Saturday, August 28, 2004

Fear of an Open Source World

One of the first things we learn in Librarian School is that, when doing reference work, always make sure to consult a reliable source. But how do we know a source is reliable and authoritative? That's the big Existential question that haunts many a reference librarian. After all, their is no simple way to determine a resources authenticity. God does not come down from the mountaintop with a little rubber stamp and declare every worthy almanac, journal, encyclopedia or thesaurus "Authoritative" and cast the rest into burning pits of doubt. The only way to find the holy grail of authoritative resources is by doing research (usually with some metaresource designed to verify authenticity, which in turn requires consulting a meta-metaresource and so on) or, as is most often the case, simply using a resource that others find useful. This is really what determines a resources authoritativeness: weather or not you can turn to it repeatedly and get the same accurate results.

E-reference takes this authoritative uncertainty to a whole new sphere of paranoia. No online resource has been around long enough yet for their to be any way to gage its authoritativeness beyond a shadow of a doubt. Sure, The Oxford English Dictionary is online, as is Bartleby's full line of reference works, including the Columbia Encyclopedia. These are wonderful sources, full of much poured over articles, all of them vetted to the highest standards. They aren't complete though. They have holes, sometimes very large ones, especially when it comes to evolving social trends in popular culture or technology1. By the time the article is written, verified and posted, the subject has ceased to be relevant and is now something that happened, back then. That is simply the nature of our wired world. Which is why Wikipedia has become such a valuable resource. It's a free, open source encyclopedia, which means that anyone can write an entry. The genius of this is that instead of having a few specialized lexicographers and researchers (who are often out of touch, being academics and not all that comfortable with this whole computer thing), Wikipedia has at their disposal the potential knowledge of everyone on the web. Facts can be checked by numerous sources, notes compared and articles on cutting edge topics written, posted and updated within hours, instead of months.

However, the entrenched Authoritarians among us are shocked and dismayed by the audacity of such a concept. Just ask Al Fasoldt of the Syracuse Post-Standard:

In a column published a few weeks ago by my companion Dr. Gizmo, readers were urged to go to the Wikipedia Web site at www.wikipedia. org/wiki/Main Page , an online encyclopedia, for more information on computer history. The doctor and I had figured Wikipedia was a good independent source.

Not so, wrote a school librarian who read that article. Susan Stagnitta, of the Liverpool High School library, explained that Wikipedia is not what many casual Web surfers think it is.

It's not the online version of an established, well-researched traditional encyclopedia. Instead, Wikipedia is a do-it-yourself encyclopedia, without any credentials.

"As a high school librarian, part of my job is to help my students develop critical thinking skills," Stagnitta wrote. "One of these skills is to evaluate the authority of any information source. The Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. It even states this in their disclaimer on their Web site."

Wikipedia, she explains, takes the idea of open source one step too far for most of us.

"Anyone can change the content of an article in the Wikipedia, and there is no editorial review of the content. I use this Web site as a learning experience for my students. Many of them have used it in the past for research and were very surprised when we investigated the authority of the site."

Mike, a contributing writer at Techdirt tried explaining to poor, blinkered Mr. Fasoldt the intricacies of Wikipedia:

While I can understand why, at first, the concept of Wikipedia seemed a little scary to those who hadn't seen it in action, I figured the reporter in question might want to know a few more details about it, and perhaps correct some of his misperceptions. My main problem was that he seemed to write off Wikipedia based solely on how it was created and maintained, and not at all on the actual content. Along with my post, I sent an email to the writer, Al Fasoldt, giving him some additional information about Wikipedia, and wondering why, after telling us how you can't trust any random info online, he trusted the email from a random librarian claiming Wikipedia was somehow untrustworthy. The ongoing discussion with Mr. Fasoldt has been quite a lesson in watching how a journalist (a) continues to make unsubstantiated allegations (b) seems to prefer insulting me and putting words in my mouth to actually responding to my points or questions and (c) sticks steadfastly to his belief that only "experts" can be trusted with information -- and, in his case, only experts that he chooses. Yet, somehow, we're supposed to find him more trustworthy than a self-correcting community. Figuring he might appreciate the views of others in his profession (you know, "experts"), I sent him links to Dan Gillmor's article on Wikipedia and Steve Yelvington's recent realization of the power of Wikipedia. However, rather than actually look at that information, Mr. Fasoldt accused me of wanting "students to trust a source that's not trustworthy." After some back and forth of this nature, where Mr. Fasoldt responded to my request that he do a little more research by saying: "I'm glad you're not the publisher of a newspaper" (apparently, his publisher lets him do no research at all) and then telling me that anyone who wrote for Wikipedia obviously knew nothing (his phrase was: "100 times zero is still zero"), I suggested an experiment. I pointed to the Wikipedia page on Syracuse, NY where he apparently lives, and suggested he change something on the page, to make it provably, factually incorrect -- and see how long it lasted. Rather than take me up on the experiment, or suggest an alternative, he complained simply that the whole idea of Wikipedia was "outrageous," "repugnant" and finally (in another email) "dangerous,"

I've run into similar attitudes concerning not just online resources like Wikipedia but also search engines. You should see the sneers I've gotten from some professors when I tell them that I found some piece of information on Google (in only five minutes of searching) as opposed to using the high end and laborious subscription database like Dialog or Factiva. Apparently, there are still Librarians and information professionals who think that authority does come from on high, and if it doesn't bare the stamp of approval from the OED or the ALA (or a high subscription price), then it isn't worth our time and might even be dangerous. Regardless of the fact that it works, which ultimately, is the only true test of a resources Authoritativeness.

Update: Bryan, in comments, sums it up nicely:

Wikipedia uses the peer review standard of all scientific journals. While the base value of "peer" is more extensive and inclusive on Wikipedia, the procedure is exactly the same.

The "established" reference works that have been ported to CD have still not been debugged primarily because the established institutions simply don't have the staff to do the job in a timely manner.

Update: 8/30

While Mr. Fasoldt dismissed Mike of Techdirt's Wikipedia Challenge, someone else didn't:

He [Alex Halavais] made 13 changes to 13 different Wikipedia pages, ranging from obvious to subtle. He figured he'd give them a couple of weeks and then fix the ones that weren't caught. Every single change was found and changed within hours.

Thanks for the link goes to Corry Doctorow at the ever useful and authoritative Boing Boing.

1. As an example, here is the entry in the Columbia Encyclopedia for "blog". And here is Wikipedia's entry.


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