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Not encyclopedic

There seems to have been a spate of articles lately pointing out various things wrong with Wikipedia: Wikipedia-logo-en.pngthe culture is sexist; other encyclopedias are better; it has a pronounced Western bias; it's being subverted by paid PR people; it's sexist some more.

A few weeks ago, a more serious accusation surfaced, when UC Berkeley biologist and open science proponent Michael Eisen tweeted the news that the journal publisher Elsevier had announced it would donate 45 free accounts to Wikipedia, so that editors could access - and therefore reference - its expensively paywalled science papers. Chagrined at the ensuing fuss, which included coverage at Gizmodo and ars technica - a week later Eisen clarified: a) he loves Wikipedia; b) he wasn't attacking Wikipedia for making *any* deals with *any publishers*, but criticizing the quality of this particular deal. Part of his argument was that making it easier to cite paywalled journal articles will prolong the life of the paywalled business model, which he would like to see die off in favor of "truly open scientific literature". He also thought the deal gave Elsevier great PR but didn't give Wikipedia enough return.

Wikipedia has a pretty clear statement of what it intends to be, written as the "five pillars": a neutrally written encyclopedia that is free for anyone to use, edit, and distribute, with guidelines rather than rules, and a culture in which editors treat each other civilly. If you want your science coverage to be the best it can be, you want access to the best-quality research, as Pete Forsyth argues at WikiStrategies. Although it seems logical for Wikipedia to support open access, that's not really its mission.

What didn't come out in those discussions is something I remember seeing discussed some 20 years ago, that the Western world's "best-quality" is already biased: the requirements that make a journal reputable enough to cite may be out of reach in some cases. I recall that one example was a requirement for a minimum period of regular publication - difficult to meet in a country in turmoil. But leaving that aside, it became known bernice-dahn.jpgduring the ebola outbreak that began in 2014 that better access to journal articles would have saved lives, as the chief medical officer of Liberia's Ministry of Health, Bernice Dahn, wrote in the New York Times. While they were trying to formulate a response to the rapidly spreading but as-yet undiagnosed illness, ebola was believed not to exist in Liberia. The journal article that corrected this mistaken impression was written in 1982; but no Liberian scientists participated in the research, and the results were published in a European journal. In Liberian terms, downloading that single article would have cost a physician half a week's salary. Wikipedia already has a strong Western bias; but this deal could save lives if it can provide leads to published work that no one knows about.

A recent run-in of my own with Wikipedia - trying to add accessibility detail to the pages for London tube stations - taught me that, like a large city, what to outsiders appears to be a single community is in fact thousands of smaller ones, each with its own community norms and understanding. This is what makes Wikipedia so hard for aspiring editors to navigate. Just adding stuff may lead to abrupt reversion - not because they think the information is bad (although they may) but because it's the quickest solution to a perceived deviation from the norm. I thought someone would see my addition, note its usefulness, and move it to the right place, providing a guideline I could follow. Instead: revert. I asked an inside acquaintance: what do I do now? He provided pointers to the relevant talk pages, where I was finally told accessibility information was "not encyclopedic".

Sources were always going to be an issue: Wikipedia's firm policy is published sources only, and personally counting the numbers of steps clearly fails. But the information seemed so obviously valuable that I was baffled. Why is the history of a station's platforms encyclopedic but accessibility information is not? Is it because the pages are written by trainspotters or because there's some neutral definition of "encyclopedic" that I don't understand?

In a lecture this week called The Ugly Truth (the Guardian has a summary), Sense About Science director Tracey Brown argued that scientists must learn to be more honest about uncertainty and more open with their data. She offered the following principles: seek accountability and change; clarify the evidence; admit failings; do not keep things hidden.

These are good principles for all curators of knowledge. The point is not to create certainty. As Brown said, certainty is a characteristic of believers, not scientists (or skeptics). By embracing uncertainty, scientists can answer the more important question: do we know enough? Science - except for mathematics, where a proof is final - is never finished. Failures that are visible can be remedied. And that's the point about Wikipedia; everything can be audited. That its failings are known is its biggest strength.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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