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More On Wikipedia’s Pros And Cons

April 16, 2008

If you haven’t thought enough about Wikipedia, or are at least up for more discussion of its strengths and failings, check out this Inside Higher Ed essay by Mark A. Wilson: “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia.” Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the article is that one of Wikipedia’s founders, Larry Sanger, inserted his voice into the piece’s comments. He promoted his more scholarly spinoff, Citizendium. I agree that the latter is more serious—if still growing—online resource. – TL

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  1. I thought the bizarre thing about that conversation was that is seemed far more personal than academic. these guys are really angry at each other and they want the rest of us to care. I signed up to contribute to Citizendium, but everything about their initial communications turned me off, and I've never chosen to “activate.” When I tried to ask Sanger about the way things work there in an email exchange, he cut the conversation off.

    I don't embrace any encyclopedia as a primary research tool. I think they all may have value in an introductory “what are the words” kind of way. I think Wikipedia is the most thorough, far ranging, up-to-date resource of its kind out there. And I have not been in a class in the past three years where we haven't consulted it at least once a session. Citizendium has so little on it that is effectively useless. Britannica costs, thus making it useless as well.

    But what needs to be taught are why encyclopedias are never enough.


  2. I don't know who “narrator” is and given the person's anonymity and the content of the message, I have to wonder whether he/she ever signed up for the Citizendium. But if this is a sincere person with a sincere grievance, I would ask him or her to get back in touch with me with specific criticism. We are constantly trying to improve and learn from our mistakes


  3. gee Larry, if you really were web savvy, you'd have no problem at all discovering my identity, just as I had no problem tracking your email address when we clashed on the Inside Higher Ed discussion.

    I am perhaps the least anonymous grad student online.


  4. Dear Ira & Larry,

    Thanks for the comments. I apologize for my tardiness in adding to the conversation. My subsistence job has been quite busy this week.

    I concur on your thoughts, Ira, about encyclopedias and research. No student should use them in an authoritative manner on any subject therein. The only stage in school where encyclopedias should be utilized extensively are, I think, prior to one's first year in high school. I would even say that encyclopedia use should be liberally encouraged until that point.

    But there are bigger issues at work than personality with regard to Citizendium's prospects for success. Here I open up my thinking to both you and Larry.

    I see Citizendium's primary pool of writers as college and graduate-level students in each respective area of learning. Few tenured or established professors are going to take the time to write and keep up with Citizendium matters: some will, but most won't.

    The question is whether Citizendium can get itself seen as “professional service” with regard to graduate student c.v./resume building. If so, then working on Citizendium projects then be viewed as productive rather than charitable. Right now I think the situation is seen as charity.

    Of course this line of thought applies to a lot of experimental media/mediums: podcasting, blogging, website building, etc. Right now all are viewed as novelty/hobby work rather than service.

    In sum, until the “old guard” sees new media work as “productive,” the progress will be painfully slow.

    – TL


  5. Tim,

    You touch on a very important facet of this. Why will people donate time to community cognition?

    There are a few possible reasons. Pay, as in Britannica. Academic status, as in “professional journals.” Or passion, as in blogs, podcasts, wikipedia.

    So the question becomes, what might Citizendium offer? If I want pay, it is not there. If I want academic status, it is also not there. I could jump in regarding my passions – whether those might be UDL, or Ed Tech, or Irish History, or Celtic Literature, or French History, or the Holy Roman Empire, or post-modern literature, but… two things make that less likely on Citizendium than Wikipedia (or my own blogs). First, I don't understand (and thus do not really trust) the editing process. Perhaps I am simply turned off by the term “constables.” But the halfway point between open source and peer review leaves me unsure of whether my efforts will ever be rewarded in any way. Second, because there is no “base,” it seems like far too much work. I'll go edit the “French Fourth republic” entry on Wikipedia, but since Citizendium has no entry at all, I'd have to write the whole thing, and I'm not really willing to do that.

    In other words, I will accept the notion that 90% of what I write (and that's the part containing all the value to the world) means nothing to the university that I attend. They don't read it, and they're not interested. But I write it because I know it gets out there as I want it, and people hit the site, and I can imagine some impact. I'll write for journals (maybe) because that's part of my “job.” But I'm less likely give my work away and lose all control over it to a self-proclaimed “police force” on Citizendium.


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