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Wikipedia: the next research frontier

, Thursday, November 29th, 2007

I want to take a moment to disagree in part with both Andrew’s and Marissa’s recent posts about the story wherein a professor assigns his students articles on Wikipedia to write in lieu of traditional papers. First, a disclaimer: while both Marissa and Andy have Masters’ degrees, I do not, so I Wikipedia graduatesdon’t have the experience with peer review that they do.

But as someone who went to college in the internet age, I can attest that there’s a lot of skepticism of research done online. I’ve had a variety of professors who ranged from full blown Luddite ("If it doesn’t have a Dewey Decimal number, it isn’t a fact") to mild traditionalist ("You can use lexis-nexus, but make sure your archaic citation formats are right or I’ll downgrade you to next Tuesday") to early adopter of academia ("Use the latest research you can find – just be prepared to defend your sources if they start with geocities.com").

By and large, there was a common skepticism of the web as a research medium – the thought behind it is is that if it’s easy to post and easy to find, anyone can do it. This is the sort of elitism that I’m predicting won’t survive my lifetime – check below the fold for why.

As usual, I’ll start out by knocking down the easiest ad hominem: it’s not outrageous to think that since it took the gatekeepers decades to get into the ivory tower to the point where their work is respected, you should source solely that work and its contemporaries – after all, if anyone could do it, what was the point of all that research they did to get there?

While this argument may hold a kernel of truth for the most petty of proctors, I think that in a larger measure, they truly believe in the system, and that opening the gates to the rabble could only lead to academic chaos. It’s similar to the two schools of design professors I encountered: some thought the only way to draft was with a pencil and square rule, while others recognized that AutoCAD has pretty much made that obsolete for people more familiar with a mouse than a T-square (I was also always losing pencils, and drafting pencils are really expensive when you’re in college!).

But I would argue that wiki_articlethe way to make Wikipedia a truly reliable resource is to encourage its use. How’s that? Well, right now, I’ll concede to Marissa that it’s primary function is find trivia – it’s great to find out who did that song was on House last night (hint: no matter what show or episode, it’s almost certainly  Sarah McLaughlin), but anything controversial is likely to be developed by those with the loudest voice. It’s reminiscent of the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts (incidentally, to find the author of that quote, I ran it through the Googlehere’s the result of that search – check out the top result).

But work like Professor Groom could change all that. If academics are writing Wikipedia articles, then Wikipedia should become more reliable, right? In time, this should create a virtuous cycle, wherein Wikipedia becomes the academic’s first refuge as it is the common man’s. And since its size is virtually limitless, it can hold the obscure knowledge that scholars crave. It’s a place where you have to defend your work as not only correct, but useful.

And sure, your entry might be changed, even made incorrect or vandalized (I’ll confess to the venial online sin of changing a Wikipedia page to win a bet… but it was quickly reverted before the person with whom I was betting got my email to check), there’s an ample crew of people to revert those sorts of things, one that you, the author/scholar, should be a part.

Perhaps the greatest benefit, though, of academic use of user generated content is that it puts it out there where anyone can Conservapedia - the "trustworthy" encyclopedia easily access it, at any time. While you may not think that obscure facts about British royalty are important (the always-good-for-a-laugh Conservapedia thinks so… and while we’re on the topic, my praise of user-generated content doesn’t extend to politically-skewed user generated content masquerading as fact. Though since there exist the equivalent in universities, I suppose it could be argued that Conservapedia is not only possible, it’s inevitable), there may be someone out there who needs to know something – do you want your contribution to human knowledge out there where it can help them or locked away in a dusty library?

So in the end, I say bring on the Wikipedia assignments. Wikipedia will only grow as time goes on, and it’s just gone mobile with Amazon’s Kindle as their encyclopedia of choice. There are some things that I don’t want crowdsourced (Web MD, bill payment, school boards in Kansas), but when it comes to research, there’s a whole world out there that wants to hear what you have to say.

One Response to “Wikipedia: the next research frontier”

  1. John Brian Says:

    Incidentally, if you want to ensure a future (particularly an ad-free future) for Wikipedia, they’re doing a donation drive right now, and servers ain’t free. Contribute here. It’s a (C)(3), so you donation is tax-deductable.