[Taxacom] Wikipedia rewrites

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Wed Feb 4 12:44:23 CST 2009

Fred Schueler wrote:

>Lyn.Craven at csiro.au wrote:
>  >
>>  The big negative about this approach is "information that can be 
>>corrected and/or confirmed by experts"... I thought about 
>>contributing to Wikipedia but when I realised that anyone could 
>>rewrite my text, I thought why bother.   ...I'm not sure that 
>>putting up something that might only last a few weeks before some 
>>zealot gets to it is worth the time investment.
>* has anyone had the experience of having errors subsequently inserted
>into something they've put up on wikipedia? This is often mentioned, but
>I wonder how often it occurs (I've thought of contributing to wikipedia,
>but I've been spooked by the fear that it could become a full-time

Up until fairly recently, I was one of the four or five major 
professional biologists creating and editing species pages in 
Wikipedia and Wikispecies. After well over 5000 edits, mostly to 
taxonomic pages, I have about as much first-hand experience with 
Wikipedia as you can imagine, and I can summarize the key points 
rather simply:

(1) Very few species pages are ever vandalized; the most common 
targets are those which are very common "common names" - among 
insects it's higher taxon pages like fly, beetle, wasp, roach, moth, 
bee, etc., that see virtually all of the vandalism, nearly all of 
which is trivial and rarely persists for more than a matter of 
minutes (or hours) before another editor reverses it. Pages such as 
these that are targets of persistent vandalism can be protected by 
the admins, so no vandalism is possible.

(2) Overall, Wikipedia is like a ratchet; once an actual improvement 
has been made, it never goes away, but an act of vandalism or 
misinformation doesn't last very long at all unless no one ever reads 
the page where it appears. Therefore, the quality only improves over 

(3) There ARE strict policies regarding what is and is not permitted 
in terms of form and content of edits. One of the most important of 
these rules is that anything that is inserted into Wikipedia that 
does not have a RELIABLE SOURCE cited is subject to immediate removal 
if it is challenged, with no grounds for complaint. The insertion of 
ORIGINAL RESEARCH, even if it is perfectly legitimate, into WIkipedia 
is prohibited, in fact - there MUST be a published source for 
everything (this does not literally mean a reference must be included 
for every single statement made - the rule basically states "it must 
be POSSIBLE to confirm anything included in Wikipedia through 
independent sources").

(4) There IS a policing system, so a persistent vandal or crackpot 
can ultimately get themselves banned - temporarily or even 
permanently - if their edits are too disruptive. At any given moment, 
for example, there are literally *thousands* of high schools whose IP 
numbers are blocked by Wikipedia, thanks to "clever" high school 
students who like to play around. One bad student can get an entire 
school blacklisted for as long as a year. That sort of behavior is 
not tolerated in Wikipedia, and a LOT of people don't realize this.

(5) When it comes to competing taxonomic hypotheses, there really 
isn't any technical workaround that allows for different 
classifications to *function* simultaneously. The taxonomy in 
Wikipedia and Wikispecies is absolutely strictly hierarchical and 
uses Linnaean ranks. At any given time, only one complete 
classification hierarchy is possible to have implemented; basically, 
any alternative schemes CAN (and usually are) explained in detail in 
the text of an appropropriate page. Generally speaking, the most 
recent classifications tend to be the ones implemented, ASSUMING that 
there is reasonable support for the classification within the 
relevant community of experts. For those of you following the recent 
discussion of Asclepiads, for example, you'll note that entering 
"Asclepiadaceae" in WP's search takes you to the "Asclepiadoideae" 
page, which reads

According to APG II, the Asclepiadaceae is a former plant family now 
treated as a subfamily (subfamily Asclepiadoideae) in the Apocynaceae 
(Bruyns 2000).

The bottom line, for those of you considering contributing, is this: 
if you insert material that is properly sourced, then no one is going 
to remove it, except temporarily. If someone doesn't agree with a 
legitimate contribution you have made, the MOST they are allowed to 
do is to insert material citing different sources that offer a 
different opinion. If what you wish to include *IS* a matter of 
debate and opinion, then you may find that you will need to share 
space with any and all other opinions; the Prime Directive in 
Wikipedia is that everything must be unbiased - meaning that any and 
all viewpoints that have reliable primary sources (a concept which 
has a formal definition) have a right to be represented.

I personally feel that the time and effort I have spent contributing 
to Wikipedia was well worth it. MILLIONS OF PEOPLE read pages that 
I've edited, and I feel that making sure those people are not being 
misinformed is one of the most significant things that I, as a 
scientist, can contribute to society. Aside from a book I published, 
probably only a few hundred people have ever read any particular one 
of my publications - but many of my Wikipedia entries get more 
readers than that every single day. Whether we like it or not, an 
overwhelming number of people now get most of their information from 
Wikipedia, and it's the least we can do to ensure that what they find 
when they go there is an accurate representation of the state of 
human knowledge. If experts such as ourselves DON'T contribute, then 
society is that much poorer for it, and we have no one but ourselves 
to blame.


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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