Wikipedia and Class Papers

“Can I use Wikipedia as a source for my paper?” I’ve been asked that question, or some variation on it, many times over the years. My short answer is: it’s fine to use Wikipedia, if you do so with caution, and if you don’t confess to it. I’ll expand on each of the three parts of that answer, from last to first.

Don’t confess to using Wikipedia. I’ll support that advice with a quote from the Wikipedia article on Academic Use: “citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.” In more pragmatic terms: many professors disapprove of student use of Wikipedia.

If you use Wikipedia, do so with caution. The quality of Wikipedia articles varies. A great many are good, and many are better than good. A good Wikipedia article provides (at least) two things: a clear and accurate summary of its subject; and relevant references.

If you are thinking of using a Wikipedia article, test its value for you and for your paper. What aspects of the subject are most important to you and to your paper? Which of the article’s references are most relevant to those aspects? Do the referenced works say what the Wikipedia article says they say? If so, put the appropriate points in your paper, and use the references you got from Wikipedia. Don’t reference Wikipedia itself.

It’s fine to use Wikipedia. To be more specific, it’s fine to use Wikipedia articles that meet criteria such as those in the previous paragraph. If an article doesn’t meet those criteria, then don’t use that article. If an article does meet those criteria, them use it, but don’t admit use by including the article among your references.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you, and I’m interested in your reaction, be you student, professor, Wikipedia contributor, or whatever. So please feel free to comment.

You Are Not a Gadget (but are we?)

You Are Not a Gadget is the title of a new book. Its subtitle is actually “A Manifesto” rather than “but are we?” The author is Jaron Lanier, described in the NY Times review of the book as “artist and computer scientist.”

Lanier sensibly notes that the “wisdom of crowds” is a tool that should be used selectively, not glorified for its own sake. Of Wikipedia he writes that… the site’s ethos ratifies the notion that the individual voice — even the voice of an expert — is eminently dispensable…

Lanier is most eloquent on how intellectual property is threatened by the economics of free Internet content, crowd dynamics and the popularity of aggregator sites.

Some of his descriptions of social media remind me of my own account of Twitter as clothes without an emperor. So his must be an individual voice worth heeding.

I found the review via Techmeme, where stories are selected “via computer algorithm extended with direct human input.” A Google search for “Jaron Lanier” currently shows the Wikipedia entry first, ahead of his own web page. Update: it was via Wikipedia that I found his Wired article, One-Half of a Manifesto.

What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

or, The Implicit Meme of Paul Kedrosky, or, The Edge Annual Question. Paul has changed his mind about the importance of changing his mind.

One of my changes of mind during 2007 concerns Wikipedia. At the start of the year, I admired its collaborative process, while being suspicious about the content resulting from that process.

I am now more confident about Wikipedia’s content, and less impressed by its process. Confidence in content has risen with use. Confidence in process has fallen due to the secret mailing list story.

Wikimocracy and a Grook

Wikipedia describes itself as written by open and transparent consensus. So the Register article about a ruling clique using a secret mailing list came as something of a shock.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a shock. Stan at Mashable, in covering the story, asserted that Where there’s democracy, there’s oligarchy.

Oligarchy is the rule of the few. Democracy is the rule of the people. Are these two mutually exclusive? Quite the contrary. It is impractical and impossible for everyone to rule; thus, a higher degree of influence and power will always be retained by the selected few.

That quote reminded me of “Majority Rule,” a grook by Piet Hein.

His party was the Brotherhood of Brothers,
and there were more of them than of the others.
That is, they constituted that minority
which formed the greater part of the majority.
Within the party, he was of the faction
that was supported by the greater fraction.
And in each group, within each group, he sought
the group that could command the most support.
The final group had finally elected
a triumvirate whom they all respected.
Now, of these three, two had final word,
because the two could overrule the third.
One of these two was relatively weak,
so one alone stood at the final peak.
He was: THE GREATER NUMBER of the pair
which formed the most part of the three that were
elected by the most of those whose boast
it was to represent the most of the most
of most of most of the entire state —
or of the most of it at any rate.
He never gave himself a moment’s slumber
but sought the welfare of the greater number.
And all people, everywhere they went,
knew to their cost exactly what it meant
to be dictated to by the majority.
But that meant nothing, — they were the minority.

I found this and other grooks here.