There are voices — some loud and well-respected — who argue that Wikipedia is deeply flawed, a hellscape of psychotic editors and contempt for expertise. I mostly disagree, but those voices deserve, at least, to be heard.

[Note: There’s a companion blog post, Sex Edit War!, about my own experience in a Wikipedia Edit War. (I won! It was fun!) I hope it’ll make some of this narrative more concrete.]

Background · If you look at this post’s Reference Publishing topic, you’ll see a lot of Wikipedia-related material. I was one of its early defenders against the early-days waves of attackers who compared it to a public toilet and its editors to the Khmer Rouge.

I should also disclose that, over the years, I have made some 2,300 Wikipedia edits, created seven articles, and (what makes me happiest) contributed 49 images which have been used, in aggregate, 228 times.

I say all this to acknowledge that I am probably predisposed to defend Wikipedia.

What happened was… · Somebody spoke up on the Fediverse, saying “I wonder if reporters know that Wikipedia hallucinates too??” I’m not giving that a link, since they followed up with a post asserting that ChatGPT is better than Wikipedia. Life’s too short for that.

Anyhow, I replied “The difference is, errors in Wikipedia tend to get systematically fixed. Sometimes it takes more work than it should, but the vast majority of articles are moving in the right direction a vast majority of the time.” Much discussion ensued; follow the threads.

Shortly thereafter, the redoubtable JWZ complained about an edit to his page and I spoke up noting that the edit had been reversed, as bad edits (in my experience) usually are. That conversation branched out vigorously, dozens of contributions. Feel free to trawl through the Fediverse threads, but you don’t have to, I’ll summarize.

Gripe: Bad editors · This kept coming back.

I dunno. I don’t want to gaslight those people; if that’s the experience they had, that’s the experience they had. My own experience is different: The editors I’ve interacted with have generally been friendly and supportive, and often exceptionally skilled at digging up quality citations. But I think that these reports are something Wikipedia should worry about.

Gripe: Disrespect of expertise · By number and volume of complaints, this was the #1 issue that came up in those threads:

I generally disagree with these takes. Wikipedia not only respects but requires expert support for its content. However, it uses a very specific definition of “expert”: Someone who can get their assertions published in one or more Reliable Sources.

I think that if you’re about to have an opinion about Wikipedia and expertise and citations, you should give that Reliable-Sources article a careful read first. Here’s why: It is at the white-hot center of any conversation about what Wikipedia should and should not say. Since Wikipedia is commonly the top result for a Web search, and since a couple of generations of students have been taught to consult but not cite it, the article is central to what literate people consider to be true.

Let’s consider the complaints above. Mr Dear literally Wrote the Book. But, I dunno. I went and looked at the PLATO article and subjects linked to it, and, well, it looks good to me? It cites Mr Dear’s book but just once. Maybe the editors didn’t think Mr Dear’s book was very good? Maybe Dear says controversial things that you wouldn’t want to publish without independent evidence? The picture is inconclusive.

As for Mr O’Neill’s complaint, no sympathy. Given the social structure of capitalism, the employees and leadership of a company are the last people who should be considered Reliable Sources on that company. Particularly on anything that’s remotely controversial.

Mr Zawinski is upset that the person who chooses citations from Reliable Sources “knows nothing”, which I take to be an abbreviation for “is not a subject-matter expert”. There’s some truth here.

When it comes to bald statements of fact, you don’t need to be an expert; If more than one quality magazine or academic journal says that the company was incorporated in 1989, you don’t need to know anything about the company or its products to allow “founded in 1989” into an article.

On the other hand, I think we can all agree that people who make significant changes on articles concerning complex subjects should know the turf. My impression is that, for academic subjects, that condition is generally met.

Mr Rosenberg, once again, is upset that his personal expertise about the PS3 is being disregarded in favor of material sourced from a gamer blog. I’d have to know the details, but the best possible outcome would be Mr Rosenberg establishing his expertise by publishing his narrative in a Reliable Source.

Bad Pattern · There’s a pattern I’ve seen a few times where a person sees something in Wikipedia in an area where they think they’re knowledgeable and think it’s wrong and decide “I’ll just fix that.” Then their edits get bounced because they don’t include citations. Even though they’re an “expert”. Then that person stomps away fuming publicly that Wikipedia is crap. That’s unfortunate, and maybe Wikipedia should change its tag-line from “anyone can edit” to “anyone who’s willing to provide citations can edit.”

Implications · This policy concerning expertise has some consequences:

  1. The decision on who is and isn’t an expert is by and large outsourced to the editorial staff of Reliable Sources.

  2. There are ferocious debates among editors about which sources are Reliable and which are not, in the context of some specific article. Which is perfectly appropriate and necessary. For example, last time I checked, Fox News is considered entirely Reliable on the finer points of NFL football, but not at all on US politics.

  3. There are many things which people know to be true but aren’t in Wikipedia and likely never will be, because no Reliable Source has ever discussed the matter. For example, I created the East Van Cross article, and subsequently learned the story of the cross’s origin. I found it entirely convincing but it was from an guy I met at a friend’s party who was a student at the high school where and when the graphic was first dreamed up. I looked around but found no Reliable Sources saying anything on the subject. I doubt it’ll ever be in Wikipedia.

What do you think of those trade-offs? I think they’re pretty well OK.

The notion that anyone should be allowed to add uncited assertions to Wikipedia because they think they’re an expert strikes me as simultaneously ridiculous and dangerous.

Real problems · Obviously, Wikipedia isn’t perfect. There are two problems in particular that bother me all the time, one small, one big.

Small first: The editor culture is a thicket of acronyms and it’s hard to keep them straight. I have considered, in some future not-too-fierce editorial debate, saying “Wait, WP:Potrezebie says you can’t say that!” Then see if anyone calls me on it.

The big problem: The community of editors is heavily male-dominated, and there have repeatedly been credible accusations of misogyny. I have direct experience: I created the article for Sarah Smarsh, because we read her excellent book Heartland in my book club, then I was shocked to find no entry. Despite the existence of that mainstream-published and well-reviewed book, and the fact that she had published in The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review, some other editor decreed that that was insufficient notability.

At the time, I reacted by gradually accumulating more and more citations and updating the draft. Eventually she published another book and the argument was over. These days, in that situation I would raise holy hell and escalate the obstruction up the Wikipedia stack.

To Wikipedia’s credit, its leadership knows about this problem and gives the appearance of trying to improve it. I don’t know the details of what they’re trying and whether they’re moving the needle at all. But it’s clearly still a problem.

Once again… · I stand by what I said in December 2004: Wikipedia dwarfs its critics.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Fazal Majid (Jun 16 2024, at 12:06)

There's nothing wrong with Wikipedia per so, it strives for accuracy as much as any collective human endeavor can, and some aspects of the same like the incessant Israel-Palestine conflict are beyond the power of epistemology to resolve.

One unfortunate consequence of Wikipedia, however, is that it has essentially killed encyclopedia publishing as a business .I am the proud owner of a complete set of mid-nineties Encyclopaedia Universalis, a French-language encyclopedia by then owned by Britannica (the horror!), and I have an early 2000s Brtiannica set on CD-ROM.

There is something to be said for having a choice between crowdsourced and top-down curated models. Britannica was a product of the Scottish enlightenment, just as Universalis was heir to Diderot's Encylopédie, with its very French long-form thematic articles with identified authors contrasting with Britannica's shorter ones.

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From: Nathan (Jun 17 2024, at 04:56)

> The notion that anyone should be allowed to add uncited assertions to Wikipedia because they think they’re an expert strikes me as simultaneously ridiculous and dangerous.

This is simultaneously not wrong and dismissive of a very real problem, which is that it's actually super hard to calibrate the barometer of reliability. Too low, and nearly anything which has a semi-permanent web address (or is picked up by archive.org) can be cited as a source. Too high and experts with day jobs will not contribute in high enough numbers to increase the usefulness of the site.

When someone says "I'm an expert and Wikipedia rejected my edit", what they're often actually saying is "Wikipedia is making it too hard for me to correct misinformation".

Is there a better solution? Probably not. But being dismissive of this very real complaint as "ridiculous and dangerous" discredits your own position due to your unwillingness to acknowledge the problem that has gone unsolved.

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From: Robert (Jun 17 2024, at 07:23)

I prefer the English Wikipedia, but sometimes I want to read an article in my native language German. I check the available languages for an article and German is frequently missing, even though other languages are present. That should be impossible considering that German is second place regarding the number of articles. German Wikipedia admins are built differently in my opinion. They prefer to delete an article instead of giving the community the opportunity to improve it. The result is that lot of articles are missing.

Then why is it the second biggest Wikipedia if so many articles are missing? Articles about steam locomotives, obscure local politicians, churches, or small German villages with 10 inhabitants... There are a lot of articles that exist only in the German Wikipedia and nowhere else, and a lot of articles that exist in many other languages, but not in German. I stopped contributing to the German Wikipedia when I noticed the deletion frenzy of the German administrators.

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From: Hanan Cohen (Jun 17 2024, at 08:50)

Since last year I have been closely following deletion of pages in the Hebrew Wikipedia, since I learned about the deletion of the pages about "cases of sexual assaults in the Ultra Orthodox community in Brooklyn" and "violence of settlers in the West Bank".

I have developed a Mastodon bot that tracks deletion and notability discussions in the Hebrew Wikipedia. The bot also saves a copy of the page in case it will be deleted.

The theme of the notability discussions I read is "is this important enough in order to appear on OUR site?" and not "is it useful enough to anyone looking for information?". Another theme is "what will the Goiim think of us?".

The Israeli Wikimedia NGO know about the problems here but are really helpless and nothing is really changing.

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From: Henri Sivonen (Jun 21 2024, at 12:43)

> What do you think of those trade-offs? I think they’re pretty well OK.

I understand the policy that Wikipedia is a tertiary source and Wikipedia cites reliable secondary sources.

And, yet, on many occasions, I've found Wikipedia content that arguably is original research from primary sources to be very useful and I've been happy that the deletionists haven't deleted such content as being against the rules. (Not giving examples so as not to give the deletionists any ideas!) AFAICT, such content made it in in the the early days of Wikipedia. Since I've found such content useful, I'm a bit sad that it's so hard to establish such content on newer topics on Wikipedia.

OTOH, for old topics, it's frustrating that _updating_ old content that refers to primary sources can be hard due to the application of the current rules to update attempts. My pet example is the Applications and the Web section of the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set article (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Supplementary_Character_Set#Applications_and_the_Web). The first paragraph is obsolete historical information about support in Gecko. The current Gecko situation is at a distance as the last sentence of the last paragraph of the section. Yet, as a person who'd have COI to make the edit directly, just getting the bits already on the page merged in a way that would put the Gecko bits together and would put less weight on the historical stuff is too much hassle under the current rules.

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From: Seth Finkelstein (Jun 23 2024, at 06:42)

I feel you've been too dismissive of critic's objections (disclaimer/disclosure, I'm a longtime Wikipedia critic myself). In full context, McHenry wrote:

"The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."

This is a colorfully expressed point about the dubious foundation behind the Wikipedia's articles, one which is at the core of much criticism. Treating that color as obviously worthy of derision - "compared it to a public toilet" - does not engage with the criticism at all.

Similarly, the actual phrase "It's the Khmer Rouge in diapers" was criticizing the pseudopopulist rhetoric, and I think a pretty good take on it. Only saying "compared ... its editors to the Khmer Rouge" without any sense of why, obscures that there was a cogent point being made. That is, it wasn't just an insult, like calling someone Fascist these days. It was seriously about their overblown self-importance.

Moving on, to the "expert" critique - colorfully stated elsewhere as "The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: "Experts are scum." - you try to refute it by extreme redefinition:

"However, it uses a very specific definition of "expert": Someone who can get their assertions published in one or more Reliable Sources."

That's not "expert". That's more like "media connected", which is revealing in many ways.

Basically, I'd say your response to the experiences of a horribly dysfunctional system, is essentially that people being abused by it, should learn how to work within the system. While this may be true, it's not a good defense.

Anyway, this is long enough, and I stopped doing this stuff since, well, expertise didn't seem to be valued (sort of a recursive issue).

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