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Humanist Archives: Jan. 21, 2019, 6:17 a.m. Humanist 32.363 - the question on Wikipedia

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 363.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: David Hoover 
           Subject: My Wikipedia Question (98)

    [2]    From: Jim Rovira 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.362: the question on Wikipedia (32)

    [3]    From: Jeffrey Savoye 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.362: the question on Wikipedia (25)

    [4]    From: Willard McCarty 
           Subject: the question on Wikipedia (32)

        Date: 2019-01-20 18:49:07+00:00
        From: David Hoover 
        Subject: My Wikipedia Question

In response to Ken Friedman:
>        Date: 2019-01-19 09:24:34+00:00
>        From: Ken Friedman 
>        Subject: My Wikipedia Question

>Dear Friends,

>While I've seen a lot of good ideas and interesting information in the
>responses to my question, I observe that no one has addressed the question
> of >reliability and the massive load of problematic articles.

Like almost all of the commentators on this topic, I use Wikipedia fairly
often, especially if nothing important rests on the information being
precisely correct. But Ken Friedman's post about accuracy prompts a related
point of my own: I am frequently bothered by how and how much of Wikipedia
is taken over from other sources and vice versa.

Consider the article on the novelist Lucas Malet (picked almost at random).
Beginning with the "Early Years" section, Wikipedia cites
http://exhibits.lib.byu.edu/literaryworlds/malet.html for some basic

The Literary Worlds page has this:
. . . was born in Hampshire, England, third of four children of social
reformer Reverend Charles Kingsley and his wife Frances Eliza Grenfell. . .
. Early in life Mary was educated at home, and she studied art under Sir
Edward Poynter.

Wikipedia this:
. . . was born in Eversley, Hampshire, the daughter of Reverend Charles
Kingsley (author of The Water Babies) and his wife Frances Eliza Grenfell.
She was the third of the couple's four children. She was educated at home
and studied art with Sir Edward Poynter.[3]

One could be concerned with the amount of unacknowledged direct quotation
here, but at least the source is cited accurately. The following passage is
more problematic.

Literary Worlds:
In 1876 she married Reverend William Harrison, her father's curate, and
left behind her artistic career. Unfortunately the marriage was unhappy and
childless; the couple soon amicably separated.

In 1876, she married William Harrison,[4] a colleague of her father's,
Minor Canon of Westminster, and Priest-in-Ordinary to the Queen. Malet gave
up artistic aspirations after the marriage.[3] The marriage was childless
and unhappy, and the couple soon separated.

Here the details about Harrison do not come either from source [4] (the
Who's Who entry under Malet's real name, not Harrison's entry, which also
does not contain it) or source [3], but the details about the marriage and
separation do come from [3], which is not cited.


Literary Worlds:
Mary wished to stand on her own laurels as a writer and not on that of her
published relatives, so she combined two little-known family names into
Lucas Malet as her pseudonym. Critical success came with her second novel,
Colonel Enderby's Wife (1885), which dealt with a failed marriage. . . .

After the separation, Malet embarked on an independent writing career,
forming her pen name by combining two little-known family names. Her first
novel, Mrs. Lorimer, a Sketch in Black and White, was published in 1882.[5]
Critical attention and praise came with Malet's second novel, Colonel
Enderby's Wife, published in 1885, which fictionalized her brief failed

Malet lived for most of her life on the Continent with the singer Gabrielle

Note that the formation of Malet's pseudonym and the information about her
second novel seems taken from [3] without citation, but the pseudonym
information might easily seem to come from [5], which does not contain it.

Wikipedia goes on to state that Vallings was Malet's "romantic companion,"
apparently citing [3] again, though [3] does not make this claim.

I would not claim that all or even most Wikipedia articles suffer from
problems like this, but I chose this article without knowing the problems
were there. This might not matter so much if so many other web sites about
Malet didn't simply copy over large sections of the Wikipedia article, more
often than not without citation. I have no independent knowledge of how
reputable the Literary Worlds site is or whether similar problems could be
found in it, but it's easy to see how large amounts of doubtful or
information or untraceable sourcing could arise.

 David Hoover, Professor of English  NYU Eng. Dept. 212-998-8832
         david.hoover@nyu.edu https://files.nyu.edu/dh3/public/

Adolph slid back into the thicket and lay down behind a fallen log to
see what would happen. Not much ever happened to him but weather.
--Willa Cather

        Date: 2019-01-20 15:15:39+00:00
        From: Jim Rovira 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.362: the question on Wikipedia


Great question - yes, of course there’s a way to ensure uniform reliability
across all Wikipedia articles: have the site run by people committed to that
goal who will initiate a vetted peer-review process for every article. This
could happen with substantial donations being made to the site for that express

But I think we might want to drop the notion of “cherry picking.” On a site with
millions of entries, I think it’s a mistake to think they are all equal in
importance. I suspect well over half of those could be dropped and no one would
miss them. I’m curious how many of these entries are ever viewed. I think it’s
very likely that if we were to compare every Encyclopaedia Britannica entry with
every equivalent Wikipedia entry we would get similar results on reliability.

If I were running the process, I would focus first on entries that receive the
highest number of hits, and then follow up on Encyclopedia Britannica
equivalence entries and hit the rest of those, and then start working down the
list of the rest of entries that get occasional hits but at least consistent

As I kept working further down, I would begin to think about the value or need
of the entry against the resources needed to confirm some information in it, and
I  suspect I would find quite a few entries that have information that could
never be confirmed. Do I delete the entry? Do I just leave it and flag it? As
you know, many of them are.

So my question is, if I was put in charge of this process and followed through
with it, would the results really be that much different than what we have now?

Jim R

        Date: 2019-01-20 13:32:00+00:00
        From: Jeffrey Savoye 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.362: the question on Wikipedia

Ken asks: Is there a way to ensure that *every* Wikipedia article is as
reliable as *every* article in Encyclopedia Britannica?

I answer, with confidence: no.

As is so often the case, Wikipedia's strength is also, inherently its
weakness, and there is no way of escaping this fundamental conundrum. In
theory, it might be possible to take what has been created and refine it
to something approaching the reliability of a book (which I would
suggest is far from the degree of reliability that has been suggested).
But such an effort would require professional and paid participants, and
no source of such funding is likely to be obtained (nor would such
funding come without strings). As it stands, Wikipedia now has to plead
just to maintain its current operations. It would also mean a serious
winnowing of what Wikipedia covers, and how much attention minor or
ephemeral material gets (and newer material might not get added to keep
up with the constant changes of life). So, from a purely pragmatic
standpoint, the Wikipedia that we have have now is probably pretty close
to as good as we are going to get.

Jeffrey A. Savoye
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

        Date: 2019-01-20 07:11:51+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: the question on Wikipedia

This is about the reliability of publications, Wikipedia included.

As a graduate student at Toronto, I was fortunate enough to be employed
by the Records of Early English Drama (REED) project, initially as the
computer-person, then as an indexer and editorial assistant. I had
already been taught how to get things right during my MA. But REED was
an eye-opener. The care we took over smallest details was a lesson that
stuck. Subsequently getting publications of my own into print has
reinforced the value of finality for all that proceeds it: once typeset
and proofing corrections submitted, there's no changing the result.

The fluidity of digital publication washes back on us all too often as
sloppiness. The value-judgment implicit in that word 'sloppiness' might
provoke an argument to the effect that I should accept the fact that
standards have changed, but I cannot agree. Rather let me
ask: historically what have been the constraints that have
ensured reliability? Or, perhaps better, how historically 
contingent is our concept of reliability? Or, to ask another, 
what is built into the idea of "all the world's knowledge"?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London;
Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University; Editor, Interdisciplinary
Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist

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