July 1, 2010
I ♥ Wikipedia
People sometimes ask me what I think of Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia. I use it all the time. And sometimes I’m amazed at what I find. But in my opinion, the Wiki model works best when a topic enjoys a widely distributed knowledge base and a large pool of people with time on their hands to contribute. But as one climbs the ladder of specialization, the knowledge becomes less widely distributed, and those who do have the knowledge are too busy pursuing it to care about contributing to Wikipedia. So as a general rule, the higher one climbs up the pyramid of specialized knowledge, the lower the quality of wiki articles.
I implicitly trust a Wikipedia article on a topic of general knowledge, like “American Football.” There are millions of very knowledgeable football fans and thousands of them care enough to vet that article. Putting a wiki article on football in front of them is like tossing a dog a fresh bone. No flesh will remain, no surface or joint will go untested.
I have spent a good portion of my editorial life trying to get the experts to contribute to reference books, to “Paperpulpapedias.” And I can attest that it’s difficult enough to get them to contribute to “paying” reference works. As an editor, the thought that these experts are turning us down (with the excuse of a full writing schedule or because dictionary articles won’t advance their bid for tenure) all so that they can then go contribute anonymously and for nothing to an online reference resource would be disconcerting. And puzzling.
But it’s not happening—at least not at any significant level. And let me say this in defense of reference-book contributors: the best articles in specialized reference books represent extensive research and expertise, and a considerable amount of time devoted to distilling the essence of a topic into the confines of an article. An excellent article cannot be dashed off.
In addition, there is the simple fact that articles in academic and more specialized reference works are reviewed by peers in the field, and the articles regularly and often go through revision. We don’t catch every problem, to be sure. And we don’t always achieve balance within every single article. But from my desk, I can say without hesitation that there is an awful lot of “value added” in the editorial process.
But when we turn to online wiki resources, we find something else. Take for example articles on biblical or theological topics, like “penal substitution” or “New Perspective on Paul.” Informed readers will detect problems, and even note that sometimes the controversies surrounding these topics are being waged in “real time” within the wiki process. While this can be interesting and profitable (even entertaining), it is not what we generally want in a reference work. “Wiki” works certainly have their place and are useful, but I submit they have not yet earned the right to eclipse traditional reference works in specialized fields.
On the other hand, there are exceptional projects such as the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is really more like a standard reference work, with signed articles by experts, and still (and perhaps ever) a work in progress. This is where I would like to see free online encyclopedias go. But they aren’t really free. They take funding, administration and time, just like their paper pulp counterparts.
All this leads me to an article on the “Good Enough” revolution in Wired. Here’s a quote:
Could this also be the case with reference works? It’s true that the low end of access to knowledge has never been riding higher. So I ask, is the Wikipedia phenomenon—cheap, accessible, and does the job—just “good enough” for most folks? If so, I think this would be tragic. For one of the functions of a good (and specialized) reference book is not only to tell you what you set out to find (the thing you knew you didn’t know), and what is generally known, but to tell you what you didn’t set out to find (the thing you didn’t know you didn’t know)! And the depth and reliability of that knowledge rests on credible expertise. And really—despite our cultural climate of populist criticism of expertise—that makes all the difference.