Wiki Your Papers?

Wikipedia.jpgNeed a proofreader and fact checker? Let the collective community of the Internet do it for you. According to CNET:

When Esquire magazine writer A.J. Jacobs decided to do an article about the freely distributable and freely editable online encyclopedia Wikipedia, he took an innovative approach: He posted a crummy, error-laden draft of the story to the site.

Wikipedia lets anyone create a new article for the encyclopedia or edit an existing entry. As a result, since it was started in 2001, Wikipedia has grown to include nearly 749,000 articles in English alone–countless numbers of which have been edited by multiple members of the community. (There are versions of Wikipedia in 109 other languages as well.) . . . .

Jacobs decided to craft an article about Wikipedia, complete with a series of intentional mistakes and typos, and post it on the site. The hope was that the community itself would be able to fix the errors and create a clean version that would be ready for publication in Esquire’s December issue. The original version was preserved for posterity.

“The idea I had–which Jimmy (Wales, Wikipedia’s founder) loved–is that I’d write a rough draft of the article and then Jimmy would put it on a site for the Wikipedia community to rewrite and edit,” Jacobs wrote on the page introducing the experiment. Esquire “would print the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of the articles. So here’s your chance to make this article a real one. All improvements welcome.” . . .

According to the Wikipedia page for Jacobs’ story, the article was edited 224 times in the first 24 hours after Jacobs posted it, and another 149 times in the next 24 hours.

What result?

On the latest version of the article, the original author writes:

Hello Wikipedians,

I just wanted to thank you all so much for participating in this experiment. It was absolutely fascinating. I was riveted to my computer, pressing refresh every 45 seconds to see the next iteration. And the next and the next. For the last few days, my wife has been what you might call a Wikipedia Widow.

I feel like I should submit all my articles to the community to get them Wikipedia-ized. I can’t wait to print this in Esquire magazine.

Thanks again.

AJ Jacobs

If any students are reading, don’t even think about it . . .

Hat tip: Michael Zimmer

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3 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    Proofreading, maybe. Fact checking…

    I’m sure that this won’t work in mathematics or “hard” sciences. Imagine Andrew Wiles posting his work on Femat’s Last Theorem and every crank with a proof that’s been discredited a hundred years ago coming out of the woodwork to attatch their versions as riders. A lay audience simply cannot contribute to the content of a technical paper.

    I feel safe in saying that the same probably goes for the law. I get torn apart regularly among my acquaintances at the law school for my layman’s arguments from an intuitive-formalist perspective, which invariably misses out on some precedent or subtlety they know and I don’t. I have a pretty good handle on the general contours of the law, but could I be trusted to check a fact? No.

    Besides the technical ability, of a lay audience, wikis founder on the general meanness of hoi polloi. If Wikipedia has proven nothing else, it is that people will attempt to deface an entry simply because they can.

    How do you tell which “facts” introduced or corrected in the process are valid and which are graffiti or simply incorrect? In a more ephemeral discipline such as law, how do you prevent an editor who disagrees with your basic premises from “correcting” them? You end up having to do all the fact-checking again by hand anyway. Better to just hand it to a trusted colleague if you don’t trust yourself to complete the task objectively.

    Wikis provide a good zeroth — maybe even first — order approximation of the truth by consensus. If I want to find out the text of the 12th Amendment or the scientific name of the kangaroo it’s probably good enough to go on. What it can not do is provide “industrial-strength” output suitable for submission to journals.

  2. Aaron Wright says:

    I think that’s a shortsighted observation. I think wiki’s will work for “industrial strenght” submissions to journals, through a process of self-selection. Those who are interested in participating in the dynamic editing process will participate.

    Alternatively, in the context of law school, you can avoid any graffiti problems by placing some minimal restrictions on those who can particiapte in editing. For example, in the context of law, schools could pooled together their resources so that a wiki-law-journal could operate. In other words, imagine if students across various schools had the option to join an on-line wiki-law-journal, instead of their traditional journal. If a suffienct size, members could collectively cite-and-source check and edit an article, and since their is a built-in self-selection there would be no graffiti problems.

    I think, however, that you are correct that wiki’s are beginning to prove the idea of truth of consensus.

  3. Clint Morse says:

    My friend and I are currently in the preliminary stages of running an experiment for the Wake Forest Law Review to determine whether a wiki based legal journal a possibility. If anyone is interested in leading a topic please e-mail me at

    Clint Morse