be that place.  Does it have to be that place?  No.  There are many other venues that can provide a place for original research, and Wikipedia can remain the tertiary source that it wishes to be.

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