Is Wikipedia being destroyed by its own success?

A lot of people have argued that the Wikipedia suffers from credibility problems, will never be taken as seriously as a closed encyclopedia, and so on and so forth. As an enthusiastic participant with 107 pages on my watchlist I’ve always considered this sort of talk based either on ignorance or envy, but recently I’ve noticed a trend on wikipedia’s anthropology-related pages which indicates that the Wikipedia does face a challenge to its legitimacy — albeit not the ones that the critics might imagine.

One of the many pages that I watch is the entry on “Julian Steward”: — in fact, I wrote most of the current entry. Recently someone left this comment on the “talk page”: for the entry:

According to what can only be called as the authoritative biography of Steward by Virginia Kerns (2003 University of Illinois Press), much of the information in this entry is incorrect. Please remove it until a new one can be added. It does no service to anyone to promote incorrect information. For example, beginning with the first sentence, Steward was not born into a family of devote Christian Scientists. His mother converted to Christian Science when Steward was 9 years old. This event seemed to precipitate his parents’ divorce and motivated much of his work against religion (Kerns 2003: 19-26). Kerns’ book corrects many inconsistencies, errors, and impossibilities in Shimkin (1964), Manners (1973), and Murphy (1977, 1981).

I’ve known for some time Kerns’s biography of Steward (I mentioned it “here”:/2005/05/26/evolutionary-biographies/) but I haven’t read it because there isn’t a copy on O’ahu, its too expensive for me to buy, and I haven’t gotten around to ILLing it yet. Sp I do agree with the anonymous commentor — if Kerns says I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. The problem is that this person complained about the content of this article as if it wasn’t in their power to change the contents of the wikipedia. It is one thing to bitch and moan about the low quality of the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s articles (compare Sol Tax’s entry on Boas in the EB to the “wikipedia version”: — you can’t do anything about what’s in that book. But not the Wikipedia — if you don’t like what you read, you should edit the page yourself!

This isn’t an isolated incident. At one point I attempted to make the entry on the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”: be less suck. This involved doing some historical background on the way Boas’s research paradigm emerged out of a Neokantian background. The result was the following anonymous note in the talk page:

“Sensuous intuition” is not noumenal reality. The very fact that pure sensation constitutes intuitions indicates for Kant that for reality even to be perceived, it must be filtered through the pure intutions of space and time. Whatever “reality is in flux” means, if anything, intuition is not entirely in flux because it’s already been converted into empirical intuition by the mind. The application of the categories is not the first instance of synthesis. Second, the categories are universal to anything possessing reason. The application of space, time, and the categories to raw sense data does not make a subjective experience but an objective one, with patterns that can be recognized by anyone. Someone needs to read his Kant.

Now, in my defense the entry tried to summarize important aspects of Neokantianism in a few sentences intended to be intelligible to people interested in Sapir and Whorf, and this comment seems to miss this fact. However, it is clear that whoever wrote this is more familiar with Kant then I am, and I wish that they had actually edited the entry. Instead, they merely complained on the talk page and didn’t change a word.

People with expertise, in other words, are reading the wikipedia but are not contributing to it. Why? It’s hard to say — after all, how far can you get with a sample size of 2? However, there is another (completely anecdotal) trend that I’ve noticed as well. Have you checked out the talk pages for “anthropology”: or “culture”: The discussions stretch on about the legitimacy of anthropology as a discipline, the coherence of the culture concept, and include lots of reuqests for information. What they rarely result in is any actual change to the article — indeed, a lot of the time the topic isn’t even about how the page might be improved.

While this is all very anecdotal, I’ll take a completely unsubstantiated stab at predicting what it might augur for the Wikipedia’s future: these two things suggest to me that Wikipedia is facing a challenge that results not from its lack of legitimacy, but from the fact that it is being taken too seriously. More and more people read and rely on the wikipedia, and the flip side of this growing authoritativeness is that people do not feel they can mess with it themselves. It seems to me that talk pages are beginning to become places where virtual communities are sprining up to discuss the article, not to help write it.

The solution? Why not head on over to the Wikipedia today and search for your favorite anthropologist — write a quick entry about them, or improve the entry that already exists. The best way to keep them from taking punk rock away from the kids is to keep on playing it, loud.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

29 thoughts on “Is Wikipedia being destroyed by its own success?

  1. Pingback: Muninn
  2. Fascinating and poignant analysis, and very sad. The questions implicit in this post should raise warning flags among the digerati who spend so much time, energy, and resources extolling the democratizing effects of technology (n.b., I firmly believe the potential is certainly there). Authority and printed — or digitally rendered — words are tightly interetwined. It would be sad to see the World Wide Web go the way of the printing press.

  3. I accidently ended comment before I meant to. I meant to end with:

    It would be sad to see the World Wide Web go the way of the printing press, even if the hierarchy is turned upside-down.

  4. I think people are just lazy. They clearly understand how to edit Wikipedia pages, since leaving the comments they did requires such knowledge. Otherwise I might have excused them for technical ignorance. My suspicion is that it is actually quite difficult to weave your own text into an already existing document and much easier to leave a comment. However there is one technical issue I think many people don’t understand about Wikis, and that is the ability to view a history of all changes and to roll back those you don’t like. I think people feel that all changes are cumulative, and so they are nervous about changing the “original” document. I have found that even people who basically understand wiki’s often have a “a-ha!” moment (NB: this does not involve getting sucked into a comic book at a diner) when I show thim how WikiMedia’s “diff” feature works.

  5. i think it depends on a field. a friend of mine who is an algebraic topologist says the wiki pages are shockingly good for a lot of higher level mathematics.

  6. Razib,

    Definately true. As Ethan Zuckerman said last year:

    Nigeria’s brilliant author, Chinua Achebe gets a 1582 byte “stub” of an article, while the GSM mobile phone standard gets 16,500 bytes of main entry, with dozens of related articles.

    Although I’m happy to say that the Chinua Achebe article has been a little more fleshed out since Ethan wrote that.

  7. Can I just say, I am all for what Kerim says: people have limited time. Perhaps Rex’s examples are actually pleas for Rex to do the work, or someone else, and constitute an attempt to change the entry, but one constrained by the amount of time someone has to offer. Now, obviously this various more or less exactly with what one cares about, so I might change an entry I know well and good, because it takes only that much time to do it, but I might _make a suggestion_ in the case where I am not willing to figure out who owns an entry and what the politics of updating it might be… I think Rex’s suggestion is interesting, and I think there are a lot of academics who probably don’t get it, but I also think there are a lot of academics (and would be acacdems) who want to help, but have to go off to a committee meeting… as I do…

  8. *ahem* well ckelty is particularly familiar with the idea of other people doing work on websites he is ideally contributing to. 😛

    I thank everyone for the comments, since this is an idea I’m still working out. I agree with much of this and have two points that ride on it:

    1) as people said, readership is wide enough that a significant selection of the readership is lazy and apathetic. I agree. And yet, they’re not so apathetic that they don’t post to the talk page….

    2) for some pages (the Boas page being a good example) there is a clique of people who have such a sense of ownership that in fact it’s very difficult for outsiders to change the page, and this may turn people off.

    So the community is perhaps being polarized? Apathetic people who post on the talk page and active wikipedians who exert a strong — and perhaps chilling? — effect on collaboration?

  9. Rex, in the case of Debian there are similar issues when it comes to some of the team/committee work. At a theoretical level they are open and anyone can contribute to “the security team” but in practice, it can be difficult to figure out how to contribute and be part of the team. In some cases it seems like one really needs to prove one’s worth and committment, and then the door opens.

    So if indeed if there is limited time and as you say, some pages have higher barriers to entry because of a strong sense of propriety, then it can translate into a much smaller core of contributors. So it seems interesting to compare different styles of management between pages and perhaps even subjects??

    One person who may have some further insight about this is Joseph Reagle who is working on governance and Wikipedia for his PhD dissertation.

  10. I’ve noticed a similar trend in comments on weblogs. Rather than engaging with a post, or providing a polite critique or alternative point of view, more and more blog commenters seem content to try to score points with needless ad hominem attacks. It seems to me that the Wikipedia “trend” you’re noting is something similar: a willingness to criticize, rudely, someone else’s work, without making substantive changes, which would be the more constructive thing to do. I wonder if this means that the open and helpful culture of the web–whether it’s blogging or wikipedia–is changing in favor of more hostile and shrill commentary? I certainly hope not.

  11. Maybe it would be a good idea that in the wikipedia there would be more advertisement for new entries. Something asking people to write an entry and a call for people to write in the page itself the new info they consider important or change whatever they think is wrong instead of going to the comment page.
    cheers from Brazil, see you in the page soon.

  12. I’ve got a question for you Wiki experts. Is there a way to automatically get emailed when an article gets an update? I’m just interested because after I read the article on the Wikipedia here, it reminded me how handy I find the ‘pedia. Since you made it look so easy, I finally went and wrote about an area of my (minor) expertise (Yixing teapots) that had previously been just a stub. I figure I’ll learn even more about them if people go in and tweak what I wrote. But it may only get updated in a blue moon, and I might forget to check!

  13. I have many reservations among these. Chief among these is the editorial control of the website. This mainly comes from the controversy over John Byrne (a comic book artist/writer). If your not familiar with the controversy I suggest googling it (or looking through talk back threads under the John Byrne entry on wikipedia or looking at comic book news websites). Basically, John Byrne objected to some of the material on wikipedia about him and altered it himself (if you look back at some of the earlier entries you’ll see that some of the comments about him are very personal in nature and not sourced.) As a result Byrne was banned and a flame war (through the actual wikipedia entry) broke out. This in turn caused more people to be banned. Of course many of these people probably deserved to be banned because they were purposely trying to deface an entry by insulting Byrne,insulting fans of Byrne’s work or insulting people who did not like Byrne. However, we have no way of knowing whether people who added legitimate information to a log have been banned. It is entirely possible that certain individuals can control the flow of information on certain subjects through banning. Because of this I am very skeptical of the value of Wikipedia.

    The second problem I have with Wikipedia is the lack of sources for the information on many pages. Claims will be made that are difficult to varify. In some cases, I think some statements border of libelous (or slanderous, I’m not sure about the legal distinction between the two. I know that one refers to speech and the other refers to print.)While these comments may be eventually taken down, I would not be suprised if legal action is eventually taken against wikipedia.

    A third and final problem is the issue of plagarism. Who is liable if plagirized work is posted on wikipedia (and remains for an extended period of time on the website). Is the person who posted it liable? Wikipedia itself? Wikipedia does not seem to have any sort of policy to control plagirism. I have a feeling that these issues will eventually resolve the themselves to the detriment of wikipedia (and an eventual loss of face).

    (Excuse the rambly character of my post because it’s late and I’m about to go to bed.)

  14. I think Wikipedia is great for what it is. People try to make it into something it is not. I have heard many experts say that what is on the Wikipedia is correct, but sometimes it misses a detail or two. I suspect it will only get better, but as time goes to infinity. I did change an entry, but didn’t do it in the correct style. My edits were removed. I’ll try again though, someday, and it will approach completeness.

  15. As the anonymous “complainer” of the Julian Steward entry on Wikipedia, I have come to respond to your silly comments. Based on a legitimate authority (Kerns 2003) I asked for the entry of Julian Steward to be removed. I continue to think that the entry should be removed until a new one can be offered. That being said, I am willing to add one, but it takes time to do a thorough entry – frankly, I have been working on mine (in the form of my dissertation) for the last few years.

    Just to think about it…if you leave the entry up, by your account, it is excusable to continue promoting incorrect information if the books to prove your errors are too expensive for you to purchase. Talk about head-in-sand syndrome. Somehow this seems like a weak excuse, and makes me think that a higher standard should be strived for (rather than the expediency, which you seem to want) and actually proves the point against you about credibility. In the interests of credibility it seems that it would be better to remove an entry if it is known to be incorrect and wait until a new one can be added than to leave up misinformation – even if it takes some time to correct the errors.

    Its an indication of the worth of Wikipedia, and the contributing authors, as to whether correct and documented entries are more valued than incorrect and ill-conceived ones that are written by lazy hacks (assuming, of course, that the person who knows there is an authoritative book published on the topic of an encyclopaedia entry that has written and can edit, but won’t bother to get the book is actually the lazy one – you have the power too, the power to actually read stuff before you add an entry or revise ones that you know are wrong).

    So, read the Kerns book and change the entry, or take down the entry and wait until a new one can be produced. Leave it up and be known as a joke and a peddler of bunk, and probably not the place where someone who knows something about an extremely important theorist in American anthropology would chose to share their thoughts.

  16. You don’t need to put your whole dissertation into the wikipedia entry, just fix those facts which you find to be innacurate.

    I’m not even convinced your claim that “much of the information in this entry is incorrect” holds up. So far you have only listed one error on the talk page of the Wikipedia entry. That surely doesn’t warrent the assertion that Rex will be “known as a joke and a peddler of bunk.” If there are other errors there at least document them correctly.

  17. This comes a bit late but I wanted to respond to Rebecca´s post, above, which I think is right on. However, one thing that I´ve been impressed by as a relative novice in reading and posting to blogs and reading Wikipedia is that, often, there is a good community standard for “talking down” the Shrill Angries and/or delicately pulling out the grappling hooks, one by one, of true trolls. Not that it always works but it creates a warm fuzzy feeling when people try…

  18. Quoted from the current page at Wikipedia ( My comments bulleted.

    “Steward was born in Washington, D.C. His father was the chief of the Board of Examiners of the U.S. Patent Office while his uncle was the chief forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau. While his father was a staunch atheist,”

    • Thomas Steward, Julian’s father, was a “Republican Baptist.” (Kerns 2003: 27)

    “his mother became a devout Christian Scientist. Steward showed no particular interest in anthropology as a child, but at the age of sixteen he enrolled at Deep Springs College,”

    • This statement has no causal connection.

    “a remote prep school high in the south-eastern Sierra Nevada designed to produce future political leaders. His experience of the high mountains and local Shoshone and Paiute peoples awakened an interest in life in this area.”

    • There is no evidence to support that he anything to do with any Paiute people during this time, except for one ranch hand.

    “After spending a year at Berkeley, Steward transferred to Cornell University. Cornell lacked an anthropology department, and he studied zoology and biology while the college’s president, Livingston Farrand, continued to nurture his interest in anthropology. Steward earned his B.A. in 1925 and returned to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology.

    Berkeley in the 1920s was a center of anthropological thought.”

    • 2 paragraphs below you sate Columbia “was the center of anthropology in the United States.”

    “The discipline originated in the work of Franz Boas at Columbia University, and two of Boas’s greatest students, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie established the department at Berkeley. Along with Edward Gifford, they established Berkeley as a west-coast beachhead for the discipline. Steward proved to be a star student, and quickly earned a reputation as a scholar of great potential. He graduated in 1929 after completing a library thesis entitled The Ceremonial Buffoon of the American Indian, a Study of Ritualized Clowning and Role Reversals”

    • Steward actually claimed that his dissertation was the first study in culture and personality. It is theoretically anonymous for him, and Kerns goes to great lengths to show that it bears more than a close resemblance to his first wife’s work – demonstrating two important things: one he was married to two women while in Utah, simultaneously; and his dissertation is questionably his. In fact Kroeber was unhappy with the thesis until Nyswander, a behavioural psychologist and Steward’s first wife, got her hands on it.

    “and went to teach at the University of Michigan, establishing an anthropology department”

    • he was already at Michigan for one year before he completed his Phd. And taught there for one year after. He did not establish the Department at Michigan (Kerns 2003: I am stopping the specific citations now, but I can provide them all).

    “there that would later become famous under the guidance of fellow evolutionist Leslie White. In 1930 he moved to the University of Utah, which was closer to the Sierras, and conducted extensive fieldwork in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon.”

    • He got the job at Utah because he wife was an associate prof there, and she was friends with the president of the university. His “extensive” fieldwork has been shown to be most questionable.

    “In 1935 Steward began a long involvement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

    • Steward went to work at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) and for the first year he acted as a liaison between the BAE and the BIA, where he wrote one report (Cf. Rusco 1999, Kerns 2003, Blackhawk, 1999, Pinkoski and Asch 2004) that was rejected by the Commisioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, because Steward refused to agree to the premises of the Reorganization Act.

    “He was key in the reform of the organization known as the ‘New Deal for the American Indian,’ a restructuring which involved Steward in a variety of policy and financial issues.”

    • He opposed the New Deal vehemently. The issues surrounding this statement are incredible.

    “For the next eleven years Steward became an administrator of considerable clout, editing the Handbook of South American Indians. He also took a position at the Smithsonian Institute, where he founded the Institute for Social Anthropology in 1943. He also served on a committee to reorganize the American Anthropological Association and played a role in the creation of the National Science Foundation. He was also active in archaeological pursuits, successfully lobbying Congress to create the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains (the beginning of what is known today as ‘salvage archaeology’) and worked with Wendell Bennett to establish the Viru Valley project, an ambitious research program centered in Peru.

    Steward’s career reached its apogee in 1946 when he took up the chair of the anthropology department at Columbia University — the center of anthropology in the United States.”

    • He was never chair at Columbia. He was hired privately by the Departmental Chair, Wm. Duncan Strong, to replace Ralph Linton.

    “At this time, Columbia saw an influx of WWII veterans who were attending school thanks to the GI Bill. Steward quickly developed a coterie of students who would go on to have enormous influence in the history of anthropology, including Sidney Mintz, Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond, Robert Manners, Morton Fried, Robert F. Murphy, and influenced other scholars such as Marvin Harris. Many of these students participated in the Puerto Rico Project, yet another large-scale group research study that focused on modernization in Puerto Rico.

    Steward left Columbia for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1968.”

    • He had a research position at Illinois, he did not teach during this time and he had no administration duties. He did bring Wolf, Manners, Service and others with him from NY; and, at this time he worked mostly for the Department of Justice in the Indian Claims Commission proceedings where he offered the ethnographic descriptions for terra nullius arguments.

    “There he undertook yet another large-scale study, a comparative analysis of modernization in eleven third world societies. The results of this research were published in three volumes entitled Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies. Steward died in 1972.”

    I think there are some very serious errors with this entry.

  19. Poochiemoo,

    The question Rex raised is why someone with this level of expertise (and you know I respect your work) would stick with backchannel comments instead of making the edits directly. This is not necessarily a question about Steward or you or Rex, but why *anyone* would be hesitant to add their expertise to the “collective brain” of Wikipedia. I happen to think there’s good reasons some people don’t, but it would be instructive to learn why *you* don’t.

  20. Hi Oneman, though I am not sure how you can respect my work (hard to imagine you know it), I appreciate the comment. Its not an issue of backchannels. I entered my comments here because I was being represented as the poster-boy for laziness. I take issue with this representation from people who have no knowledge of me.

    The entry that I asked to be flagged and taken down on Wikipedia had at least a dozen factual errors, and I quickly ran through some of them in the post above to appease Kerim. These errors mean, I think, that the whole entry has to be re-done. As I said I am willing to write one and enter it, but I am not finished it yet — because the entry will be based on my dissertation, and I am just completing the biography section. The information on Steward is really scary in terms of the history of the discipline, and I want to offer a reinterpretation of his oeuvre based on Kerns’ work and his relationship to colonialism, government policy, and anthropological theory. I could write 95% of the entry now, but it seems improper to submit an incomplete one. This does not mean that I am lazy, rather it has something to do with being exactly the opposite – busy.

    I guess another reason to be hesitant to offer an entry (and this seems like a bigger issue now that I have read these discussions here) is that someone can come along and change an entry, say one that I worked on for 4 years, and acknowledge with glee that they haven’t read the requisite material on the subject – in this case the biography of Steward by Kerns or the Clemmer et al (1999), Julian Steward and the Great Basin — claiming some sort of authority on the matter because they have had a hand in 107 other entries. I find that to be specious reasoning. It makes me wonder about the value of Wikipedia. That being said, this site, as an anthropology discussion site is interesting and I am more willing to share my thoughts here because my comments can be addressed but not edited, and I think I have a chance to get a better shake here than at wikipedia.

    Also, and I would like some information about this if anyone is able to share, what is the issue of copyright regarding material that I submit to Wikipedia vs. my dissertation or my published articles?

  21. Poochiemoo,

    If you’re who I think you are, we know each other. The backchannel I was referring to is not here, but at Wikipedia — according to Rex’ orginal post, you made comments at WIkipedia instead of simply adding in the edits, and the question is, if you understand the process there, why you wouldn’t just edit the entry. And you’ve given about the answer I would have given — how mcuh incentive is there to draw on our own expertise when other people might erase whatever changes we make for a whole litany of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of our work?

    Underliyng this is the relationship between intellectual labor and the “property” that it produces. I don’t nexessarily need to profit financially from my intellectual labor — I don’t make a penny for my work at Savage Minds, for instance — but that does not mean that I consider my labor without value. I’m not opposed to giving my labor as a gift to the Wikipedia project and the world at large — in fact, I wholeheartedly endorse the aims and philosophy of Wikipedia — but do not relish the thought of seeing my gift rejected. I’m reminded, speaking of gifts, of Mauss (of course), who notes that there is an obligation to give gifts, but there is also an obligation to receive them. In the Wikipedia community, though, there is no obligation to accept the gift. What, then, of the value of the labor I, or you, or anyone, put into the piece offered?

  22. Assuming mantaku’s comment was a response to mine: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t see this as a copyright issue at all. I use Creative Commons licenses for just about everything I do on the web, allowing free use with attribution. I’m not concerned with people using my work — in fact, if I post something on WIkipedia, I’d hope someone *would* use it. The thing is, when I post to Savage Minds, or my own websites, other people’s use of my material does not change the source itself; on WIkipedia, though, one potential use is the destruction of my work. That’s what Poochimoo and Rex are arguing about, in part — in order to save the entry, PM sees it as necessary to destroy it. Rex, as the creator of all or at least a good part of the entry, in naturally invested in the entry as it stands. While I’m sure Rex would appreciate PM’s expert assistance to the entry, not everyone who is empowered to edit at Wikipedia has the benefit of a dissertation on the topic they’re “correcting”, and there is, so far as I know, no direct way of weighing the competence of contributers. While I’m sure that many, maybe even most, edits are made for the purpose of improving the factual accuracy of an entry, it is possible to make edits based on political preferences, discredited interpretations, or even personal spite — and Wikipedia’s flaunted self-correcting nature seems little reassurance when it’s your own blood, sweat, and tears on the line.

  23. The copyright URL was most likely in response to Poochimoo’s question about copyright. I do think it makes sense to first get your own publications out so you establish copyright for yourself as an academic, and then to cite your own work on wikipedia. However, it seems to me that most of Poochimoo’s corrections are not from his own original research, but are taken directly from Kerns book which he has read very carefully. In this situation there is no issue of copyright. Just stick to the Kerns citations for your corrections and don’t cite any original research you may have done.

  24. Sorry, I was referring to this:

    Also, and I would like some information about this if anyone is able to share, what is the issue of copyright regarding material that I submit to Wikipedia vs. my dissertation or my published articles?

    And asking if this was the answer to the question:

    Contributors’ rights and obligations

    If you contribute material to Wikipedia, you thereby license it to the public under the GFDL (with no invariant sections, front-cover texts, or back-cover texts). In order to contribute, you therefore must be in a position to grant this license, which means that either
    you own the copyright to the material, for instance because you produced it yourself, or
    you acquired the material from a source that allows the licensing under GFDL, for instance because the material is in the public domain or is itself published under GFDL.
    In the first case, you retain copyright to your materials. You can later republish and relicense them in any way you like. However, you can never retract the GFDL license for the versions you placed here: that material will remain under GFDL forever. In the second case, if you incorporate external GFDL materials, as a requirement of the GFDL, you need to acknowledge the authorship and provide a link back to the network location of the original copy. If the original copy required invariant sections, you have to incorporate those into the Wikipedia article; it is however very desirable to replace GFDL texts with invariant sections by original content without invariant sections whenever possible.

    As far as the rest, well your work doesn’t disappear into oblivion when someone else changes it, as far as I know. It can be reverted. PM and yourself seem to be implying that you could spend hundreds of hours working on an article and then someone could just replace it with “U sux~!!” But, and maybe I am mistaken, I don’t think this is the case.

    As far as PM wanting to remove the article because it doesn’t hold up to the facts, well I don’t see how that is necessarily a wikipedia issue. Hypothetically, Rex could have published that in some book, put it on his website, or whatever else. PM couldn’t simply have it scorched from the face of the earth because its full of disinformation and PM’s impeding dissertation will show all that. For academic journals maybe there is peer review – but wikipedia is not an academic journal. So, I just don’t see what point is trying to be made (about wikipedia specifically). It seems most logical that perhaps PM doesn’t have time to change the article as it is, and when he does he can improve it (if he wants). Until that time, he can post that list of errors in the talk page and other people can work on it, or it can just sit there. People realize its wikipedia I think, not The Truth About Everything… if they were researching and wanted precise and accurate information they would go to the Kern book, for example.

  25. Maniaku writes:

    your work doesn’t disappear into oblivion when someone else changes it, as far as I know. It can be reverted.

    I know that there’s some standards for how edits get made and utilized, but the question for me is one of value — how is the relative value of different contributions determined? Working this out is, I think, the greatest challenge Wikipedia has set for itself in the coming years, because the whole idea is that value does not inhere in peer review, professional editing, or even credentials. At the moment, WP is left with a kind of “vulgar Foucauldian” salesmanship — who, in the absence of formal qualifications, can make a better-received claim for him/herself?

    In PM’s case, there’s a harder issue — his research is spot in the middle of a drastic reassessment of a major figure in the field of anthropology. Many of the edits he might contribute are going to be contradicted by several other sources, as well as the vast body of Steward-loving anthropologists with an investment in maintaining the reputation of their teacher, mentor, intellectual progenitor, or whatever. In this sense, WP faces the same limitation as Ency. Brittanica or any other “fixed” reference — the need for authoritativeness may well overpower current developments in the field.

    For academic journals maybe there is peer review – but wikipedia is not an academic journal. So, I just don’t see what point is trying to be made (about wikipedia specifically).

    As I understand it, WP’s openness is supposed to stand in for traditional peer review. If the aim is to challenge the primacy of Ency. Brit. (and if it’s not then I don’t know why anyone would bother) then WP’s openness has to be structured in a way that it’s not a “poor cousin” to peer review but an improvement on it. And if WP doesn’t aim to at least as high of standards as academic publications (not just reviews, but most University Press publications are also peer reviewed) then why should academics involve themselves in the project?

    Ironically, I’m a big fan of WP, despite my reservations. I am astounded by the sheer immensity of the task they have already achieved. If I am being harsh on it here, it is because I do not want to see it swamped by complaints about its credibility, its lack of authority, or its potential for infighting.

    It seems most logical that perhaps PM doesn’t have time to change the article as it is, and when he does he can improve it (if he wants). Until that time, he can post that list of errors in the talk page and other people can work on it, or it can just sit there. People realize its wikipedia I think, not The Truth About Everything… if they were researching and wanted precise and accurate information they would go to the Kern book, for example.

    Well, the issue is that PM has done exactly what you say, and Rex (and I’m with him here) is interested in why someone with the expertise to make corrections is hesitant to actually go ahead and make those corrections. It presents an interesting anthropological problem that needs answers if WP is going to move forward. But the second part of this, about WP not being The Truth About Everything — I understand that, and I agree, but this raises the question of what exactly WP is aiming to be. Is the goal of being the perpetual red-headed stepchild to Enc. Brit.’s towheaded first son really all that desirable?

  26. The peer review metaphor is possibly inappropriate for how wikipedia is intended to work. As is authorship. Ideally entries have ‘contributors’ and the entry is constructed communally over time – it is self organising in the sense that it is a social product, perhaps meant to objectify ‘collective knowledge’ and embody collective value. In other words the work of an ‘author’ is not ‘reviewed’ or evaluated according to a standard – but evolves under the influence of communal acts, entries are in a continual state of becoming. The history records every change ever made to an entry.
    You can see all this in a very nice ‘wiki archaeology’ movie made by Jon Udell on the ‘heavy metal umlaut’ entry:
    So anyone who is worried that their contribution can be edited, or their labour not valued, probably shouldnt be contributing – insofar as that by contributing you have to recognise that you are not an ‘author’ in the classic sense. Similarly, if you have done 4 years work on a topic and want that work recognised formally then it is probably best if you publish it in a peer reviewed journal, put it in your CV, and then one day write up the wiki entry citing your own published work.

    This is the source of Rex’s frustration: Poochiemoo clearly misunderstands how wiki entries work. No entry should ever be ‘taken down’ until a ‘correct one’ can be put up. In the case of the Steward entry this request is even more peculiar – new biographical research has been done, perhaps superceeding what we used to think, but that doesnt make the old research worthy of erasure. It is quite clear how any edits should be made in such a case – you cite the different opinions, the conflicting evidence etc. You say “…but recent evidence presented by Kerns suggests Steward’s PhD was not wholly his own work”. Many of PM’s bullet points cited above would more usefully have been contributed to WP as small (temporary?) edits of Rex’s original entry, waiting for further edits later on…that’s how it works!
    Note that this is also similar to how mainstream published encyclopedias, text books, and dictionaries work – new editions are published every year, entries are tweaked according to current perspectives. But interestingly most contributors to these forms of publication get much less recognition that their counterparts do at wikipedia – I can put in a few commas, and have my name recorded in the history of that entry forever, no mater whether they survive on the front page or not. Compare that to the person who did some proof reading for encyclopedia britannica in 2002…

  27. I have no idea why Poochiemoo is happy to take the time to correct the inaccuracies of the Wikipedia article on Julian Steward on Savage Minds, but not in Wikipedia — although I wish s/he would. I guess it must be, as Tim points out, s/he is confused about how wikipedia (and a number of other digital genres) work. This is too bad, since we both share the same goal: to make the wikipedia entry on Julian Steward better than it is right now.

  28. I think these comments from experts on the talk-pages are increasing. 2-3 years ago they wouldn’t have bothered to look at the articles at all. And over time, contributor size has only increased. So nothing is “destroyed” at all.

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