In the wake of Fred…

In the wake of Fred Saberhagen's passing, a debate sprung up on John Scalzi's blog about a particular editing incident on Wikipedia. I don't have a lot of interest in the specifics of that debate, but there seems to be a lot of discussion of Wikipedia's process right now, especially in spec fic circles, so I thought I'd take a moment to reproduce the relevant section of my comments on Wikipedia here.

I have never edited a Wikipedia article myself, and have no vested interested in this debate one way or the other. That said, in general I find Wikipedia incredibly useful on a day-to-day basis; I probably check it for a minor point of information every few days, such as 'what are the light requirements for growing clematis?' For most of the information it covers, I've found it tremendously helpful. Given that helpfulness, as a user, I'm more than willing to put up with a certain amount of delay when potentially controversial facts are being verified by multiple edited sources. I'm not particularly worried if they currently privilege print sources; I doubt that will last long at all, as more and more professional publications move to electronic publishing. The key is that the source be a reputable publication, and has been through some sort of editing process. It doesn't seem so much to ask.

I don't have the time/energy/patience/attention-to-detail myself to be a Wikipedia editor, but I'm very grateful to those who do the work. I'm sure the process will continue to improve over time -- the encyclopedia itself improves measurably in depth and usefulness every month. I find that impressive.

Re: approved sources -- I don't know whether Wikipedia already does this. But it seems like it would make the volunteer editors' lives easier if somewhere behind the scenes (but easily accessible to editors/users) they maintained a list of pre-approved sources, both print and electronic, by subject area. This might cover print publications, electronic publications, recognized experts in the field and their blogs, etc. So that if I wanted to make an edit, I could quickly glance over that list to see if I could credit a trusted source -- I think I'd be personally much more likely to go to the effort of making an edit if I knew that the source I used was acceptable, and my edit wouldn't simply be reversed immediately.

The process for making it onto that list should also be fairly simple -- perhaps as simple as having a few representatives from already-vetted publications vouch for your expertise. So that, for example, Charlie Brown who edits Locus (or one of his representatives, such as Tim Pratt), could vouch for 'Making Light' as a publication from industry experts. Eventually, that might even lead to my personal blog being listed as an expert source, given my years of professional experience as editor and publisher, and then when editing Wikipedia, I could just cite my own blog. That would simplify matters enormously for me. :-) Though it does seem a bit circular.

I couldn't resist linking to this comic, from XKCD:

3 thoughts on “In the wake of Fred…”

  1. For those who haven’t seen it: back in January, I wrote up an explanation of what Wikipedia is and what it isn’t; my intent was to explain to sf people why there was a mismatch between what they wanted and what Wikipedia does. Although I did get some positive responses, I also saw various people say, essentially, “look! Jed says we’re right that Wikipedia sucks!”

    So I gave up on arguing about Wikipedia with sf people. But I did make some comments in that entry (and more in my own comment to that entry) about what seems to me to be some sf people’s core concern, the whole “But I’m an expert!” thing. As you point out in this entry, part of the standard for being a reliable published source is that statements published there go through an editorial process. If the editors are the ones making the statements (as is true in blogs, even extremely well respected ones by brilliant and experienced authors or editors), then those statements aren’t being vetted. So I’ll be surprised if Wikipedia becomes willing to count a blog entry, by anyone, as a reliable source anytime in the near future.

    As for the behind-the-scenes list of reliable sources: one neat thing about Wikipedia is that very little is behind the scenes. If there were a list, it would be a publicly available Wikipedia page. They do have a page of guidelines about reliable sources, and a section on primary, secondary, and tertiary sources (where primary sources are generally not good Wikipedia sources).

    They also have a section on Self-published sources (online and paper) that currently says, among other things: “Self-published material may be acceptable when produced by a well-known, professional researcher in a relevant field. These may be acceptable so long as their work has been previously published by reliable third-party publications. However, exercise caution: if the information in question is really worth reporting, someone else is likely to have done so.”

    So that could conceivably start to let in things like Making Light or your journal. But even so, I think most of the time the Nielsen Haydens and you (like most bloggers, including me) are more likely to post personal observations and opions than research results.

  2. “Opions” being, of course, the elementary particles of which opium is made.

    Or else a typo for “opinions.” One or the other.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Jed, I think you misunderstood my ‘behind the scenes’ phrase — I did say accessible to users as well as editors. All I meant was that a list of trusted sources wouldn’t necessarily be right out on the front page where the casual user would need to deal with it. Of course the list would need to be publically available, or it would be no use at all.

    I’ll address the rest in a separate post, ’cause my answer is long. 🙂

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