[Taxacom] The strain between Wikipedia and Science

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Fri Feb 11 12:32:41 CST 2011

Given that, after something on the order of 6000 edits, I have 
possibly done more editing of Wikipedia than any other contributor to 
this list (the top-ranked biologist on WP has done over 118000 edits, 
the second-ranked 68000, but I don't think they're on this list), I 
can address some of the issues here, though my experience is with the 
English WP, and perhaps there is a less civilized culture on the 
German WP, from Francisco's description.

Francisco wrote:

>It is impossible to correct errors in Wikipedia, if these errors are
>repeatedly published in scientific publications, mainly in the
>secondary literature. It is extremely difficult to get an error
>corrected in Wikipedia even if this error was published only once in
>one single scientific publication - and the amateurs do not know that
>this publication is not significant, at least in what concerns this
>special statement.

One of the core WP policies - "Neutral Point of View" (NPOV) - is 
being misapplied in such cases. Yes, an erroneous statement, once 
published, cannot simply be removed by someone who knows that it is 
incorrect; that is one of the side-effects of true neutrality. 
HOWEVER, if something erroneous has been published and someone ELSE 
has published a statement declaring the work to be erroneous, then 
NPOV means that this criticism can be included, and cited. The actual 
policy: "All articles must adhere to the Neutral point of view policy 
(NPOV), fairly representing all majority and significant-minority 
viewpoints published by reliable sources, in rough proportion to the 
prominence of each view. Except in articles devoted to them, 
tiny-minority views need not be included. Where there is disagreement 
between sources, use in-text attribution: "John Smith argues that X, 
while Paul Jones maintains that Y," followed by an inline citation. 
Sources themselves are not required to maintain a neutral point of 
view; indeed most reliable sources are not neutral. Our job as 
editors is simply to present what the reliable sources say. "

Any editor who removes a citation to a critical reference (e.g., 
"Paul Jones maintains that Y") in order to preserve a discredited one 
(e.g., "John Smith argues that X") is guilty of an NPOV violation. If 
you revert their removal of the critical citation, and explain that 
their removal was inappropriate, and they remove it *again*, that can 
be drawn to the attention of administrators, who generally take a 
VERY dim view of "revert wars".

>Some proportion of scientific knowledge has not been published at
>all, for example very simple and basic facts - it is occasionally
>impossible to mention such knowledge in Wikipedia.

If one reads the rules carefully, the policy is that common, 
easily-verified facts do NOT need to have citations given. Here is 
the quote: "To show that it is not original research, all material in 
Wikipedia articles must be attributable to a reliable published 
source. But in practice not everything need actually be attributed. 
This policy requires that all quotations and any material challenged 
or likely to be challenged be attributed to a reliable, published 
source in the form of an inline citation, and that the source 
directly support the material in question." and it gives the example: 
"Paris is the capital of France" needs no source because no one is 
likely to object to it, but we know that sources for that sentence 

Of course, there are jerks who challenge everything, even statements 
like "Paris is the capital of France" just to make themselves feel 
more important. If they are persistent, however, admins can rein them 
in, and even block their access or protect the articles they are 
screwing with.

>Inconsistent application of different rules applied for WP
>contributors is also a problem - well-known members of the inner
>circles of the Wikipedia community feel allowed to publish anything
>they like, but a scientific expert who likes to contribute is forced
>to provide published references for every single statement. In cases
>of divergent opinions concerning a special question, the amateur who
>knows the rules and how to win such a case, will always win,
>regardless of the expert providing published references to support a
>view or statement.
>They also feel free to delete every contribution they like. This has
>been addressed in the survey. The rule is that you can delete
>anything you like, just by saying "not encyclopedia relevant",
>without any consequences.

This is generally NOT true, because administrators are generally NOT 
tolerant of bad behavior. If you can solicit administrative 
intervention, even the most devious editors can be sanctioned. That 
being said, it can be difficult to persuade admins that someone is 
acting in "bad faith", and one must often know and be able to cite 
the core WP policies that are being violated in a particular case. In 
other words, admins do not generally care about the academic nature 
of a dispute, but - like a lawyer - if you tell them that NPOV, 3RR, 
and WP:OWN violations are taking place, then this will get their 
attention. You can even call for arbitration, and bad editors always 
lose when this happens.

>I have been forced outside the biological section of the German WP
>community and today I contribute mainly to the English WP where such
>behaviour is less strongly developed, and I experienced more
>tolerance. I also learned that other German bioscientists were
>equally chased away, and they also started contributing to the
>English section. I would have wondered if this would have been my
>single personal problem.

This, again, makes it sound like the German WP is not populated by 
administrators who are genuinely interested in promoting and 
protecting WP's core policies. In every contentious case I have been 
involved in with the English WP, one way or another administrative 
intervention resolved the problem, and either sent the fools on their 
way, or forced them to actually play by the rules, instead of hiding 
behind them. Of course, for someone who is unable or unwilling to 
spend the time necessary to deal with administrators, this may not 
seem like such a great system ("Sure, I can eventually win this 
battle, but if it takes 2 months, is it worth my time?"). For me, the 
number of times I've had to go to such extremes has been very minimal 
- maybe a half dozen genuine problems in almost 10 years of editing - 
so maybe I've been fortunate in that regard, and you've been 


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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