October 31, 2014

The Winter of Wikipedia’s Discontent

Recently, at a colleague’s urging, I tackled creating a page in Wikipedia for a significant female librarian. I chose Mary Wright Plummer, who was the second female president of the American Library Association, and who also served as President of the New York State Library Association, the New York Library Club, and the Long Island Library Club. Perhaps even more significantly, she was credited with originating the idea for a code of ethics for the profession.

Of all things, I happened to be in the OCLC Library when I began this project in earnest, which meant I could easily pull print sources such as A Dictionary of Eminent Librarians and Dictionary of American Library Biography to cite. This was important, since Wikipedia requires citations for everything declared about a topic or individual. Links to other appropriate Wikipedia pages were also created, such as the American Library Association and Melvil Dewey, with whom Ms. Plummer studied. I also added links to some of her works which were online in full at the Internet Archive, as well as links to WorldCat and VIAF.

Ms. Plummer was clearly an important contributor to librarianship in the United States by any measure. Flush with excitement at creating my first Wikipedia page from scratch (I had contributed other bits before but never a complete page), I submitted the article for review. I soon received a message that there was a backlog and it was possible I would not hear anything for up to six weeks. I heard back in about a month.

My article had been rejected. Apparently I had not documented her importance sufficiently enough, using independent sources. Her presidency of the American Library Association notwithstanding, nor her obituary in the New York Times. At this point I walked away, not having enough motivation and/or time to fight for Ms. Plummer’s inclusion alongside such luminaries as Princess Peach.

My colleague, who is more experienced with the ways of Wikipedia, stepped in and added more to the article and argued for its case on the reviewers talk page. That carried the day and the article was allowed in. But it’s fair to say that without her intervention there would not be an article for Mary Wright Plummer in Wikipedia today.

At this point I was well primed to read “The Decline of Wikipedia: Even As More People Than Ever Rely on It, Fewer People Create It” in MIT Technology Review (November/December 2013). In it, the author describes an effort that has passed a pinnacle of participation and is in decline — a decline that has been fueled, the author argues, by making it very difficult for new people to contribute in any serious way. Rather than being “The encylopedia that anyone can edit,” as is the claim, it presents, claims the author,  ”a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers.” I can’t say that I disagree with this, having emerged bloodied from the fray.

But (and it’s a big “but”), let’s not be hasty and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Wikipedia enjoys a privileged position in the universe of Internet information resources, and much of that position has been earned. For the topics that it chooses (using “it” quite loosely) to cover, mostly it does a fairly decent job. What clearly needs to happen is to diversify both those who contribute and the topics that are covered. Achieving the first of these goals will surely assist the second.

To at least some degree, the existing Wikipedia community understands this. Now what is needed is to ramp up efforts to accomplish these goals. This may be Wikipedia’s winter of discontent, but that doesn’t mean with the appropriate energy and attention it can’t lead to a rosier springtime. It will just require those who are already the keepers of the gates to work at opening them up wider, and soon.

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Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.

Comments

  1. Jackie Dooley says:

    So how in the whatever did Princess Peach (and so many other insignificant entities)? Has Wikipedia tightened up its standards for significance over the years?

    • There are two ways to create a new Wikipedia article. One is clicking a button to “submit for review,” which is the path Roy took. It puts the article into a backlogged queue called “Articles for Creation,” a.k.a. AfC. This is a way for users who are not registered under confirmed Wikipedia accounts to create a new article. However, for registered users, there is a much more direct path to publishing a new article:

      1. use the search box to search (unsuccessfully) for the exact title of the article you wish to create
      2. click on the resulting red link to create the page
      3. paste in your draft article text
      4. save

      And voila, your article is live on Wikipedia! Of course, there is no guarantee it won’t be deleted, but I think your chances are much better than if you wait around for AfC review.

  2. Sara, I appreciate the information. But as I think you realize, when it’s this easy to go down the wrong rabbit hole there is something broken. I’d like to see the Wikipedia community fix it.

    • Absolutely–I agree. The design of the user interface and the policies/practices are at odds, and you were enticed, by a button, to take the “wrong” path. This is a big problem, and one that Wikipedians need to solve.

      I did want to expose the mechanics of how new articles are created in order to let Jackie and others know the ins and outs of how Wikipedia works. For example, when the venerable article on “Princess Peach” was created, back in 2002 (!), nobody submitted it for review: they just published it. Similarly, in recent years I have created a number of articles about lesser-known American visual artists. I have never submitted them for review, but none have ever been deleted, and many have been expanded by others.

      I really like Bob’s analogy about Wikipedia as a party. Like all human social endeavors, there are a lot of rules, many unwritten, to keep the encyclopedia from collapsing into chaos. We may feel constrained by these rules, but many of them ultimately end up serving the greater good.

      Good luck creating your next Wikipedia article, whenever you feel ready. Please know that when the time comes, you have a large community of colleagues who are here to provide support! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:GLAM

  3. Yes, English Wikipedia has lots of rules – many of them put in place during its heyday (2007-2008) when there were so many edits (many of which were inappropriate or outright vandalism) that keeping track of the editing was very difficult and resulted in controversies. Clear (if verbose) policies have been established: Should the rules be simplified or eliminated in part? I’m not sure they should. (Think of Wikipedia’s policies as akin to federal/state/city laws: they grow over time in response to situations that arise because the existing laws are ambiguous. So too, with Wikipedia.)

    The metaphor I give for Wikipedia is this: Anyone can attend this party. But if you want to attend, do you know what the ground rules are? Does attendance immediately mean you can bring anyone, or do anything you want? So too with Wikipedia, if one really wants to participate, one has to do the same thing one does at a party: you keep your mouth shut and carefully look over the crowd, watch what everyone’s doing, imitate them, make brief attempts at small talk, eventually gaining the confidence of friends.

    I would say starting your Wikipedia experience with creating an article is probably not the way to go. Wikipedia is a social encyclopedia and one has to learn the dynamics to see what works. It might sound like large commitment – but if you’re committed to sharing information, it could be well worth it. I have found it so.

    • Very well put Bob.

    • Matthew Flaschen says:

      I agree that most of the policies and guidelines are there for good reason. I also agree with Bob that editing becomes easier over time. People usually don’t need to memorize policies and norms, but rather acclimate to them. But that doesn’t mean *no* streamlining of policies is possible.

      We do need to make it easier for constructive new editors to participate. It’s important to note that Roy was not entirely new; he mentions that “I had contributed other bits before but never a complete page”. There are many more in the same exact boat.

      I’m an experienced Wikipedia editor, and now a software engineer at the Wikimedia Foundation, focusing on increasing participation.

  4. Roy gives voice to the kind of frustration that other librarians, archivists, and curators have experienced in aspiring to join the community of Wikipedia contributors. I would add to Sara’s and Bob’s excellent observations that there is yet a third way to create Wikipedia pages and contribute content to the encyclopedia: namely, by using the MediaWiki API (https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/API:Main_page).

    With this functionality, you can create mashups that pull in data from different sources and let you publish it directly to Wikipedia. This is what we’ve tried to do at the University of Miami with the RAMP (Remixing Archival Metadata Project) editor (http://demo.rampeditor.info). Basically, this tool lets you transform library/archival data from structured XML into wiki markup for integration into Wikipedia.

    To test the software, we (like Roy) created a new page about a library pioneer–albeit not someone with perhaps as much of a paper trail or public profile as Mary Wright Plummer. The page was create in late July and is still live: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_M._Abella. In fact, several small but noteworthy enhancements have been made to it by the Wikipedia editing community. I have also gone back and made small edits on several occasions. Most significantly, perhaps, if you go to the VIAF page for Rosa M. Abella (http://viaf.org/viaf/232419989/), you will see that it now contains a reciprocal link back to her previously nonexistent Wikipedia entry.

    I think that we, as information professionals, can generally be trusted to make good-faith edits to Wikipedia and to abide by its editing guidelines (we of all people know something about following standards and rules!). When creating pages about people and organizations, it is of course very important to be mindful of Wikipedia’s criteria for notability, but I think this is a judgment call that in most cases we are qualified to make. And if we do get overzealous at some point, then the wider editing community will be there to let us know about it.

    • CristianCantoro says:

      May I ask which is the copyright status of the sources from which you have “pulled in [the] data”? Just checking.

    • Hi, Cristian. The data currently being incorporated comes from three sources: finding aids for archival collections (supplied locally), the Virtual International Authority File (http://viaf.org), and WorldCat Identities (http://worldcat.org/identities/). Data from the latter two sources are available under an ODC (Open Data Commons) Attribution license. Locally produced finding aid texts would need to be released under CC-BY-SA and GDL licenses. The current demo site (http://demo.rampeditor.info) has been loaded with a set of Library of Congress finding aids, which, as texts produced by government employees in fulfillment of their duties, are in the public domain.

    • CristianCantoro says:

      Hi, Tim. Thank you for your prompt and thorough answer. May I suggest that you add this info right in the demo site, maybe adding a menu like “About” or “Copyright” ?
      Thanks.

    • Good suggestion, Cristian. I’ll aim to include that in the next update.

  5. Leo – no need to feel pain. If I may be so bold, you make the same mistake that others make and cause yourself needless self-frustration, and then blame it on Wikipedia (as if Wikipedia is one person). If you’re going to toss off a few lines and think that qualifies as a Wikipedia article, you should take a look at a variety of new Wikipedia articles (you can do this by going to the “Did You Know?” section on Wikipedia’s front page). The “Did You Know?” section specifically highlights new content and is refreshed every 8 hours so you can see a variety of the new articles which are created – which should be instructive for what is expected.

    If you just toss off a couple of sentences and then throw your hands up in the air – well, then how committed are you to sharing knowledge? The editor who rejected your article gave you constructive advice – frankly, you’re article is nothing but a couple of disconnected sentences with 3 “ok” references. Ideally, *every* statement of fact in Wikipedia should be sourced (in most of my articles, I have a footnote after every sentence, or after each group of sentences that use the same source). Wikipedia is not a bulletin board where you post anything you want. If you really want to create an article, engage the editor who rejected your contribution, follow his/her prescriptions (and please find some more references), and write prose instead of sentence fragments. If you are willing to put in the effort, I’m sure that will be recognized.

    • Sorry, the article didn’t stand up to the high standards of wikipedia. The sources I used were the ONLY ones available — short of making things up. But, you’re right, Bob, frankly I could care less what some guy on Wikipedia thinks one way or another. Hence the lack of follow-up on my part. To tell you the truth, I kind of prefer the thing in its current rejected state. Yeah, I know, crazy me.

    • Bob, you make a legitimate point, although I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to dismiss the page Leo created as “a couple of disconnected sentences.” (In fact, the only sentence fragment, strictly defined, that I could detect in the submission was its opening phrase.) But of course, engaging constructively with the editor who rejected the entry would have been the best response.

      At the same time, I still have qualms about overzealousness in quality control. I found the topic of Leo’s article to be quite interesting, and I think Wikipedia in general would benefit from more coverage of “marginal” cultural phenomena like squatters movements.

      It is definitely a stub entry, but is the point of “Articles for Creation” to filter out stub pages? I wholeheartedly support the desire to maintain standards, but isn’t allowing the user community to make iterative improvements part of the raison d’être of a crowd-sourced encyclopedia? I can see rejecting frivolous or spammy content, but this page strikes me as legit, if incomplete.

      I just took a stab at working on Leo’s article. Haven’t added any new citations yet, but I did some basic tidying up and reformatting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Timathom/Wonderful_Guise

  6. I agree I was a bit over-zealous myself with dismissal of the article since it appeared so hastily written (more as if to prove Wikipedia wrong than to provide information on the group itself) — so I offer my apology.

    I’ve occasionally felt frustrated by Wikipedia’s over-zealousness at notability. But you know: the people who come up with these rules are people like us. We may not be the ones involved in a decision, but people like us are. (Election Day metaphor: you may think the candidate you vote for is miles ahead of the other one, but if the other wins, what does that say? Do you not have to accept that? If you have 1,000,000 garage bands – do all of them merit an entry in Wikipedia? And if not, how do you decide which do and which don’t? Since this is an OCLC blog, another metaphor: You may vehemently disagree with some aspects of cataloging rules (I certainly do). But am I going to start cataloging my own way in protest? (If you think Wikipedia has arcane rules, what about RDA and cataloging?) If you’re going to be a resident of a city, you are tacitly accepting the laws of the local, state and federal government. If you’re going to be cataloging, you have to follow the rules.

    So here you have the group “Wonderful Guise” of which one of the members says that in all of their existence, there’s a total of 3 articles. So what is their notability? If there is so little written on them–implying that they don’t have much influence on culture–perhaps their notability is due to their inspiration for “Passing Strange” than as a group on their own?

    Since Leo is a former member (which incidentally would be an issue of conflict of interest, but let’s ignore that), he could write a comprehensive blog entry on the group, and then he (or preferably someone else) could then amplify the article draft.

    Yeah, Wikipedia’s rules may be arcane. But so are RDA’s, federal/state/local laws, and any number of systems which have coalesced due to an interested and concerned community.

    That’s one point I keep emphasizing; Wikipedia in a kind of encyclopedia, but it’s a *social* encyclopedia; I’d say a new user’s first responsibility is to learn the community which will facilitate contributions.

    • Tim Thompson says:

      Great points (and conflict of interest certainly would be an issue here). It still seems to me that there’s a place for allowing stub articles about entities who are of lesser notability, but who are notable nonetheless, perhaps because of their relation to more notable entities.

      When I was a kid, I was an avid user of the World Book Encyclopedia (I’m just barely old enough to remember what a print encyclopedia looks like!). I don’t recall there being a citation for every assertion, and many of the entries were quite brief. Simply because Wikipedia, as an online encyclopedia, is not encumbered by the limitations of space doesn’t seem to me to justify suppression of articles that are not “encyclopedic” enough (in the sense of providing exhaustive treatment of the topic at hand).

      But you’re absolutely right about the need to play by a community’s rules if you’re really serious about contributing to that community.

  7. A wikilibrarian says:

    You know what really amazes me in the way librarian consider Wikipedia?

    They seem to think Wikipedia should be everything they cannot do in their job.
    Particularly, it’s really difficult to learn how to tame a library (or even worth a Research library), there are a lot of rules and the right behaviour to get.

    And when a librarian comes to Wikipedia, he seems to think there is no rule and he can do whatever he wants. And when someone tells him: “c’mon Buddy, it’s not anarchy here, let’s respect those who work and learn before you do”, they call it censure or inability to welcome people.

    Please, dear colleague, just accept you may be wrong and you may need some time to learn. That’s what you ask your patron all year long.

  8. Johanna Bowen says:

    More food for thought re Wikipedia: perhaps if you had profiled a male?
    Only 16% of editors are on Wikipedia are women, and only 9% of edits are done by women on Wikipedia (according to Freakonomics).
    Other people’s opinions on the gender difference are welcome as well.
    The Freakonomics podcast discussing Wikipedia came out 2/24/13, entitled “Women are Not Men” http://freakonomics.com/2013/02/24/women-are-not-men-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

  9. Roy, if you want a nice summary of the insanity of what’s “notable” on Wikipedia or not, please see this quick infographic: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5474/11871822903_714f36a83e_h.jpg

  10. Stephen Philbrick says:

    I haven’t fully read all the comments here, which I would like to do before commenting further, but I do want you to know that there is a discussion going on at the talk page of Jimbo Wales (Wikipedia founder).

  11. Stephen Philbrick says:

    Now that I have read the comments, a few observations. Jackie asked if Wikipedia has tightened its standards over the years. The short answer is yes, although this is, in my opinion, a minor refinement rather than a wholesale tightening. The main specific item worth mentioning is that an article about a living person (BLP in Wikipedia-ese, short for Biography of a Living Person) now requires at least one decent reference to avoid a deletion process called “speedy”. It has always been the case that references were desired, but some articles slipped through the cracks, and there are still some articles, from years ago, that probably would be rejected if submitted today. There is no hard and fast rule regarding how many are needed, but I think it is fair to say that the requirement has tightened slightly. That said, one of the articles discussed at Jimbo’s talk page had far more, but I see this as a process problem we can address, rather than a change to an unrealistic minimum.

    Sara points out that there is more than one way to submit an article. This is true, and in fact the central point being discussed, as we speak, is whether we have inadvertently made the hurdle tougher for the AfC (Articles for Creation) route. It was not intentional, and I think we will find that it may just be that not all editors are on the same page, so to speak, but it does require addressing.

    There is a new way to submit articles, but it is literally in progress, a so-called Draft space. The process is being worked on at the moment. However, there is no intention that the hurdle should be intentionally different. If it is different, it is simply because different editors tend to work in different areas, but that just places the burden on us to make sure the standards are similar.

    I hope people will read the discussion at Jimbo’s page:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Jimbo_Wales#Let.27s_discuss_Articles_for_Creation

    In particular, note the frustration of fluffernutter, who has to “drink from the firehose”. I do not work in AfC, but I did work in a comparable area, and I am very sympathetic. Every day, hundreds of people submit dross, and it is sometimes hard to identify the potential jewel, which looks bad because the new editor doesn’t yet know how to do the markup language from those that are truly bad and need to be removed.

    We have far more people interested in trying to submit an article than we have experienced reviewers willing to volunteer their time to help clean up potentially good articles. If anyone wants to become an editor, it is easy, and I hope some reading this will take the plunge. If you find it rewarding, maybe you will then move on to helping us with the review process.

    • Stephen,
      Thanks a lot for pointing out the discussion on Jimbo Wales’ talk page! I’m glad to see that this issue is getting some spirited debate within the Wikipedia community. Now I only hope it leads to some changes to the process, as it seems from reading the discussion that it not only doesn’t work for potential article authors, it is also broken from the perspective of the editors who must deal with a firehouse of trash articles that make the potential gems all that more difficult to find and foster. I wish the community the best of luck in solving these issues.

  12. Matthew Flaschen says:

    Yes, I agree this is an important challenge. I helped implement the Draft namespace. As Stephen noted, it’s in-progress. Currently, it’s basically just a namespace that external search engines (e.g. Google) will not find.

    However, our team (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Growth_team) is working on experiments on new ways to handle Drafts as one of our current projects. We hope to make all parts of the process easier:

    * Creating drafts/articles
    * Collaborating on improving them
    * Asking for help
    * Seeing what still needs work

    If you’re interested, there are some ways you can join the conversation, such as our mailing list (https://lists.wikimedia.org/mailman/listinfo/ee) IRC channel (irc://irc.freenode.net/#wikimedia-growth).

    Matthew Flaschen

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