[Taxacom] wikipedia & taxonomical authority

Redhead, Scott REDHEADS at AGR.GC.CA
Wed Jul 30 13:21:01 CDT 2008

Dear All:

I do not think that most fully understand the pros and cons of Wikipedia (and I will not claim to do so either). However, what I have discovered is that use of Wikipedia is unstoppable, growing, growing in influence, and highly influential. In view of this I paid more attention after first ignoring it or dismissing it.

Notably it keeps popping up when doing Google or other searches, more so that Wikispecies. Secondly, I was annoyed by misinformation on some topics, or unbalanced (or blatantly biased) treatments. So, I investigated further and discovered how to edit, check histories, undo edits, redirect, and to create new entries and links (there is much more that I do not know how to do).

After initially learning these fundamentals, I went in and changed things by correcting them or writing them in clearer language, deleting misinformation and photographs and creating some pages.

What I discovered after that came as a shock (both good and bad). Firstly, I noticed that if I created a new page on a taxonomic topic, it was found by web browsers in a matter of days (1-2-3) and quickly became the number one hit on Google searches. It took only 1 week in most cases, but in some cases it took several weeks. Nonetheless each rose to the top. The web browsers, in particular Google must be being fed the info or search it daily. Secondly, for some topics of interest to other web sites (particularly medical sites) - those web creators (because of the public nature of Wikipedia) lifted information directly from Wikipedia (word for word) sometimes attributing it to Wikipedia, e.g. www.freebase.com and www.answers.com and www.wapedia.mobi and www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/ etc., sometimes not. Nothing put there remains "yours".  In some cases this is useful if your desire is to influence what information people will read and use if it matters not if they credit you. The ripple effect (or cascading effect) is tremendous. Additionally, it can be used to counter misinformation by drowning it out. As the saying goes, "if you can't beat them, join them." In some cases the power of such a medium must be used because none of us can actually stop it. This does influence web counts so beware of that source of information as well! They get picked up by things like www.spellingcenter.com, www.bionity.com, http://pandapedia.com/, etc.  Each is a web hit if that is all you count. It is insidious at times.

The other downsides are many. Naturally if I can edit things, so can others, and for better or worse they do, and do so regularly and repeatedly, especially on popular sites. Misinformation, vandalism, and even entire deletes happen all the time. Additionally, correcting some changes means "accepting" what was there already (even if incorrect but you did not spot it). Each site can be monitored, but only if you choose to do so, and the number of reliable monitors for each site is unknown. Contributors can have "Watch Lists" where they are alerted to changes in their favourite sites. The changes can be undone, but vandalism is rampant and ranges from childish "E.M. is a fink" to cleverly disguised as possibly true (false references, technical gibberish that looks real). Vandals also make changes in tandem repeats, first one change, then another a second later. Undoing the last only leads to accepting the earlier vandalism. Checking "Histories" is a way to see if the version you are viewing is more or less stable and authoritative. Most users will not do this. Most vandalism is on popular sites, rather than highly technical sites, but enthusiastic amateurs sometimes add misinformation or photographs for good intentions, but which undermine correct information. 

And so on..  then there is the question of who is "responsible" for a page when so many have contributed? As I noted, many pros and many cons, but it is unstoppable.  Then, stop and think about all those links I mentioned - what if they are copying misinformation (or vandalism) instead of good information? 


Scott A. Redhead, Ph.D. 
Curator - National Mycological Herbarium / Curator de l'herbier mycologique national 
Research Scientist / Chercheur scientifique 
Biodiversity (Mycology and Botany) / Biodiversité (Mycologie et Botanique) Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada/Agriculture et Agroalimentaire Canada 960 Carling Avenue/960 Carling Avenue Saunder's Bldg./ Edifice de Saunder Ottawa, Ontario/Ottawa (Ontario) K1A 0C6

Telephone/Téléphone: 613-759-1384 
Facsimile/Télécopieur: 613-759-1599 
redheads at agr.gc.ca 

-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Doug Yanega
Sent: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 12:49 PM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] wikipedia & taxonomical authority

>As for Roderic's comment:
>Wikipedia: The taxonomic community seems 
>somehow afraid of them, yet I suggest this is not based on much more 
>than folklore.
>Let me give a real example of this "folklore"
>The wikipedia has an entry for "Hoverfly" [European common name for
>family Syrphidae, Order Diptera; known in North America as flower flies]
>They include a picture of a species identified as "Melangyna
>viridiceps," an endemic Australian species. Unfortunately, the picture
>is of Simosyrphus grandicornis.  In the references, there is a link to
>CSIRO photo gallery where there is a picture of the real Melangyna

It's simple enough, then, Chris. Just edit the page. It took me a 
grand total of about 10 minutes to get the whole mess straightened 
out. If we, as taxonomists, refuse to contribute to efforts such as 
Wikipedia by investing a little of our time when we encounter a 
problem such as this, then we have no right to complain.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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