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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 Mathworld.com 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.



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 27th, 2004 03:01 am (UTC)
Paper vs computer screen - it's only a matter of technological progress. When reading electronic paper will be as easy and relatively cheap as real paper, I'll be the first to sell my book collection.
Quoting Wiki - I'd say yes, in cases when there is a second source to back up the pure facts, but Wiki has better 'quotable material'... or if, as in your case, you're quite sure what it says is right.
Reliability of web-based sources: I'm not a scholar - hardly a student - but what little I've had experience with scientific publications, I've used for example Perseus Project as source of citations and data, without even cross-checking with other sources. I've never had any problems because of that.
Oct. 27th, 2004 05:13 am (UTC)
Well, if the 'problem' is that there aren't sufficient safeguards or knowledgeable reviewers to ensure the information is accurate, that's not inherent to the medium itself. It just means that the general scientific/academic community isn't adapted to all-electronic publishing and information dissemination yet.

What we need is for electronic journals and information repositories to have the same access to peer-reviewed information as the paper journals do. The papers, meanwhile, have been quite loath to allow their printed material onto the web for access; I can walk into the PSU library and read to my heart's content all the latest journals, but there's no way for me to do the same on the net.
Oct. 27th, 2004 06:47 am (UTC)
You should check out the way osvdb.org controls its information flow, it really is pretty reliable from what I've seen.
Nov. 16th, 2004 11:40 pm (UTC)
osvdb.org: thanks for the recommendation
It does look neat.

Oct. 27th, 2004 09:11 am (UTC)
Bod NotBod
A chap I know via a mailing list I frequent has admin status on Wiki, and was good enough to explain part of its workings to me. While it may not be as closely scrutinised as a 'proof' of the Riemann hypothesis would be, there are controls in place.

Like any contribution based source of information, it will have mistakes (witness the mostly excellent IMDB). But then, as Doob said, "If you open a mathematics paper at random, on the pair of pages before you, you will find a mistake." There are no guarantees.

I guess the trick is to treat any resource with an appropriate amount of scepticism. Personally, I've found Wiki to be very useful, if only as a starting point for further research.

I wish I could say the same of every text book I've encountered. (Jost's Postmodern Analysis, anyone?)
Oct. 27th, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC)
And I also said that withou books, we couldn't have those deligthful book-burning ceremonies any more! It's jsut plain uncool if you got to channel your religious wrath against Harry Potter in *deleting files*!!
Oct. 27th, 2004 06:09 pm (UTC)
A quote from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass came to mind as I read this: '"She's in that state of mind," said the White Queen, "that she wants to deny something--only she doesn't know what to deny!"'

There are a lot of interesting sidetrips we could take from this starting point, but I'm not sure what your argument is.

It seems to be that print is obsolete.

With all due respect, that's nonsense.

Print may not be the best/most efficient/fastest means of distributing certain types of information, and information that at one point had to be distributed via print sources may now be distributed in other ways, but that is a far cry from print being obsolete as a whole.

Frankly, in some cases, all that's changed is the means of distribution. Instead of photocopying an article from a periodical, putting it into an envelope, and making a run to the post office to send it to me, you can download an article to your computer, and attach it to an e-mail to me.

At which point, I will likely print it to read it, since I find it difficult to read large amounts of text on the screen.

That's me, though. That's my preferred method of absorbing large amounts of information. Some people may prefer to run that text through a reader, and listen to it. And that's fine too. If technology can be used to give each person the information he or she needs in the form that he or she is best able to process it, I'm for it.


On my shelves, I have a reader printed in 1934. I also have paper tape from 1977.

Any idea which one can be more easily read today, with the technology I have available?
Oct. 27th, 2004 09:50 pm (UTC)
In the end
Will Print die?
[23:15] ZenGeneral: Because, printers will always exist
[23:15] ZenGeneral: people like me will print books
[23:15] ZenGeneral: thus, books will live on
[23:16] ZenGeneral: now, if we kill off all trees, yes... print will be dead

Now, for my lifetime, print will be around unless we step up in destroying the environment (which, If I voted, then would vote yes on proposition destruction)

As to wikipedia, I am not a fan; well, not a fan of encyclopedias in general. So, I say down with Wikipedia. (btw, before you talk about Mathworld, remember, math is sexy, and nothing can touch it… ok, well, I can, but it likes it… math is so dirty) {{Jeff Tactic # 45, to avoid a digression on a specific case resulting from a general statement, confuse the reader with sexual references }}
Oct. 28th, 2004 07:04 am (UTC)
A Librarian Comments
I am not opposed to Wikipedia. You're right, at this point its value as an acceptable and scholarly resource is up in the air. It will have to undergo the test of time that any new information resource has to undergo. Do I think it will pass the test? I certainly hope it will. It is, in its own way, an excellent example of what scientists and scholars were trying to accomplish when they started creating the WWW.

But like any online resource, Wikipedia will have to be approached with caution and a careful eye.

On to the death of print: folks, I hate to say it, but the death of print is still far away. In the 1970's F.W. Lancaster 'prophesied' the paperless society; now, here, in the year 2004, even he says it's not as viable an idea as when he first conceived it. Our technology is simply not at a point to support it. We still print out everything available digitally on the 'Net and through periodical indices and databases. We still check out books. Books are still being printed en masse, and I don't think that's going to change any time soon. Especially in this day and age, as literate as we are.

Will print die? I don't know. It's a possibility. But I think our technology will have to undergo a great deal of improvement in terms of portability, affordability, endurance, display quality, and availability before it can begin to take over the realm of print.
Oct. 28th, 2004 07:07 am (UTC)
Re: A Librarian Comments
By the way, Bana: no price on your head. I'm a progressive librarian. I believe in change, as well as its inevitability and its appropriateness.

By the way, at this point, we cannot truly say that print will be replaced by the digital format. We can only say that they co-exist in an ideal manner.

Similarly, the Internet has not and will not replace the library (or Google replace the librarian). It, like a book or a journal or an online periodical database, is simply a tool for research, not the end-all, be-all.

But that's just me.
Oct. 29th, 2004 04:39 am (UTC)
In a related vein...

Wiki article.
Nov. 16th, 2004 11:39 pm (UTC)
Just catching up - thanks for this.

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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