William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Research’

Why can’t we have a better Wikipedia dialogue?

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on January 17, 2013 at 10:38 am

Earlier this week, Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner explained how Wikipedia works (and sometimes doesn’t) in a Los Angeles Times op-ed:

Our weakest articles are those on obscure topics, where subtle bias and small mistakes can sometimes persist for months or even years. But Wikipedians are fierce guardians of quality, and they tend to challenge and remove bias and inaccuracy as soon as they see it.

The article on Barack Obama is a great example of this. Because it’s widely read and frequently edited, over the years it’s become comprehensive, objective and beautifully well sourced.

Using the Barack Obama article is cherry-picking, but it’s true: articles are generally as good as they have contributors for them. Yesterday the Times’ Letters section published a response from a (wait for it) high school teacher, arguing against taking Wikipedia seriously:

Why use Wikipedia when library databases such as Proquest and Opposing Viewpoints, which contain PDF files of peer-reviewed, scholarly articles, are available? When given a choice between an article written by an unknown Internet user and one written by an expert, shouldn’t the choice be obvious?

Wikipedia is the lazy researcher’s source of information. It’s useful for a quick answer to a trivia question or resolving a bet, but it should not be used for serious research.

I thought we stopped arguing about the content of Wikipedia as a source of information awhile back, with the standard reply “look to the sources used as references,” but apparently that hasn’t got around the school district yet.

The problem is that they’re both right as far as it goes, and we don’t really know how far that is.

Maybe what we need to figure out is: what’s the proportion of well-developed, well-cited articles to mediocre-to-worse articles covering important subjects, and how do we determine what that means and how to measure it? What this debate needs is some empirical data.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part I

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on February 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

In the past few months, I’ve become increasingly interested in the hit startup website Quora. If you’re not familiar with it, the simplest explanation is that it’s a Q&A website that gets right what earlier incarnations got wrong.* A longer explanation would include a discussion of why it is much more ambitious.

To expand on the point: Answers.com is a wasteland of unanswered questions and no visible community, while Quora has real enthusiasts. ChaCha has more reliable respondents, but they are paid generalists who may not know much about a given topic. Yahoo! Answers seems to have a genuine community, albeit one full of know-nothings. Quora, on the other hand, has attracted the participation of experts (at least in tech) who volunteer their time to create new content on topics of their own interest.

Does this sound like any other websites you know?

Quora’s strengths as a social media platform and Q&A site are evident: it looks sharp and stylish, seems to be well thought out, and has followed the Facebook-Twitter model of starting with a core group of likeminded users before gradually expanding its user base. While it is very far from being a household word, it is often enough compared to those two social media juggernauts, and in fact has early Facebook employees on board. But more and more it is being compared to Wikipedia, which answers the question (so to speak) about why I’ve become so fascinated by it.

To wit: A recent post by Techcrunch editor Mike Arrington declared that Quora was about building “a better Wikipedia”. John Keehler at Random Culture recently called it “Wikipedia, Evolved”. In response to these, Teluq-UQAM professor Seb Paquet published an essay at The Quora Review titled “Why Quora is Not Wikipedia”.

But if Quora’s goal is to “beat” Wikipedia—and I have not heard its founders claim this as a goal—it is very far from doing so now. For virtually every topic Wikipedia addresses, the site is usually found at or near the top of relevant search engine results. Its ubiquity is so great that some have speculated Google purposefully elevates Wikipedia in search results (the more likely reason is that wiki software does many things Google bots look for, and many people link to it). Quora, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found in most searches.

Wikipedia contains 3.5 million separate articles (in its English edition alone), each of which may cover several related topics in detail. And with a few million more “redirects” also catching the eye of Google’s crawlers, the number of opportunities for Wikipedia to land a prominent position on a search results page may be in the neighborhood of ten million. The number of questions on Quora is, at present, not public information.

Any way you slice the numbers, Wikipedia is one of the top ten websites in the United States and the entire world. According to Alexa, Quora is at best the 1,269th website in the United States, and is so far limited to the English language. Wikipedia has been around for more than ten years; Quora, less than two. Whatever Quora might achieve in the future, it has not yet. Wikipedia certainly has.

Quora and Wikipedia are unique in many ways, but to focus on where they are different is to gloss over what they have in common. Meanwhile, Arrington’s flat statement that Quora is “better” greatly oversimplifies the matter. Instead, I’d like to examine what they do have in common, and how they may compete with or complement each other.

In my next post, that’s just what I’ll do.

P.S. If you’d like, you can follow me on Quora.

* On Twitter, Matt Bucher reminds me of Ask MetaFilter, which is different in several ways from the sites discussed above. He is right to identify it as a quality site; the MetaFilter community has been well-cultivated in its decade-plus existence, and is a fine and frequently thoughtful resource for its community. However, I think that’s all it ever plans to be: one section of a larger online community.

The Kids are Alright

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on April 29, 2009 at 6:59 am

Straw man arguments against Wikipedia are fairly commonplace — it’s difficult to generalize accurately about a website with nearly 3 million pages and 65 million visitors (last month). Here’s just one, from University of Washington professors Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head, published in the Seattle Times last week. It’s about the research habits of students, and although the op-ed summarizes a paper about more than Wikipedia, you can tell it was a focal point:

The large majority of students we interviewed said they begin with Wikipedia, the vast, online peer-to-peer encyclopedia — despite professors’ cautions about Wikipedia as an authoritative source. As one student put it, Wikipedia is ideal for “presearch,” or big-picture background “in good English” before moving on to more serious research. Most students also said they don’t tell their professors they use Wikipedia; they simply avoid citing it in their reports.

But we’re not here to debate Wikipedia. We want students learning how to select the right sources and use them aware of limitations. Wikipedia, for example, may be suitable for presearch, but not for definitive judgments. Learning these differences is essential in our digital world because so much of what’s out there is flawed or incomplete.

Actually, it sounds like you are here to debate Wikipedia, especially as it seems that students have already figured out what it is you aim to show them, namely that Wikipedia is not to be relied upon for “definitive judgments.” So where’s the problem? And why complain about something that’s not?

I decided to have a look at the actual research paper, also produced by Eisenberg and Head. It turns out that there is more information there about how students really do seem to get this:

In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their “gut level” interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system (e.g., posted notes by editors such as, “This article needs additional citations for verification”).

The report itself, “What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age” [PDF], provides a fascinating exploration of the way students do use Wikipedia, with interviews producing explanations of Wikipedia use by students like this:

I go to Wikipedia just so to get an understanding of a topic. Like, I did a paper on Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia and I went to Wikipedia first just to check it out. I looked at the history of Puerto Rico and then, Puerto Ricans in the United States. Just to get a basic understanding, so that, I could say to myself, okay, I know the beginning now, I know the current situation, I’m okay, and now I’ve got some citations and stuff, I’ve got a stepping stone to get deeper into the issue I’ve chosen.

I highly recommend “FIGURE 3: Why Do Students Use Wikipedia?”; I’d say it answers the question definitively. Among the reasons explained in the paper is that Wikipedia can provide students with access points into difficult topics:

Students who used scholarly databases after a Wikipedia search said that they avoided starting with scholarly databases first because it was “too much too soon.” Overall, students reported that scholarly articles had “too much technical jargoabout” and “were often not up to date as Wikipedia.”

All are great points. On the last one, Wikipedia is especially unique, and this really underscores the profound development Wikipedia represents. I am fairly certain I was not aware of Wikipedia by the time I graduated from college in early 2002, and I certainly didn’t use it in any research projects. But I know I’m far from alone from wishing I’d had it to consult when I was in school — far more than Facebook, to be sure.

If the professors have any complaint I agree with (from the paper, not the op-ed) it is this:

While some students mentioned the penalties for using Wikipedia for course-related research assignments (e.g., ranging from public humiliation in class to receiving a failing grade), we found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page.

Interesting point. There should be a way to do this. I would certainly support a system, accepted by university professors, for students to acknowledge that Wikipedia helped shape their research. Wikipedia is no substitute, but it should be considered an aid at least on par with Cliffs Notes. Better still, if a professor challenged an assertion in a student’s work and the wrong bit came from Wikipedia, it would be a pedagogic bonus and true service to correct that error. And there are no better professors to start doing so than Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head.