Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

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Wikipedia: is print dead?

Devil's advocacy here. jereeza and myng_rabbyt may well have a price on my head after this one.
(Edit, 11:00 CDT Thu 28 Oct 2004: I should have added that I welcome commentary from anyone, not just librarians, but that views of research librarians such as Myngwen and sui_degeneris, and indeed all of the many bibliophiles on my friends list, are important to me.)

Athrabeth narvi a banazir

This afternoon, narvi pointed me to this article on Wikipedia and professed to agree with this remark:
"Theoretically, it's a lovely idea," says librarian and internet consultant Philip Bradley, "but practically, I wouldn't use it; and I'm not aware of a single librarian who would. The main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window."

I replied, by way of a knee-jerk response, that this person was part of a dying breed (one that I could view with both sympathy and disdain at that point).

narvi immediately sprang to the defense of the original commentator, saying:
I don't think there is anything more important than peer revision. As a researcher, you wouldn't want to use Wikipedia, at all.

to which I replied that I use Wikipedia every day, and even cited it as a source in an encyclopedia chapter I wrote, though that was because I am qualified to review the entries (on genetic algorithms and genetic programming). narvi replied that he wouldn't have done so, that research librarians do not (typically) have such qualifications.

To me, Wikipedia is just another source, perhaps an ancillary one; but its coverage of many periodicals, news publications, etc. is a somewhat novel feature. I use Wikipedia especially when I want to learn about something quick and Encarta doesn't have a good, up-to-date entry. My point was that Bradley underestimates the open content factor, the "if you build it, they will come" effect that Linus Torvalds (among many others) popularized. I realize there is no Linus of the wikipedians per se, nor was the Wikimedia Foundation created that way.

To narvi, it is a source yet to have its value completely determined. In his reading, Bradley did not mean by the above that a librarian would never go to the website, or hold some irrational stigma, nor even that the migration away from paper as a medium is evitable. The question is whether he or she would cite it as a reliable source.

To this I responded that the librarian who does not now cite Wikipedia articles may be well within the established practice of his or her field. One who professes that at no time soon will he or she get to using it, though, probably doesn't see how quickly things move. Soon, I asserted, it will come to pass that Wikipedia is not only a viable, community-maintained corpus of open content, but one that is at least as reliable as electronic journals and conference proceedings where refereeing is quite strict. This community will gradually acquire qualified reviewers who will monitor each other. It will happen simply because of the economics of the situation - Internet research is already incentivized by ease of access, collection maintenance, and use of subscriber-based services. To paraphrase Chancellor Gorkon's daughter in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Print is obsolete, ladies and gentlemen, as we are in danger of becoming.

narvi replied that he is reluctant to read more into Bradley's remarks than what he said. I pointed out that what he said is tantamount to equating text in print, and the process of producing it, to putting one's reputation on the line, when print is really just a speed bump at this point. NB: As I told narvi, if you claim (as he did) that peer review is necessary, I agree wholeheartedly. If you mean that print has facilitated peer review to date, I also agree. If you assert, however, that print is necessary for peer review, I disagree. I've been to so many talks (including even a panel and seminar organized in our Provost's Lecture Series, about four years ago) where librarians rail at Amazon, say that the metacommentary "scares them to death", call it a harbinger of the death of the American library; and yet see nothing good, no progress, coming out of the paradigm shift.

To me, that seems short-sighted at the least. It's not just about replacing books with CDs and DVDs or stopping subscriptions and book purchases (which some libraries, ours included, have started doing). The economics of the situation are just the beginning. There is something good in metacommentary, provided the "peers" are themselves reviewed and "self-regulated" (i.e., mutually regulated). Obviously one is not going to have a good reference while people are using a putative encyclopedia entry as a debate forum. Mathematical formulas in and Wikipedia get checked and corrected, I argued. The only difference is that Wikipedia bootstraps from "unvetted" contributors. Of course there is the popular sentiment that sometimes a Wikipedia author is a self-professed authority and turns out to have written erroneous entries, something peer review a la print safeguards against. My claim, though, is that the culture and economics of print are not what drives this safeguard.

At this point narvi indicated that he agreed with all of this but averred (correctly) that I had extrapolated beyond Bradley's point and his. How did Wikipedia hold up to those standards? He didn't know, and neither did I. I do see that "don't cite Wikipedia if you aren't qualified to" is easier said than the self-assessment is done. However, just as one shouldn't cite a library book unless you know whether it's timely, the same cautious sense of responsibility can and should pertain in using a tool such as Wikipedia.

Which is what narvi was getting to, he said. "As a student, it'd be a horrible thing to cite Wikipedia for anything. I don't care what the promises are for electronic publication. Right now you simply must continue to use print resources. Which is why [Bradley] said it isn't practical."

nobuddy69 chimed in that hypertext was the future of publication. To this I responded that it the new wave was more than this. We have really been gradually immersed in hypermedia for millenia, an immersion escalating since the heyday of McLuhan. I really believe that will have a place in the world of reviewed publication. To me, though, that's just the "politcs for the moment" as Einstein put it; the "equation for all eternity" comes later.

siocled added that (as she believes) books won't go anywhere; as they have not been causing as many visual problems as computer screens do, by and large.


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