Fud-Based Encyclopedias

Free Software Magazine - The FUD-based Encyclopedia

A few months ago, a former Britanica editor took a swipe at Wikipedia in a long and scathing rant. Well, now mathematician and head of Emory University's digital library has stepped up to offer a devestating coutner-attack. Krowne's basic argument is that the arguments against Wikipedia are "FUD," or fear-uncertainty-doubt tactics that established software houses typically use to unfairly reduce competition.


I think some of the critiques of wikipedia, some of which I've myself have raised before, have validity. Unless they've recently started, Wikipedia doesn't provide bibliographies or identify sources for additional information, some entries do not identify controversies or critical debates within a topic, and some entries are factually wrong or contain inaccuracies. As someone who has written entries for print encyclopedias published by scholarly presses, I know that good encyclopedias strive to do all three.

I know the standard line from Wikipediaists is to revise the entry. Great, expect that if I edit an entry, there's nothing to keep someone from changing it again. Say, for instance, if I call into question the long-held Franco-Prussian representations of Richard I of England or the Vikings, still widely held by specialists in French and German medieval history, they might remove it. Great! Let the debate play out in the free market place ideas! In principle, I agree. However, a reference tool is not the free market place of ideas. A reference tool like an encyclopedia is where non-experts go to get a quick overview of a subject and, ideally, find some excellent and recent sources where they can learn more. Conferences, journals, academic listservs, and other traditional and online forums exist to host critical debate.

Ah, but people can check the histories of the entries a wikipediaist might say. True again, but how many casual users do this? Most look at an entry and move on. And even if they did, not being experts in the field, can they evaluate the debate? Especially when sources aren't provided?

I admit that these issues I raise can also be problems in print encyclopedias. However, a good encyclopedia's editorial practice is to acknowledge critical debate and provide sources for further reading. Therefore, users of a good encyclopedia should be exposed to critical debate if one exists and should be pointed to sources which will further explain such debate if they wish to follow up on it.

I'm not opposed to the idea of wikipedia and I'm most definitely not beholden to print or traditional publishing. I do believe, however, an encyclopedia as a reference tool, whether in print or online, needs to follow specific editorial practices which I don't see wikipedia doing.

That doesn't discount wikipedia for what it is or mean that it shouldn't exist. I like wikipedia and use it from time to time. What this does mean, however, is that wikipedia should not pretend to be what it isn't: a serious challenge to the traditional encyclopedia. At least not until it changes its editorial practices.

I would think that Aaron Krowne's discussion of CBPP is an effort to address some of your concerns. CBPP does not/might not follow the same set of editorial practices as a closed project such as a Britannica would, but Krowne is suggesting that in the long run that it can reach the same level of validity/authoritativeness. After all, as he explains,

You “never really know” if a Wikipedia article is true... but this is also the case for traditional encyclopedias... no one in their right mind would claim that traditional encyclopedias are perfect

Wikipedia is still in the early stages of development, still not at maturity (Matt can probably tell us how old it is). I would suspect that over the next 10 years Wikipedia will continue to evolve in a positive direction, both in terms of how authoritative it is and in how it is constructed. For example, I've seen some entries which link to additional sources outside of Wikipedia and suspect we'll see more of this in practice as open access makes more research publicly available and linkable.

So I would say look for continued improvement, and be careful of evaluations which suggest that it is not "a serious challenge to the traditional encyclopedia." I would definitely say it's a far superior product than that 1950's World Book I used in the late 1970's and early 80's when I was going to junior high and high school :)

I did qualify my statement not "a serious challenge to the traditional encyclopedia" with "until it changes its editorial practices." It very much could pose a challenge to traditional encyclopedias in the future, especially to general use encyclopedias such as World Book, Britannica, and Encarta.

And you're right that there's no guarantee that the entries in a traditional encyclopedia are correct. My greatest fear in writing an entry on Richard I was that I'd mangle or misrepresent the information in some way. I'm certain I didn't screw up the other entries I've written, but Richard is just so huge. However, there were editorial processes in place to oversee my work, my research was based on the most respected and up-to-date sources, and I provided a bibliography of the best of those sources. That's not yet standard practice for Wikipedia, which is why I don't see it posing a serious challenge as a research tool at this time.

For me, I think, it comes down to these issues: What is the purpose of a reference tool such as an encyclopedia and what are the ethical obligations of those who provide them?

And from that perspective, I think Wikipedia is as much an encyclopedia as a car is a horseless carriage. A car isn't a horseless carriage, it's a car. Or, if one were to insist on using the term carriage, a car is a motorized carriage, which is a different thing than a horseless carriage. In the same way, from my perspective, Wikipedia is a database of information collaboratively compiled which, among other things, is user extendable and keeps track of changes to its entries. Fundamentally, Wikipedia is based on openness, and an encyclopedia, while a collaborative database open to revision, is fundamentally based on closure. So, for me, there's only a problem when one tries to suggest that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It's Wikipedia, and there's room for both as reference tools.

Having dumped a bit on Wikipedia, let me also suggest what I think are some of the interesting and exciting possibilities non-print encyclopedias, whether or not one uses a wiki. (I'm making a distinction here between practice and form. For instance, one can replicate the practice of closure an encyclopedia has using a wiki, or one can use a wiki to create the openness of Wikipedia.)

I think it would be quite interesting for an encyclopedia to have multiple entries on a subject written by experts with differing perspectives. How one "objectively" represents Richard I or the Fourth Crusade is going to differ widely depending upon one's focus, and these aren't always trivial. Conference panels on the Fourth Crusade that bring together specialists in Western Europe, the Venetian city-state, and Byzantium have been known to end in fist-fights (and they're all looking at the Crusades from a Christian perspective). Unlike a print encyclopedia, a digital encyclopedia could give room to all of these perspectives, not just as a few lines, but as full parallel entries.

And then there's the prospect for specialized encyclopedias. One could gather together in one source entries on memory in all its forms (mnemonics, ars memoria, epistemology of memory, tradition, memorization, recall, etc.) from a wide range of print encyclopedias such as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Encyclopedia of Psychology, Encyclopedia of European Social History, Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, etc.

This is a very interesting discussion. I was thinking that if a scholar were reading an entry in the Britannica that she felt conflicted strongly with the expert opinion, she might very well write a letter or call an editor. I'm almost certain they must get public-submitted "corrections" all the time, and I don't doubt but what they act on some of them. Of course, it's up to the editors to decide what to do, but it's probably wrong to see the Britannica as a "closed" system.

I was also considering the construction of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Bearing in mind that my knowledge of this project comes from The Professor and the Madman, most of the work was done by volunteers who were only superficially supervised and held to quality control standards. Too much second guessing would undoubtedly have stalled the project indefinitely; it's probably best just to get something released and then rely on feedback and further research to hone and improve it.

The best encyclopedias I've looked at (including some of the CD-ROM versions) do list the sources and point to publications from scholars and recognized experts. Wikipedia has started doing this as well, though many entries are of course mere "stubs."

Wikipedia represents a certain body of "local knowledges" that are, to great extent, not subject to a centralized authority. The quality control is almost exactly the opposite of a traditional encyclopedia. Whereas the quality of a Britannica is due mostly to the quality of its paid editors and researchers, the quality of a Wikipedia is due mostly to the quality of its unpaid contributors--and I wonder how much "research," at least as we would use that term, goes on in the construction of so many entries. A centralized authority will naturally appeal to those who appreciate a certain order and hierarchy to things, whereas those same features are repulsive to someone who distrusts authority and is comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.

In short, the wikipedia appeals to "hackers," not just those folks who delve into code and technology, but those of us who value freedom and playfulness over rigidity and control. The people who would say, "Well, that article is worthless; it hasn't been published by a recognized academic press" will never be happy with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the audience for these people. If a student asked me if she should cite a Wikipedia article in her paper, I'd tell her she should can do so only if she shares an understanding with her audience about Wikipedia is and its limitations.

In my mind, I don't see "Wikipedia article" and "Britannica article" on some scale with one side tipping one way or the other. Instead, I see two totally different constructions of authorship, legitimacy, and knowledge. I enjoy having access to these different knowledge-making communities and can appreciate how both represent pinnacles of human achievement.

Ultimately, I think we're on the same wavelength here in seeing Wikipedia and an encyclopedia such as Britannica as engaging different constructions of authorship, legitimacy, and knowledge, an in the valuing of both.

When I used the terms closed and open, I was referring not to a format that's never revised (I do make direct reference to revision of encyclopedias), but to both the closure of print culture (as opposed to the openness of oral, chirographic, and digital culture) and to the gate keeping nature of an encyclopedia's editorial practice (everything from a publisher deciding to print an encyclopedia to the selection of authors to fact checking and copyediting).

And, for what it's worth, while volunteers sent in information for the OED, it did have editors who wrote entries based on the information people gave. Tolkien spent two years on the OED after WWI and before he landed a teaching position. And the quality of the first edition was variable. Tolkien's included a number of jokes and quibbles within his works (see, for instance, the blunderbuss reference in "Farmer Giles of Ham" or the OED's definitions of wraith and Tolkien's presentation of the ringwraiths. And this is an important point which I've probably elided over too readily based on my own anxieties about my own entries, however unfounded they are.

The "closed" nature of the OED or an encyclopedia means that it's much harder to revise, even when revision is needed. While a "closed" text may never get revised if it only exists in print, the "openness" of Wikipedia means that it can always be revised. A "closed" digital text like the electronic OED or The ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies can be revised or added to as needed but there are gate keeping policies and procedures that govern how and when changes and additions are made.

I'm most definitely not engaging in FUDdery (not that anyone's claimed I am). What I'm responding to when I jumped into this discussion is the claim by some, including Wikipedia's founder, that it is in direct competition with Britannica, as well as Wikipedia's own claim that it is the "free encyclopedia." Such claims elide over the "different constructions of authorship, legitimacy, and knowledge" the two forms engage in.

I'm interested in the way that you define "closed" and "openness" and the way that we have been using it here because I see openness as rooted in the principles of the open source development process and the free software movement, much as David Bollier describes. Openness in this sense does not prevent the possibility of a gatekeeping process for the construction of a text, whether it be software, textbook, or encyclopedia. Nor do I believe that it's restricted to digital culture or impossible in the pre-digital world (although certaionly less practical).

I'm using closed and openness to mean many things. Nor would I argue, and I hope I didn't imply, that they are monolithic and static categories or strictly limited to a particular techno-cultural matrix such as oral culture or digital culture. Maybe I can tease out some of my meanings, but from your brief comments above, I don't think we disagree. So, in no particular order:

In one very real sense, I do see print and print culture as favoring closure. (This doesn't mean that openness can't exist or even thrive in print culture). As Ong, McLuhan, and others have argued, the invention of printing favors the creation of fixed texts and structures in a way that orality, scribality, and digitality do not. The very notion of a fixed text is a concept that comes about with printing. This is, of course, somewhat simplified. A sacred text like the Bible was considered a fixed or closed text well before printing and early printed books were bound together, taken apart, and bound with other texts much the same way manuscripts were for some time. In general, however, printing created the notion of fixed text, the idea that we could all turn to page 145 of Jane Austen's Persuasion and all find the same group of words. The advent of computers, and especially the Internet, have reminded us that the fixed, closed, nature of print is not "natural."

So, when I say a print text is closed, I mean 1) that it's a fixed text, and 2) it can't easily be changed (as I'm sure you know, there's a big difference between reprinting an edition and revising to create a new edition).

Then there's my use of closure to refer to the editorial practice of traditional encyclopedias. Closure, in this instance, refers to the fact that entries are written by a small number of people selected by the editors, even for large projects. While the OED has information -- the examples -- submitted by a large number of people, the entries themselves were written by a small number of people who compiled all that information, as opposed to say Wikipedia where anyone can come along and contribute or make a change. People can suggest changes to "closed" text such as a traditional encyclopedia, but those changes don't take immediate effect. They have to be approved of by the gatekeepers, and if it's a print text, there also has to be the decision to print a revision, or at the very least an addendum.

Closure also exists in at least a third way, which is control over the use and/or reproduction of a text. At one end, we have something like top secret government documents or a corporation's highly guarded and protected records or someone's academic file in which most people aren't allowed to look at let allow modify or distribute. At the other end, we have something in the public domain like a traditional ballad which we perform, modify, and distribute for free or for profit as we see fit. Most everything else falls in between, including most open source software that requires one include some form of acknowledgement or puts limitations on one's ability to sell it for profit. (I could reproduce that traditional ballad, even photocopy any number of ballad collections, and sell those copies for profit.)

There's probably other meanings we've invoked in one way or another that I haven't pointed to here. And, in practice, these intermingle and overlap in any number of ways. While "openness" in all of its forms was common in, say, the oral tradition of (primary) oral cultures, cultures which that have no knowledge of writing in any form, they wouldn't understand our uses of openness any more than they would our uses of closed or closure. It's only with the advent of writing that notions of fixed performance or fixed text is possible.

So yes, you can have openness and editorial gate keeping. You can have closure with digital texts. And you can have open (free software or public domain) print texts. It all depends on what kind of openness or closure you're referring to.

And you're right that the free software notion of openness can and did exist in the pre-digital world. In fact, as I've suggested above, openness in this free software sense was probably in practice more open than most free software today. Only, the notion didn't exist because there was no contrasting notion of closure. It's just the way things were.

I hope that helps. I know I'm being what seems a bit fast and loose with my usage of the terms, but that's because I'm open to and operate within the multiplicities of meaning.

because it gets me thinking about the idea of closure and openness in texts in new ways. i'm not sure whether i'll be able to go this direction within the diss. regardless, it's useful for thinking about how openness is being defined within the open source/fsf/open content movements.

someday, we'll have to sit down and talk about this in more detail :)

Hey, John, do you think you might be up for looking at some chapters of my dissertation? I'm trying to get my thoughts together on a few topics involving Medieval history and technology, and, from what I've seen, you're the perfect man for the task. Maybe I could send you a few dollars via PayPal if you could offer me good feedback on a chapter or two.