A Static and Authoritative Wikipedia

Wikipedia.jpgWikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, is coming out in a static version on CD. According to the AP:

Wikipedia’s advocates like to tout its dynamic nature: Volunteers can quickly respond to new developments and errors in the collaborative online encyclopedia by adding or changing entries themselves.

So it may seem odd that Wikipedia volunteers are now working on a static version on CD, a preliminary version of which was released earlier this month.

The goal is to extend Wikipedia to those with limited or no Internet access. Success with the CD could ultimately lead to Wikipedia in book or other forms. . . .

The development comes as the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 36 percent of U.S. adult Internet users have consulted Wikipedia — 8 percent on any given day. The telephone-based study issued Tuesday also found Wikipedia usage higher among college graduates and younger Internet users. . . .

Since its founding in 2001, the reference has grown to more than 1.7 million articles in the English language alone.

The Wikipedia CD will have only a subset of that — about 2,000 articles, with a heavy emphasis on geography, literature and other topics that won’t change much the way current events and controversial subjects might.

This development got me thinking of an idea that could help solve two of the biggest problems of Wikipedia: (1) since anybody can edit an entry, there’s often information of dubious reliability; and (2) entries frequently change as they are edited and updated, thus making any citation (gasp!) to Wikipedia even more problematic since the facts being cited to might no longer exist in the entry.

These problems are especially important because Wikipedia is being widely cited in scholarship and judicial opinions.

The solution?

Wikipedia should create “approved” static versions of certain articles, which do not readily change and which are reviewed and approved by a professional editor or expert. In other words, Wikipedia could select special editors with expertise in certain areas, vet their credentials, and have them do a thorough edit of an entry. The entry would then be frozen as a special version. People could still edit and change the entry, but the special version would be readily available for those who wanted to rely on the entry for citation purposes.

Wikipedia already comes close to doing this. It has certain trusted editors and it does archive older versions of entries. But to make Wikipedia reliable enough to cite, some changes have to be made. A good system must be developed to ensure that trusted editors have the appropriate expertise — Wikipedia must avoid being conned by a charlatan. And it must be easy to find the expert-approved entry, which must be stable and free from modification after the expert reviewer has edited and approved it. With these changes, these special Wikipedia entries might be reliable enough to cite.

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6 Responses

  1. Some wikis do this sort of thing, but Wikipedia has already had this discussion — and pretty publicly too. The community has decided that it’s important for a 13-year-old who’s just read “The Tao of Physics” to have as much say about quantum field theory as a Ph.D. in the field. It is not now, and never will be citable as you hope.

  2. John — Under my proposal it can be both. People who want the unstatic unvetted entry can read that. People who want the expert-approved version can read that. I am not proposing that Wikipedia change its practice of allowing open collaboration on entries, but to supplement it. Further, even the expert-approved entries can originally be written and edited by anyone — they are only frozen after the expert makes his or her edits. The frozen version gets archived, and the entry can still be edited by anybody. But the important thing is that there would be a clearly-marked archived version that is vetted and accurate.

  3. Your proposal is exactly right, except for one detail . . . Wikipedia shouldn’t do it. Someone else should. Some other institution should take snapshots of Wikipedia and have special editors with expertise massage the entries into stable, coordinated versions. This other entity could be coordinate by the Wikimedia Foundation, or by someone else. That’s the beauty of using a free license; anyone can take a fork.

    Ultimately, one could have overlapping processes, in the same way that Linux has odd and even minor version numbers. One location holds the live, “unstable” Wikipedia, with its current high-freedom editing policies. Another holds a snapshot that is being refined to stability, with a no-new-content editing policy and an emphasis on cleanup. The two efforts would work well together.

    That said, it would take an enormous editing process to produce a true, vetted, stable version by experts of the sort that you describe. And I’m not at all confident that what they would come up with would be better than Wikipedia One. In the time it would take the “experts” to go through the hundreds of thousands of entries, I’d expect the scrum of Wikipedia One to have done a huge amount of new production. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if many entries in Wikipedia One were better-written and more accurate than what Wikipedia Two would spit out.

  4. Andrew says:

    The thing is, everything gets archived, already. As far as citation goes, it is entirely possible to cite to a particular version of a Wikipedia page. This, for example, is the entry for Fluid Dynamics on Jan 2, 2004, at 5:56 AM.

    If you cite a Wikipedia page, and include a “last accessed” parenthetical at the end of the citation, that would enable anyone to look up what the web page looked like when you accessed it.

    This makes matters no more authoritative. But it does prevent “disappearing facts.”

    For my money, 95% of the citations to Wikipedia are the sorts of things that do not need citation at all, along the lines of, “Deontology is an ethical theory that finds ethical norms embodied in notions of rights and duties. See ‘Deontology’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontology (describing Deontology as ‘the theory of duty or moral obligation’).”

  5. Justin says:

    I agree with Mr. Grimmelmann.

    I appreciate the concern about validating and vetting using credentialed editors, but as someone who has come to rely on the expectation that Wikipedia will be possibly tainted by either bias or inaccuracy, or a combination of both, I can assure myself that I will not be completely trusting of what I find there. However, I do like using the resource as launchpad into real research where I previously knew nothing or very little about a topic, and the wiki entry often provides good key word qualifiers to help define and narrow searches in research databases.