[Taxacom] Wikipedia rewrites

Lyn.Craven at csiro.au Lyn.Craven at csiro.au
Wed Feb 4 22:54:06 CST 2009


I'm much obliged for your report of your experiences.   It seems that any time invested in Wikipedia will be well spent.


-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Doug Yanega
Sent: Thursday, 5 February 2009 5:44 AM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Wikipedia rewrites

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 activity).

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 time.

(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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