Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Middlebury Affair

Lots of press flurries around the decision by the Middlebury College history department to ban Wikipedia citations in history papers. The most sensible response appears to come from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who simply says: "For God's sake, you're in college. Don't cite the encyclopedia."

Wikivangelists see this as the beginnings of censorship, which just proves that they need to spend more time on Wikipedia learning about what censorship actually is. That said, the Middlebury history department's response to Wikipedia use strikes me as both reactionary and narrow-minded. Don't get me wrong. The preponderance of inaccuracies (which the professors ascribe to Wikipedia, not to the students) is in fact a big deal, and requires an aggressive response. As with, say, large military conflicts, lots of people getting bad information from unreliable sources is a serious problem. But, in banning Wikipedia citations, Middlebury profs missed addressing that problem altogether.

Here are, I think, the putative reasons for the ban: 1) due to convenience, students are relying on a source of information that may expose them to historical inaccuracies, which they in turn embrace because (I guess) they're too dumb or lazy to know better; 2) relying on Wikipedia prevents students from distinguishing the difference between credible and non-credible sources, from developing a critical approach to historical information, etc. -- i.e. they fail to learn proper research methodology.

So what's the solution? Hold students accountable for incorrect information, as you would with any other statement, sourced or not? Actually teach research methodology, so students can independently evaluate sources and the information they provide?

Nope. They just banned Wikipedia citations. They don't, as far as I know, have a public ban on citing The Onion or attributing words spoken by Dana Carvey on SNL to George Bush Sr. But they single out Wikipedia almost, I think, out of spite for the damage they believe it causes to traditional scholarship. Now, despite the histrionics of campus free speech advocates, this citation ban does not constitute censorship in any substantive sense. But how does it help, exactly?

What Middlebury professors (and all professors) should be doing is teaching students how to evaluate information and build a supported argument, then holding those students accountable for what they write. I think they've chosen citation ban either to avoid doing those things, which is sad, or to send a figurative shot over the open-source bow, which is petty. I read the ban, in part, as a sign of how threatened the academic elite feel by Wikipedia and the like. In my view, the limitless benefits of community-created information repositories far outweigh the potential for inaccuracy, especially since rigorous editorial and peer review don't root out inaccuracies or bias by any stretch. But Wikipedia damn sure scares people who control knowledge production, and the anti-Wiki backlash (of which this citation ban is, I think, a part) reveals just how much.

One last thing. In some parts of the academy, Wikipedia is actually offering teachers a way to teach students about research methods (as noted in the linked NYT article). Assigning students to edit or create a Wikipedia pages seems like such a better solution to both of the problems discussed above. Lame.


Alyssa said...

First, hi Alek!

Second, I'm working as a fact checker at a magazine now, and I've had to dissuade my wonderful writers, all of whom are experts in their fields by this point, and my editors, from relying on Wikipedia, which sometimes gets them bollixed up. It's not that these folks don't have critical thinking skills, or that they can't tell the difference between good and bad information, it's just that Wikipedia plays to our worst instincts, be it the desire to make deadline or the thought of having to wade through Thomas or the Iowa Secretary of State's records, or whatever. Banning it as a campus reference is, as you suggest, a sign that some of the battle's been lost already. But I can see the value in breaking it as a habit.

alek said...

See, I feel that, if anything, it strengthens my research skills. But I'm not in a job that requires that kind of simultaneously high breadth and volume of needed information. I can see how, on deadline, Wikipedia's marvelous convenience might evolve into dependence.

Let me ask this: Knowing, as you do, the potential for shoddy fact-checking in virtually every major publication (including, I'd wager, yours), is the trust we give to Wikipedia any different than the trust we give to the Post? Put another way, don't nearly all mediated sources of information encourage those same bad instincts in those same pressured situations?

What I see as the "danger" in Wikipedia is not people reading it as gospel, but people reading it as adequately supported -- when in fact it may not be. How many times have you read an article, glanced at the citation to make sure it's not from "," and moved on in the certainty that whatever statement the Wiki author made possesses sufficient support? For all we know, the citation could claim the exact opposite, or could deal with the topic broadly but not support the nuanced conclusion...or whatever. I see that as a problem, but really not a large one in the grand scheme of things. And by any measure, preferable to hidden or non-existent editorial review.


Not a Flaneur, I Just Walk A lot said...

Except that many articles don't list their citations, and may or may not be flagged as such, but there remains a temptation to award them legitimacy they may or may not deserve...

Alyssa said...

Sorry this is a super-late response...I've been busting my ass trying to finish a labor lobbying story that will run in the next couple of weeks, and for some reason, I wasn't getting verification images when I tried to post this for a while, but since they seem to be back up, and my sources are all at lunch, here goes:

I think the question of whether Wikipedia dependence is any more risky (fact-wise) than dependence on the Post or the Times or whoever is a good one. I absolutely agree that writers are sloppy everywhere, and that's a risk and problem that we do run into sometimes, even with primary sources (there was a significant brouhaha at the magazine a month or two ago when it turned out the the New Democrats had screwed up their own membership numbers in a raft of press releases and speeches, I changed a number based on theirs, and ended up inserting a small error into the magazine. Hazard of the profession.) But I think unlike Wikipedia, the writers, reporters, and editors at officially non-partisan publications have a professional interest in correctness that doesn't exist for most Wikipedia posters.

Let me explain that on two levels: first, I think we can agree that there are clear cases of manipulation of Wikipedia entries for political, personal, and simple practical joke ends. The truth is the object for some people who write Wikipedia entries, but it's not inherent in the medium. I think the same problem exists for the publications on both the left and right, which while subject to more rigorous requirements of factual accuracy, are still subject to lean in directions that may compromise what I consider to be facts (yes, I fact-check people's opinions, and if we can't support them empirically, they have to go. That's life at NJ.) Second, there are real, professional consequences when a factual inaccuracy makes its way into a non-partisan publication. There are writers at my magazine who have seen their professional development stymied both in terms of their positions and how much they are paid because of factual sloppiness. I'm not considered responsible when something wrong makes it into the magazine, if only because I check significantly more copy than your average fact-checker and the author should have got it write in the first place, but that doesn't mean I don't get dragged into editor's offices to explain what happened, and that's something I'm always eager to avoid. In even more significant cases, there are mistakes that can lead to a source refusing to speak to you at a critical time, which is a disaster for any publication or writer (if you want examples, I'd be happy to provide them, just not in this forum). Wikipedia posters don't get paid for getting things right, it doesn't go into their performance reviews, and they aren't embarrassed by name when they make mistakes. As a result, and because I know the weight of those professional consequences, and because published articles continue to have corrections appended long after the correction's been noticed, I am far more comfortable with my authors relying on major newspapers and rigorously fact-checked magazines like the New Yorker or the Atlantic. On a side note, I'm particularly comfortable with relying on certain authors at different publications who I know have good sources and a lot of expertise--one of the things that worries me about Wikipedia is that it's not clear who has written uncited material, so I think there's significant potential for material written by well-qualified people to be erased or nullified, and for bad information to take its place.

And I think your last point is interesting: the only time I use Wikipedia is for a conglomeration of sources on a topic. I'll follow links and rely on those if I think they're trustworthy, rather than relying on what's been cut and pasted into Wikipedia, but it's a rather counter-intuitive use of the medium, and not one I'd expect most people to adopt.