Academia brings Wikipedia in from the cold

Paul Raven @ 22-03-2011

Better late than never – via BoingBoing, The Beeb reports that Imperial College London is finally bowing to the inevitable as it stops warning students off of using Wikipedia for research and instead sets out methods for using it properly:

“The issue of how it’s used needs to be explored, it’s the most widely-used resource among students,” says Mr Patel, a medical student at the university.

“Wikipedia is here to stay – it’s a question of whether we come up to speed with it or try to ignore it.”

Mr Patel says he wants to co-ordinate the way pages are edited by students and staff and to make the most of Wikipedia, rather than pretend it’s not there.

“Students know there is an inherent unreliablity, as it’s open edited. We’re not trying to hide that.

“But it’s a place where you can orientate yourself when you start a topic.

“The quality has improved and the readability is often second to none,” he says.

But Mr Patel says there is a real gap in knowledge about how this free resource is being used.

Rather than swapping anecdotes about the use of Wikipedia, he says his group wants to move to a more evidence-based discussion about the place of Wikipedia in universities.

Evidence-based discussion, eh? In academia? Someone fax the creationist biology departments, stat!

In the meantime, if you’re doing some research with Wikipedia as a starting point you might want to take a look at TheFullWiki, which appears to be an online service that uses Wikipedia as a baseblock for building topic trees and sourcing citations. [via Lifehacker, who are still on linkback probation until Gawker provide links that actually guarantee to take you to the article they purport to describe]


Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

What would further education look like if it was run more like Wikipedia? That’s the question asked by a chap called David J Staley at the Educause conference in Anaheim, California last week, who thinks it’s a pretty good idea [via SlashDot]:

First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.

[ Those of you who’ve read Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance may be reminded of Phaedrus’ University… ]

And instead of tenure, it would have professors “whose longevity would be determined by the community,” Mr. Staley said, and who would move back and forth between the “real world” and the university.

Universities “seem to be becoming more top-down and hierarchical at a time when more and more organizations are looking more like networks,” said Mr. Staley…

Not everyone agrees with Staley, of course:

“… he clearly understands Wikipedia about as well as he understands universities. That is, not very well. Wikipedia is peculiar. Its brilliance is in its peculiarity. It’s also more static, intellectually conservative, and elite-governed than most people believe.”

Valid points, but I think the problem is due to Staley using a specific institution as a placeholder for a more general set of ideas and methods; yes, Wikipedia is flawed (just like any human institution), but its underlying principles are symptomatic of a phase change in the way we look at organisation, which is what I suspect Staley was getting at.

We’ve discussed further education’s increasing unsuitability-for-purpose before, and much of that unsuitability comes from the rigidity of its hierarchical approach to both organisation and the categorisation of knowledge; a more open, flexible and fluid system might not produce the same numbers of people equipped with expensive pieces of vellum, but I suspect it would produce a lot more people with knowledge that was actually useful to them in the chaos of the contemporary economy. That said, until you manage to convince employers to hire people on the basis of their actual skillsets instead of their paper qualifications, you’re going to struggle to convince academia to abandon the business-like model that it currently operates under.

Interestingly, this chimes with a UK-based project I’ve been invited to get involved with, which I will discuss further when it’s more fully developed…

The greying of Wikipedia

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2009

citation needed!Despite continued growth as one of the most-visited sites on the web, Wikipedia has a problem – it’s losing editors faster than it’s gaining new ones. Cue lots of veiled “told you so” from the Wall Street Journal [via /message]:

… as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world’s largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.

“People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen,” says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. “Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It’s too many cooks in the kitchen.”

What isn’t clear, at least from this article, is which editors are leaving. A few years ago, all you could find were articles complaining that Wikipedia had too many unskilled and uninformed editors, and that it was hence a valueless project; now that people are being deterred from fiddling because the cost of entry is too high for casual contributions, that’s the problem. C’mon, people; you can’t have it both ways.

Rather than unseating my faith in crowdsourcing, these developments at Wikipedia are pretty much in line with what I had expected to happen. The initial landslide of popularity was like a new frontier, and it inevitably attracted a lot of chancers and grifters – not least, I suspect, because the SEO Google-juice from outbound Wikipedia links is powerful stuff indeed. I’m inclined to see Wikipedia (and a lot of other web-based projects) as an emergent system, and this shedding of casual contributors makes perfect sense; not everyone cares enough to do it properly, and the system self-adjusts to exclude those low-value contributions. [image by mmetchley]

That said, Wikipedia isn’t completely emergent and spontaneous; the Wikimedia Foundation steers and directs it as it sees fit. But even so, it’s still surprisingly reliable by comparison to classically-produced encyclopedias… and those who accuse it of inherent bias have obviously never seen Conservapedia (which I’m not going to do the favour of linking to – just Google it if you fancy horrifying yourself with some ultra-conservative historical revisionism). Sure, it’s not perfect… but what is? I’d be interested to see a catalogue of the errors that a paper like the Wall Street Journal makes in the course of a year for comparison…

That said, there’s one statistic about Wikipedia that is fairly disappointing (though far from surprising):

A survey the foundation conducted last year determined that the average age of an editor is 26.8 years, and that 87% of them are men.

Um. Not so much a greying, after all.

Why Wikipedia is (apparently) doomed to fail

Paul Raven @ 13-02-2009

As a poster-child of the Web2.0 success story, Wikipedia has grown from a small but thriving community of volunteers into one of the most well-used online resources there is. But that community-driven character could be Wikipedia’s doom, according to professor of law Eric Goldman – and he thinks the rot has long since set in.

Now, the editors themselves discourage the contributions of others through “xenophobia” toward outsiders; Goldman believes that they see “threats” everywhere and points out that the greater part of all edits made to the site are actually reverted by these editors.

In addition, plenty of political jockeying takes place among editors. And editors have few incentives for their work—no way to make money, no real way even to earn attribution. Together, these problems mean that as editors get burned out by patrolling for spam and vandalism, fewer new people will be interested in stepping up to plug the gap.

Of course, there’s probably plenty of people who would like to slap a whole bunch of [citation needed] links all over Goldman’s theory. But what he’s describing seems to be the same sort of institutional breakdown that can be observed in communities, political movements and any other human group effort.

Perhaps it’s the case that Wikipedia has grown too quickly for its culture to evolve affective coping strategies; maybe smaller subject-specific communities would be more resilient? But then again, maybe they’d just become more cultish more quickly, as has the Church of Darwin.

Authors: does your Wikipedia page keep getting deleted for low notability?

Paul Raven @ 23-01-2009

Then you may want to take a tip from this band. The Wikipedia rules state that everything on the site needs at least one verifiable mention in a reliable external source, otherwise everyone and his dog could have their own page. But you’re not allowed to write your own entry, either…

A member of the band, Killian’s Angels, noticed this when she checked the Wikipedia article about the soundtrack to the Grand Theft Auto IV video game, upon which the band appears. Every other band had a Wikipedia entry, so eventually one of the band’s fans wrote one about them — and it was deleted later that day because the band wasn’t, according to Wikipedia editors, “notable.” Cue the newspaper article…

… which, being a verifiable print publication, met Wikipedia’s notability criteria and allowed the page to go back up.

In other words, if you’re not in Wikipedia yet, get someone to run a story about how you’re not yet in Wikipedia. Ta-daah! I predict phones ringing in local newrooms in five, four, three…

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