Category Archives: Wikipedia

Productive frustration, lost libraries, and required reading for aspiring writers

As I read  Ben Greenman’s “Lives” essay in today’s New York Times Magazine, this caught my eye:

By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.

I like the term “productive frustration” because it is an apt description of part of the research process. Finding quick answers to simple questions is easy, but it shuts down the process. When you wrestle with more complex questions, try to figure out what you need to know and the different ways you might look for it, or can’t find what you’re searching for, it’s an opportunity to think more creatively, explore new paths, feed your curiosity, and make unexpected discoveries. As the Gaga librarians sang, “when it comes to search if it’s not tough it isn’t fun…”

Here are links to some other excellent pieces I read this week:

Craig Fehran’s “Lost Libraries: The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections” describes what happened to the personal libraries of David Foster Wallace, David Markson, John Updike, Mark Twain, and other authors after their deaths:

Most people might imagine that authors’ libraries matter–that scholars and readers should care what books authors read, what they thought about them, what they scribbled in the margins. But far more libraries get dispersed than saved. In fact, David Markson can now take his place in a long and distinguished line of writers whose personal libraries were quickly, casually broken down….

The issues at stake when libraries vanish are bigger than any one author and his books. An author’s library offers unique access to a mind at work, and their treatment provides a look at what exactly the literary world decides to value in an author’s life….

Charles Stross’ post “Why Wikipedia is the writer’s friend” explains why fiction writers should do at least enough research to avoid errors and prevent the collapse of suspension of disbelief. Though I certainly don’t recommend using Wikipedia as your source for research and fact-checking, I strongly agree with his larger point: 

Always do, at a minimum, a brief fact-check on everything you write in a work of fiction with a non-fantastical/far future setting. Otherwise you will be sorry….

Fiction relies upon the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief — if you’re immersed in a novel, it helps not to be jerked up short every ten seconds by the realization that the setup is nonsensical….

John Scalzi’s “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t.” This post should be required reading for all aspiring writers:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

If your answer is “yes,” then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off….

And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is “yes.” Because if you really wanted to write, you would find a way to make the time, and you would find a way to actually write….

But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake…. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

Journalism warning labels and “unsucking” business jargon

Here are two great things featured today on BoingBoing.

Tom Scott’s journalism warning labels, complete with a PDF template so you can print your own set. I particularly like this one:

Unsuck It, a website created by Mule Design that translates business jargon into English. You can search by clicking the “unsuck it” button, but I suggest browsing through the long list of terms. Here are a few examples:

At [company X], we take [Y] seriously.
Unsucked:  We don’t care, but our lawyers do.

Content Creation
Unsucked:  Writing.

Consume Content
Unsucked: Read, watch, or listen.

Creative (n.), Creatives
Unsucked: Professional designer, illustrator, composer, filmmaker, or writer. Not your magic pixel-monkey.

Curate
Unsucked: Edit or choose.

Ideate
We need to ideate on how to use social media to promote our brand.
Unsucked: Think.

Impact
Unsucked: Affect.

Make It Pop
This looks great, but if you can make it pop a bit more, we’ll be done here.
Unsucked: Add cliche elements to a site’s visual design (e.g., ribbon, drop-shadow, bevel).

Move Heaven and Earth
AT&T “will move heaven and Earth” to meet its customers’ growing data needs, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said.
Unsucked: Try.

Interview about my “Creative Research for Writers” class

Kate Lebo’s interview with me about my May 16th “Creative Research for Writers” class has been posted on the Richard Hugo House blog. Here’s a preview:

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example….

You can read the entire interview here.

You can still register for the class, which will be held on Sunday, May 16th from 10am to 5pm. See my previous post for details, or follow the link within the interview to register.

Update, 2/19/2014: Hugo House has redesigned their website, so the original page I linked to is gone. I’ve replaced the link with an archived version of the page from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I’ve also copied the full text of the interview below.

May 12, 2010 Hugo House interview with Lisa Gold

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example. I’ve also put together an annotated list of selected references and resources to help students with their own research.

KL: How does research lead to better writing?

LG: Creative research can help writers with inspiration, world-building, storytelling and character development. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about real people or fictional characters, or about living in the past, present, future or an imaginary world—the more you know (or decide) about their day-to-day lives, their worldview and their world, the more real and understandable they will be to you and your readers. John Crowley wrote that these “small details of common life… give actuality, aliveness and thickness” to a story. The point of doing research is to help you tell a great story and breathe life into your characters, not to show off all the cool stuff you’ve found. Kelley Eskridge told me that she tries to “learn enough in research to create a culture in the story that feels real to people who know it, and is accessible to people who don’t… Every ‘research detail’ that makes it into the final story needs to serve a dual purpose—to establish/ground the world of the story and to either serve as an emotional backdrop or reveal an aspect of character.”

KL: What’s the most common hurdle people encounter when doing research for their writing? What’s the best/easiest way to overcome it?

LG: I think the most common mistakes people make are using research as an excuse not to write and not knowing when to stop. You shouldn’t wait until you finish your research to begin writing, and you don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Writing and research are interconnected, and each should fuel the other. Don’t let anything stop the writing—if you are missing details, mark the spot with a quick note of what you need, keep writing and fill in the blanks later. Knowing when to stop researching is harder, but you should think carefully and make conscious decisions about what you actually need to know and what you can just make up.

KL: What’s the most creative method you’ve used to find information?

LG: I’m a strong believer in browsing and serendipity, which can lead to amazing discoveries. I spend a lot of time browsing bookstores and the Web, and I like to feed my curiosity and see where it leads. Whenever I’m looking for something in a bookstore or library, I always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found books much better than the one I was looking for or spotted something that I didn’t need at the time but later proved indispensable. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you stumble across it. Talking to people is another great way to uncover information—chances are you know someone or have a family member with unusual interests or expertise or who has done extraordinary things or lived through important historical events or periods.

KL: What kind of research do you do?

LG: I do whatever kind of research my clients need. Because I work with writers of fiction and nonfiction, I’ve researched a really wide range of subjects—life in Victorian London, the rich and their servants in 1930s New York City, cultural and historical trends throughout 20th-century America, American Revolutionary pamphlets and broadsides, as well as an odd miscellany of subjects for my husband (Matt Ruff), to name a few. I like working on unusual creative projects, such as when I encrypted messages into John Wilkins’ 17th-century “Real Character” symbolic language for the promotional campaign for Neal Stephenson’s historical novel “Quicksilver.” My own research is also eclectic, as I have a lot of interests and like to learn stuff, and some of it ends up in my blog.

How cutting and pasting can lead to plagiarism

In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column, titled “Journalistic Shoplifting,” is about the recent plagiarism scandal surrounding Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe.

I wanted to point out this particular passage, in which Hoyt notes that both Zachery Kouwe and Gerald Posner claim that their plagiarism was unintentional, caused by cutting and pasting material from other sources and mixing it up with their own writing:

Kouwe told [John Koblin of the New York Observer] that the plagiarism happened with minor news reported elsewhere that needed to be matched on DealBook. He said he would copy stories from wires, paste them into a file in the editing system, verify the information and then put the material in his own words. At least, he said, that is what he intended to do. When I asked him how he could fail to notice that he was copying someone else’s work, he added further explanation: He said the raw material in the computer files in which he assembled his stories included not only reports from other sources but also context and background from previous articles that he had written himself. When putting it all together, he said, he must have thought the words he copied were his own, earlier ones. “It was just my carelessness in trying to get it up quickly,” he said.

The explanation was similar to one offered only days earlier by Gerald Posner, a reporter for The Daily Beast, who was caught by Jack Shafer of Slate cribbing sentences from The Miami Herald. Posner, who resigned after even more plagiarism was found, also said that he did not do it intentionally. He said he had poured all his research — interviews, public documents, published articles — into a master electronic file and then boiled it into an article under tight Web deadlines, a process that led to disaster.

We’ve seen before how cutting and pasting material written by others can lead to plagiarism, as in the Chris Anderson Free/Wikipedia scandal.

Writers can protect themselves from this kind of  “unintentional plagiarism” by incorporating some simple and practical tips into their research and writing process. In a July 2009 blog post on avoiding plagiarism, I recommended Harvard University’s excellent PDF publication Writing with Internet Sources. The chapter on “Incorporating Electronic Sources into Your Writing” contains a section called “Strategies for Avoiding Internet Plagiarism” (pages 42-44), with important advice for writers:

Internet plagiarism most often occurs when writers cut and paste from the Internet or paraphrase carelessly… The following tips will help you research and write with honesty and integrity.

  • Plan ahead
    … Budget enough time to search for sources, take notes on them, and think about how to use them… Moments of carelessness are more common when you leave your [writing] until the last minute and are tired or stressed. Honest mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism just as dishonesty can; be careful when note-taking and in the incorporation of ideas and language from electronic sources so you don’t “borrow”—i.e., unintentionally plagiarize—the work of another writer.
  • Print your sources
    Print the relevant pages from any websites you use, making sure that you note the complete URL….
  • File and label your sources
    Never cut and paste information from an electronic source straight into your own [writing]. Instead, open a separate document on your computer for each electronic source so you can file research information. When you cut and paste into that document, make sure to include the full URL….
  • Keep your own writing and your sources separate
    Work with either the printed copy of your source(s) or the copy you pasted into a separate document—not the online version—as you [write]….
  • Keep your notes and your draft separate
    Be careful to keep your research notes separate from your actual draft; this will ensure you don’t cut language from a source and paste it directly into your draft without proper attribution. You can open your notes and your draft next to each other on your computer screen and work back and forth.
  • Acknowledge your sources explicitly when paraphrasing
    In your research notes, use some form of notation to indicate what you’ve paraphrased (e.g., put brace brackets around the paraphrase), and mention the author’s name within the material you paraphrase. Once you start writing and revising, make sure you avoid gradually rewording the paraphrased material until you lose sight of the fact that it is still a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas….
  • Quote your sources properly
    Always use quotation marks for directly quoted material, even for short phrases and key terms….
  • Keep a source trail
    As you write and revise…, keep a source trail of notes and of each successive draft…. You ought to be able to reconstruct the path you took from your sources, to your notes, to your drafts, to your revision….

I also recommend that you read Craig Silverman’s recent column for the Columbia Journalism Review, “The Counter-Plagiarism Handbook: Tips for writers and editors on how to avoid or detect journalistic plagiarism.” Here are two of his useful tips for writers:

  • Use a different font and text color for your research files. This will help you instantly recognize other people’s words when you paste them into your story.
  • Add in the proper attribution as soon as you paste any research into your draft.

More from Project Information Literacy: “the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency”

Back in April, I wrote a long post titled “I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…” about Project Information Literacy’s February 2009 report, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say About Conducting Research in the Digital Age.” In my post I was somewhat snarky about the report, as you can see from this excerpt:

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

* Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.

* Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.

* Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.

* Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

This month Project Information Literacy released a new and more in-depth report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age”, and it offers some valuable insights and recommendations. Among the report’s conclusions:

When it came to everyday life research, nearly all of the respondents used Google, Wikipedia, and friends for finding context. Almost all of the students used course readings, [online] library resources, and public Internet sites such as Google and Wikipedia, when conducting course-related research—no matter… what resources they had at their disposal.

The relatively consistent pattern of information usage suggests that most students in our study favored a risk-averse and predictable information-seeking strategy. The student approach appears to be learned by rote and reliant on using a small set of resources nearly each and every time.

At the same time, the student approach may sometimes backfire. Using public sites on the Internet, such as Google search, early on, may be one reason why students reportedly find research frustrating in the digital age.

We have found studentsʼ frustrations and challenges involve narrowing down topics, finding relevant resources, sorting through too many results from online searches, and evaluating the credibility of what students choose to use. Still, almost all students used public Internet sites early on, despite their known limitations….

A significant majority of students in our sample–8 in 10–did not ever consult librarians for course-related research assignments. Instead, instructors played an important role in coaching students through the research process…

When it comes to finding information and conducting research, today’s students clearly favor brevity, consensus, and currency in the information sources they seek… [They] have defined their preferences for information sources in a world where credibility, veracity, and intellectual authority are less of a given–or even an expectation from students–with each passing day.

All in all, we are reminded of a comment from one student… about using books from the campus library: “Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interfaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not even hypertexted linked.”

Today’s students are not lazy or unthinking. This student, representing many, looks at information sources, systems, and services as to how well they meet his or her needs in terms of content, accessibility, and usefulness….

So students prefer to use web sources like Google and Wikipedia because they are fast, convenient, familiar, and produce results, meeting their needs for “content, accessibility, and usefulness.” Of all of the library resources provided to students, online scholarly research databases are used the most, as not only do instructors require their use to find credible content, but they are easy to search. Students aren’t using resources like books, even when they are better and more authoritative for academic research, because they take more time, thought, and effort to find and use, and they can’t be quickly and easily searched. This makes sense– today’s college students are digital natives.

I didn’t understand why so few students use librarians as a resource until I read about the “critical difference between the students’ approach and the librarians’ approach” to research:

“The library guide recommends beginning course-related research by using library resources to identify and narrow down a topic. These resources, the library catalog and periodical indices, are all vetted, credible, and authoritative. Only much later in the research process, and only after a topic has been safely nailed down, does the guide recommends turning to Internet resources, such as Google… The student approach is different… [They] reported using public Internet sources (i.e. Google and Wikipedia) in their initial stages of research for a variety of reasons, which included a belief that the Internet is an all-inclusive information resource… All in all, the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency. To that end, librarians suggest using scholarly resources, while many students in our study used a wide range of resources that deliver an abundance of results early on, whether they are scholarly or not. As a whole, the findings suggest that students in our sample favored sources for their brevity, consensus, and currency over other qualities and less so, for their scholarly authority.

At the end of the report, the authors make a series of recommendations, of which I thought these were particularly important:

Course-related research assignments should not indirectly encourage students to half-heartedly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape (e.g., assignments that state requirements such as, “must use five sources cited in your paper”). Administrators, faculty, and librarians should examine whether research-based assignments result in opening studentsʼ minds to expand their information-gathering competencies. Instead, we recommend that students be given course-related research assignments that encourage the collection, analysis, and synthesis of multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources, so the transfer of information literacy and critical thinking competencies may be more actively called up, practiced, and learned by students…

Our work leads us to draw an important distinction between library services and library resources… For the most part, in our study, librarians were left out of the student research workflow, despite librariansʼ vast training and expertise in finding information. Librarians should systematically (not just anecdotally) examine the services they provide to students… Questions should be addressed about how and why services and resources are used—not only how often (e.g., circulation or reference desk statistics). Librarians may want to initiate their analysis by asking what percentage of their campus are using the library, for what particular resources or services, and why or why not?

So what do you think? How can we expand the minds and research methods of digital natives? We can’t convert all information to digital form, so are there ways to pry them away from their computers and into the stacks? Should we even try? Rather than trying to change the ways they do research, should we instead focus on teaching them to improve their web search skills and find and evaluate digital sources? Can we provide better or more authoritative alternatives to Wikipedia and Google, or make it easier to find academic sources with one search? How can we make academic research more interesting and creative for students?

I welcome your comments and ideas.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books…”

According to this Boston Globe article, the Cushing Academy, a New England prep school, is replacing all of its library books with a digital “learning center”:

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks – the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony… Those who don’t have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers…

Cushing is one of the first schools in the country to abandon its books….

This is stupid on so many levels that I forced myself to wait a full day before blogging about it so I wouldn’t rant incoherently. Let me just pose a few questions:

  • Did the librarians of Cushing Academy try to explain to their headmaster that only a small percentage of works are available in digital form, and that most of those aren’t free?
  • Before discarding their 20,000 printed books, did they consider checking to see which ones aren’t available in digital form and keeping those? (In my experience many of the best reference works only exist in print form.)
  • Did they think about the fact that even if the library pays to subscribe to subscription databases and encourages the use of free public domain works (Google Books, Project Gutenberg, etc.), that still means students won’t have access to the vast majority of works published after 1922 and still under copyright?
  • What happens when students try to do research using Google Books and discover that the works they need are only available in print form and they can’t view more than a snippet of text online? Has Cushing Academy set up any kind of interlibrary loan program so students can get access to the printed books they need?
  • Will teachers at the school be limited to using only texts available in digital form?
  • Will students be instructed in how to find, use, evaluate, and cite digital sources? (Perhaps we should start calling the Cushing Academy “the Wikipedia school.”)
  • What’s going to happen when these kids go off to college and discover that they don’t have a clue how to find or use printed sources? Will they even know that there’s a whole world of knowledge not available to them on the internet?
  • Were the parents told about this in advance so they could choose to send their children to another school instead? (Especially since this year’s tuition for the Cushing Academy boarding school is over $42,000 and the day school is over $31,000.)

I could go on, but I’m going to stop now before my head explodes. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the transcript of a talk that James Tracy (the headmaster) gave about “Libraries Beyond Books,” which is posted on the Cushing Academy website:

This is why, at Cushing Academy, where we are dedicated to forging the most far-sighted pedagogies for twenty-first century education, we have decided to be bookless within a year.

You know [holding up a book], if I look at this book I am struck by how limited it is. This is pretty bulky. I don’t mean to belittle or disparage it. I love books, and I love the representation of culture that they embody, but, from an information perspective, this is a very, very bulky way to reposit data by today’s standards.

We should be able to hold not only this book but thousands of others in one hand. So Cushing has decided to go from a library that right now is a warehouse of 20,000 books shelved in old technology to a library of millions of books utilizing far less space and with much richer and more powerful means of accessing that information. If I want to research all the references to Churchill just in our little 20,000 volume library, it’s going to take me months and years, but I can now data mine every reference to Churchill in 7 million volumes in a matter of seconds using search engines. Moreover, we find from a check of the records that our students aren’t really using the books extensively for research, anyway. They’re already doing most of that online, and, in fact, they are checking out more music and films than books from the Cushing library.

I’ll tell you that, with the financial crisis, as a Headmaster, I no longer see the point of maintaining this huge warehouse of underutilized space that we call a library. Better to free up that space while at the same time expanding by many orders of magnitude the school community’s access to information, literature, art, music via terminals that I term “Portals to Civilization.”

Too little, too late: Wikipedia decides accuracy is good and vandalism is bad

An article in today’s New York Times revealed that Wikipedia, after years of embarrassing incidents,  “will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people”:

Wikipedia, one of the 10 most popular sites on the Web, was founded about eight years ago as a long-shot experiment to create a free encyclopedia from the contributions of volunteers, all with the power to edit, and presumably improve, the content.

Now, as the English-language version of Wikipedia has just surpassed three million articles, that freewheeling ethos is about to be curbed.

Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people.

The new feature, called “flagged revisions,” will require that an experienced volunteer editor for Wikipedia sign off on any change made by the public before it can go live. Until the change is approved — or in Wikispeak, flagged — it will sit invisibly on Wikipedia’s servers, and visitors will be directed to the earlier version.

The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable.

Roughly 60 million Americans visit Wikipedia every month. It is the first reference point for many Web inquiries — not least because its pages often lead the search results on Google, Yahoo and Bing. Since Michael Jackson died on June 25, for example, the Wikipedia article about him has been viewed more than 30 million times, with 6 million of those in the first 24 hours.

“We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks,” said Michael Snow, a lawyer in Seattle who is the chairman of the Wikimedia board. “There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion — whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now.”

…Although Wikipedia has prevented anonymous users from creating new articles for several years now, the new flagging system crosses a psychological Rubicon. It will divide Wikipedia’s contributors into two classes — experienced, trusted editors, and everyone else — altering Wikipedia’s implicit notion that everyone has an equal right to edit entries.

That right was never absolute, and the policy changes are an extension of earlier struggles between control and openness.

For example, certain popular or controversial pages, like the ones for the singer Britney Spears and for President Obama, are frequently “protected” or “semi-protected,” limiting who, if anyone, can edit the articles…

The new system comes as some recent studies have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first-time or infrequent contributors as it once was.

Ed H. Chi of the Palo Alto Research Center in California, which specializes in research for commercial endeavors, recently completed a study of the millions of changes made to Wikipedia in a month. He concluded that the site’s growth (whether in new articles, new edits or new contributors) hit a plateau in 2007-8.

For some active Wikipedia editors, this was an expected development — after so many articles, naturally there are fewer topics to uncover, and those new topics are not necessarily of general interest.

But Mr. Chi also found that the changes made by more experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there was “growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content.”

To other observers, the new flagging system reflects Wikipedia’s necessary acceptance of the responsibility that comes with its vast influence.

“Wikipedia now has the ability to alter the world that it attempts to document,” said Joseph Reagle, an adjunct professor of communications at New York University whose Ph.D. thesis was about the history of Wikipedia.

Under the current system, it is not difficult to insert false information into a Wikipedia entry, at least for a short time. In March, for example, a 22-year-old Irish student planted a false quotation attributed to the French composer Maurice Jarre shortly after Mr. Jarre’s death. It was promptly included in obituaries about Mr. Jarre in several newspapers, including The Guardian and The Independent in Britain. And on Jan. 20, vandals changed the entries for two ailing senators, Edward M. Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, to report falsely that they had died.

Flagged revisions, advocates say, could offer one more chance to catch such hoaxes and improve the overall accuracy of Wikipedia’s entries.

Foundation officials intend to put the system into effect first with articles about living people because those pieces are ripe for vandalism and because malicious information within them can be devastating to those individuals.

Exactly who will have flagging privileges has not yet been determined, but the editors will number in the thousands, Wikipedia officials say. With German Wikipedia, nearly 7,500 people have the right to approve a change. The English version, which has more than three times as many articles, would presumably need even more editors to ensure that changes do not languish before approval.

“It is a test,” said Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia. “We will be interested to see all the questions raised. How long will it take for something to be approved? Will it take a couple of minutes, days, weeks?”

Mr. Wales began pushing for the policy after the Kennedy and Byrd hoaxes, but discussions about a review system date back to one of the darkest episodes in Wikipedia’s history, known as the Seigenthaler incident.

In 2005, the prominent author and journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. discovered that Wikipedia’s biographical article connected him to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, a particularly scurrilous thing to report because he was personally close to the Kennedy family.

Since then, Wikipedians have been fanatical about providing sources for facts, with teams of editors adding the label “citation needed” to any sentence without a footnote.

“We have really become part of the infrastructure of how people get information,” Mr. Wales said. “There is a serious responsibility we have.”

I’m not impressed. Though this may prevent some of the more outrageous vandalism, it doesn’t go far enough. Why does the new policy only apply to articles on living people? What about the rest of the articles? What about the bad information that already exists throughout the site? Are the Wikipedia editors going to systematically review existing articles or only new changes to those articles? Who are these “editors” and what are their qualifications?

I’m glad there is finally some acknowledgment among the powers that be at Wikipedia that accuracy is important. But that’s not enough. If accuracy is important, you have to make it a priority and do things on many different levels to try to achieve it. You have to apply your policies to the entire site, not just some articles. You have to bring in people with knowledge, experience, and qualifications to do real editing and fact-checking. (With all of the unemployed editors, fact-checkers, and journalists out there, why not hire a few and let them work their magic.) This new policy is not really about making Wikipedia more accurate, it’s just about trying to stop the embarrassing vandalism stories that hit the news with disturbing regularity.

Wikipedia kid: “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically”

Thanks to John McIntyre’s language and editing blog, You Don’t Say, I discovered the new term “Wikipedia kid.”

According to the website Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words, a Wikipedia kid is “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically.”

Word Spy lists the earliest citation as an April 6, 2009 report from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations:

Students less prepared for university education than in 2005, according to Ontario university faculty

Wikipedia kids less mature and lacking required skills

..First-year students are less prepared for university education than students from just three years earlier, according to over 55 percent of Ontario university faculty and librarians who responded to a recent questionnaire. Respondents reported declines in writing and numeric skills combined with lower maturity among students who believe that good grades are an entitlement…

Respondents most often reported the following challenges among first-year students:

Lower level of maturity

Poor research skills as evidenced by an overreliance on Internet tools like Wikipedia as external research sources

Expectation of success without the requisite effort

Inability to learn independently…

“Dear Plagiarist”

More plagiarism in the news this week– actions do (sometimes) have consequences.

Regret the Error reported that Hailey Mac Arthur, a college student working as a summer intern at the Colorado Springs Gazette, was fired after it was discovered that four of her stories were plagiarized from the New York Times.  Here’s the July 7th Editor’s Note from the Gazette revealing the plagiarism and student’s name. Her school, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, issued a statement on their website that they are “looking into” the plagiarism allegations, they are “withholding judgment” until they investigate, and they emphasized their “unwavering policy against plagiarism of any kind.”

“It’s simple: We don’t tolerate plagiarism,” said the college’s dean, John Wright. “There’s no way you can be a student in our college and not know that we consider plagiarism a grave transgression.”

…Professors and instructors in the college discuss plagiarism in their classes and let students know that even minor offenses can result in a failing grade and possible expulsion from the program and UF.

“From the first semester of the freshman year, journalism students have the evils of plagiarism pounded into their skulls,” said the chair of the journalism department, William McKeen. “That message is part of every course we teach.”

Master Lecturer Mike Foley, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, tells his students on the first day of class that he would advocate kicking out anyone who “steals the words of others.”…

“This case is a stunning aberration,” Foley said. “Our students know better.”

On the Inside Higher Ed website, G. Thomas Couser, a professor of English at Hofstra University, has written an open letter to one of his students, titled “Dear Plagiarist.” Here’s an excerpt:

When you got your paper back with a grade of F for plagiarism, you reacted in predictable fashion — with indignant denial of any wrongdoing. You claimed “you cited everything” and denied that you had committed intentional plagiarism, or ever would….

I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism — the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant — cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.

When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.

With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that Turnitin.com, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to the SparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.

Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotes for your observations…

Your use of the online “study guide” SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing….

The reason that plagiarism like yours makes professors so sad – and, yes, sometimes mad — is that it entirely defeats our attempts to educate you. We work hard to put you in a position to reach understandings that you would not otherwise be able to attain… Cannibalizing a source like SparkNotes is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do… The problem is not so much rule breaking as point missing….

If you take the text I’ve marked above in bold type and make a few simple substitutions (“Wikipedia” for “SparkNotes,” “writer” for “student,” etc.), you get one of the important lessons that Chris Anderson still hasn’t learned from the plagiarism kerfuffle over his new book, Free:

Your use of Wikipedia is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such websites very rarely enable writers to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a  writer has actually read, but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of writing books. Cannibalizing a source like Wikipedia is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do.

In the New York Times, Janet Maslin calls Chris Anderson “crass, reckless and lazy”

In today’s New York Times, Janet Maslin demolishes two books in one review– Chris Anderson’s Free and Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap. Here’s an excerpt:

Consider Ellen Ruppel Shell’s “Cheap,” Chris Anderson’s “Free” and the story of the one-cent Hershey’s Kiss. This story appears in both books, but the versions are different. Both come from the same source, but these two authors can’t even agree on what to call him….

Mr. Ariely did an experiment that used chocolate to dramatize the difference that a small shift in pricing could make. According to “Cheap” he offered his subjects a choice between the 1-cent Kiss and a 26-cent Ferrero Rocher hazelnut. At those prices the test subjects were divided 40 percent to 40 percent, with 20 percent opting for neither. Then the prices came down by one penny each, and 90 percent of the subjects took the free chocolate. Only 10 percent chose the higher-priced brand.

Off we go to “Free,” playing fast and loose with different facts and telling the story in somewhat zingier fashion. “Note: behavioral economists have limited budgets and limited time,” writes Mr. Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and author of “The Long Tail.” “So a lot of their experiments involve a folding table, candy and random college students.”

In its “Free” version the non-Kiss candy is a Lindt truffle initially priced at 15 cents while the Kiss cost a penny; 73 percent of subjects chose the truffle and 27 percent picked the Kiss, with nobody abstaining. Then the prices were lowered by 1 cent each, and 69 percent of the subjects chose the free Kiss. Mr. Anderson doesn’t bother to account for the rest of the sample group, but he does use a quotation from Mr. Ariely to bolster the case that his “Free” makes: “Zero is not just another price, it turns out. Zero is an emotional hot button — a source of irrational excitement.”

Irrational is an apt word, what with the above-mentioned discrepancies. But what’s the upshot of either version of the experiment? And which book can be trusted? Bear in mind that Mr. Anderson has lately been called to task for making uncredited use of free Wikipedia material….

So neither author is entirely to be trusted. Neither was well-advised to use that chocolate story. And neither has written a book that is as sharp as its one-word catchy title….

Mr. Anderson peers into the future and aims his arguments at the business world. Here is what he means by “Free”: If you want to know what he really thinks, you’re going to have to pay for more than his book. He acknowledges that he is giving his book away online, as well as selling it at the not-free price of $26.99, so he can be hired for much more lucrative speaking and consulting jobs.

“I’ve got a lot of kids, and college isn’t getting any cheaper,” he writes. He is sufficiently crass, reckless and lazy to have had someone else read the science-fiction books he uses to illustrate the perils of scarcity and abundance.

Still, Mr. Anderson has come up with a lively conversation piece. Even when the particulars of his argument are easily assailable, the gist is clear: Now that a cornucopia of Internet material has been made available without fee, and in some cases without scruples, the smart business must find ways to adapt to that new reality….

But after beating the drum for giveaways throughout most of his book, Mr. Anderson eventually acknowledges that his idea is in fact not viable. Such are the perils of his sloppily constructed sweeping argument. No, he doesn’t envision an economy based entirely on giveaways. “Free may be the best price, but it can’t be the only one,” he says. He advocates the balancing of differently priced versions for different markets, acknowledging that this tricky balance is not easily achieved….

Here are links to my two previous blog posts about Chris Anderson:

“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing– failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

UPDATE 7/23/09: Today the New York Times printed a correction to Janet Maslin’s review:

The Books of The Times review on July 6, about “Cheap,” by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and “Free,” by Chris Anderson, referred incompletely to experiments involving chocolate conducted by Daniel Ariely and cited in the books. The experiments, in which subjects were offered two different chocolates at different prices, and then offered one at a lower price and one free, were similar but not the same. The books did not describe the same experiment.

Since the original combined review was published, the Times has also published positive separate reviews of each book by different reviewers:

Virginia Postrel’s July 10th review of Free

Laura Shapiro’s July 16th review of Cheap

“Be skeptical and verify everything”: Fact-checking tips from PolitiFact

Through Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error blog, I discovered the YouTube Reporters’ Center, a new resource for “citizen reporters,” bloggers, or anyone interested in journalism to “help you learn more about how to report the news. It features some of the nation’s top journalists and news organizations sharing instructional videos with tips and advice for better reporting.”

The YouTube Reporters’ Center contains dozens of videos, including Nicholas Kristof on covering a global crisis, Bob Woodward on investigative journalism, Arianna Huffington on citizen journalism, Dean Wright on online journalism ethics, Katie Couric on how to conduct an interview, and Scott Simon on how to tell a story.

One video that may be of particular interest to readers of this blog is “PolitiFact’s Guide to Fact-Checking”:

The main points stressed in the video are relevant to all kinds of research: be skeptical, verify everything, use original sources, “love– and fear– the Internet,” and be very careful when using Wikipedia.

PolitiFact.com is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political fact-checking website run by the St. Petersburg Times, home to the “Truth-O-Meter” and “Obameter”:

Every day, reporters and researchers from the Times examine statements by members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington. We research their statements and then rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-Meter – True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get our lowest rating, Pants on Fire….

We created the Obameter to help you assess the Obama presidency. Our reporters have compiled a database of more than 500 individual promises that Barack Obama made during the campaign. We research and rate their status as No Action, Stalled or In the Works and then ultimately determine whether it earns a Promise Kept, Compromise or Promise Broken.

Another political fact-checking website of note is FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

There’s been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere about the “Chris Anderson plagiarizing from Wikipedia” kerfuffle. (See my previous post for a recap.) There are too many apologists for Anderson and his use (or misuse) of Wikipedia, and even some criticisms have missed the forest for the trees. Let me spell it out:

  • It is simply not acceptable to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia when writing a book or doing serious research. Wikipedia is a tertiary source, and a deeply flawed one at that. If high school students aren’t allowed to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia or traditional encyclopedias, it is absurd to think that it’s acceptable for the author of a book to do so. It is not only intellectual laziness of the highest order, it ignores Wikipedia’s own warnings about its limitations and appropriate use. As I quoted in my previous post: “Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information… Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research. As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources….”
  • If you insist on using Wikipedia, you must track down the original reference sources cited and verify the information. Errors (including transcription mistakes) in the original Wikipedia entries that Anderson used are reproduced in his own writing, meaning he never looked at the original cited sources, and he apparently didn’t verify or fact-check the information with additional primary or secondary sources. [Note to Chris Anderson:  If you don’t have the time to do the research and check sources yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher or journalist to either do it for you or check your work before publication.]
  • It is ridiculous for Anderson to claim that he removed his footnotes because he was “unable to find a good citation format for web sources.” As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many authoritative citation standards which can easily be found in style manuals and websites. Even Wikipedia itself gives you nine different citation formats (including Chicago and MLA) for each entry. Anderson says his publisher insisted on a timestamp for each URL, which Anderson found “clumsy and archaic,” so he cut out the footnotes. WRONG!  And don’t even get me started on the whole “write-through” thing.
  • Given Anderson’s background and his role as editor-in-chief of Wired, I find this all rather shocking, and it makes me wonder about the editorial standards of Anderson himself, his magazine, and his book publisher (Hyperion).

Yesterday Seth Simonds, in a delightfully snarky post titled “Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism,” demonstrated (with screen shots and step-by-step instructions) what Anderson could (and should) have done to find a source listed in a Wikipedia entry. Here’s an excerpt:

Anderson took a last-minute 5th grade approach to writing. He found the Wikipedia listing for “Usury” and pasted the text into his manuscript…

5 Steps From Wikipedia To A Reliable Source…

Step 1: Find the citation link for the portion of the Wikipedia article you’d like to quote. (Don’t quote it. Not even if you’re a famous editor and you’re really busy.)

A. Click on citation link in the Wikipedia article.

B. Identify the key portions of the citation. In this case, author last name and date of publication.

Step 2: After finding the citation, launch a web search including the author name and original search term. Many bloggers would stop at the citation of Moehlman and use a “^Moehlman, 1934, page 7” attribution. As a professional editor conducting research for a print publication, I’m holding Anderson to a higher standard. Note: pasting from Wikipedia is a bad idea because you’re trusting a stranger’s transcription. Don’t be lazy…

“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

From the Virginia Quarterly Review blog, a post by Waldo Jaquith titled “Chris Anderson’s Free Contains Apparent Plagiarism”:

In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after a cursory investigation, after I checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book. This was not an exhaustive search, since I don’t have access to an electronic version of the book. Most of the passages, but not all, come from Wikipedia. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.

Examples of the passages in question follow. The words and phrases that are found in both Free and the apparent original source are highlighted…

Though reproducing words or original ideas from any uncredited source is widely defined as plagiarism, using text from Wikipedia presents an even more significant problem than reproducing traditional copyrighted text. Under Wikipedia’s Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, Anderson would be required to credit all contributors to the quoted passages, license his modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, note that the original work has been modified, and provide the text of or a link to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Anderson has not done any of these things in Free.

Anderson responded personally to a request for comments about how this unattributed text came to appear in his book, providing the following remarks by e-mail:

All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources…

This all came about once we collapsed the notes into the copy. I had the original sources footnoted, but once we lost the footnotes at the 11th hour, I went through the document and redid all the attributions, in three groups:

* Long passages of direct quotes (indent, with source)

* Intellectual debts, phrases and other credit due (author credited inline, as with Michael Pollan)

* In the case of source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia), do a write-through.

Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad. As you’ll note, these are mostly on the margins of the book’s focus, mostly on historical asides, but that’s no excuse. I should have had a better process to make sure the write-through covered all the text that was not directly sourced.

I think what we’ll do is publish those notes after all, online as they should have been to begin with. That way the links are live and we don’t have to wrestle with how to freeze them in time, which is what threw me in the first place….

5:15 p.m. update: Hyperion has provided us with the following statement.

We are completely satisfied with Chris Anderson’s response. It was an unfortunate mistake, and we are working with the author to correct these errors both in the electronic edition before it posts, and in all future editions of the book.

Hyperion says that they intend to have the notes online by the time that the book is published.

Make sure you also read the comments to the post, which are fascinating, especially the smackdown between Chris Anderson and Edward Champion.

Carolyn Kellogg, in the LA Times Jacket Copy blog, comments:

As citations for Web sources have been established for some time, this seems an odd explanation from Anderson, who is no publishing novice. His previous book, “The Long Tail,” was a bestseller, and he is currently editor in chief of Wired magazine…

The lack of attribution may indeed have been a combination of mistake and lack of oversight. But as one commenter on Gawker lamented, “Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

Wikipedia is one of the resources Anderson lauds — in “The Long Tail,” he called it a phenomenon. In this one, he writes, “there is the amazing ‘gift economy’ of Wikipedia,” later explaining, “Wikipedia makes no money at all, but because an incomparable information resource is now available to all at no cost, our own ability to make money armed with more knowledge is improved.”

The whole point of Anderson’s “Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price” is to explore what he calls “the paradox of Free,” in which “people are making lots of money and charging nothing.”

Anderson’s hardcover costs $26.99. Wikipedia is still free.

And within hours, Anderson’s Wikipedia’s entry had been updated — with attribution — to reflect the charges of plagiarism. Updates to “Free” are expected to take a while. Which proves Anderson’s point — I think.

Edward Champion decided to investigate himself:

Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR’s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

By the way, recent editions of style manuals contain detailed information on how to cite websites and online sources, most notably the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. (See my post “The writer’s bookshelf (part 3)” for more information on style manuals.)

Update 1: Today Chris Anderson posted an explanation on his blog:

First, as readers of my writings know, I’m a supporter of using Wikipedia as a source (not the only one, of course, and checking the original source material whenever possible). I disagree with those who say it should never be used. But the question is how to use it.

In my drafts, I had intended to blockquote Wikipedia passages, footnoting their URL. But my publisher, like many others, was uncomfortable with the changing nature of Wikipedia, and wanted me to timestamp each URL… which struck me as clumsy and archaic… [I]n most cases I did do a writethrough of the non-quoted Wikipedia text, although clearly I didn’t go nearly far enough and too much of the original Wikipedia authors’ language remained… This was sloppy and inexcusable, but the part I feel worst about is that in our failure to find a good way to cite Wikipedia as the source we ended up not crediting it at all. That is, among other things, an injustice to the authors of the Wikipedia entry who had done such fine research in the first place, and I’d like to extend a special apology to them….

This is totally lame. Somewhere Research Cat is crying…

Update 2: My husband pointed out that every Wikipedia entry has a link called “Cite this page,” which contains permanent page links and nine different citation styles, including Chicago, MLA, etc. Here’s the citation page for the Wikipedia article on Chris Anderson. Please note what’s written at the top of the page:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information — citing an encyclopedia as an important reference in footnotes or bibliographies may result in censure or a failing grade. Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research.

As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources and read our disclaimers for more information.

Curious Expeditions and Atlas Obscura

World traveler and filmmaker Dylan Thuras (one of the creators of the amazing Curious Expeditions website) and science journalist Joshua Foer are guest blogging at BoingBoing, where they announced the launch of their new website, Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica:

The Atlas is a collaborative project whose purpose is to catalog all of the “wondrous, curious, and esoteric places” that get left out of traditional travel guidebooks and are ignored by the average tourist. Anyone can enter new places into the Atlas Obscura, or edit content that someone else has already contributed.

What kind of places are we talking about? Here are a few that were recently added to the Atlas:

– A hidden spot in the Smoky Mountains where you can find fireflies that blink in unison

-A 70-year-old house made entirely out of paper

– A giant hole in the middle of the Turkmenistan desert that’s been burning for four decades

– A Czech church built of bones

– The world’s largest Tesla coil

– A museum filled with the genitals of every known mammal in Iceland

– Enormous concrete sound mirrors once used to detect aircraft off the English coast

– The self-built cathedral of an eccentric Spanish ex-monk

– A museum of Victorian hair art in Independence, Missiouri

– An underwater sculpture garden off the coast of Grenada

– Galileo’s amputated middle finger

The site certainly sounds interesting (I haven’t been able to really explore it yet, as their server keeps crashing from all of the BoingBoing traffic), but it raises an obvious question, which was already asked by a commenter to their post:

…if this is all obscure information, how is any of it verified? Specifically, what’s preventing trolls at 4chan or the jokers at Uncyclopedia from deciding that there is wonderful, fertile soil available for them at Atlas Obscura, and start posting articles about a gingerbread house in the Black Forest, a place off of Cyprus where all the dolphins wink in unison, or the Bermuda Triangle-like effect near Dick Cheney’s house?

I certainly hope they have more safeguards in place than Wikipedia does.

While waiting for Atlas Obscura to come back online, treat yourself to more porn for book lovers at Curious Expeditions’ “Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries” page. Here’s a hint of what awaits you there:

Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Maryland

George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Maryland

Wikipedia “feuding, fighting and vandalism”

Today’s New York Times had an article about Wikipedia’s  “lamest edit wars” (whether Lucky Charms cereal is sold in Ireland, whether the Death Star is 120 or 160 kilometers in diameter) and the recent decision by the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee to block editing from all I.P. addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology:

It is an interesting twist about Wikipedia that the most controversial, most heavily trafficked articles — on abortion, politics, virgin birth — are often the most accurate and vandalism-free. Not that people aren’t trying to cause mayhem. It’s just that the frequent visits ensure that vandalism is quickly removed, aided by automated tools that can recognize crude writing before it ever appears.

Leave these high-traffic thoroughfares, however, and things can get a bit sketchier. A few wrong turns and you may find yourself deep in Hatfield-and-McCoy territory. Entrenched enemies engage in combat over the wording of topics so obscure — Armenian historians from the first millennium, for example, or breakfast cereals — that you may wonder: so much fighting over this?

But it is exactly the obscurity that makes these Wikipedia articles ripe for feuding, fighting and vandalism…

I wish the article had discussed Wikipedia’s flaws more critically rather than just as a source of amusement. Wikipedia– the first (and often only) place many people go for information, whose articles appear on the first page of most Google searches– is inherently unreliable and rife with errors, bias, and intentional vandalism, and the quality of individual articles and the information in them varies wildly. I’m not mollified by the fact that most vandalism may eventually be noticed and corrected– at any given time you have no idea whether what you are reading is accurate and who wrote or edited it.

Much of the article concerns the little-known Wikipedia Arbitration Committee:

The Scientology decision, which received plenty of news coverage, brought the Arbitration Committee (or ArbCom) to public view. No doubt, most users of Wikipedia had no idea that there was a court of last resort for disputes on the site.

Tens of millions of people around the world use Wikipedia, but few users — even the most frequent editors — can say how or why it works. The two members of the committee I interviewed agreed that the committee was not vital to Wikipedia’s continued operation… but they said that having a way to ban people of bad faith made the site more friendly, more efficient and more welcoming to new editors.

Wikipedia users elect the panel members, and Mr. Matetsky reports that he is the only active lawyer among them…  He says he often is opposed to outright bans — he abstained on some of the sanctions in the Scientology case — because “to a user who is banned, Wikipedia is ‘the encyclopedia anyone can edit,’ except for you.”

The discovery that Wikipedia is not the anarchic paradise some might imagine can be a shock. Others see hypocrisy, evidence that there is a class of users who control what appears there, people who benefit from Wikipedia’s huge public clout with little public scrutiny.

So I found it rather ironic to read minutes later that a Wikipedia Arbitration Committee member, David Boothroyd, was forced to resign over the weekend for “sock-puppeting,” according to the UK’s Independent newspaper:

A “guardian of the truth” on Wikipedia, the global internet encyclopedia, has been caught up in an embarrassing scandal after it was revealed that he created bogus online identities to change entries on the system.

David Boothroyd – a London councillor by day, a cyber policeman by night – has been forced to resign from Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee after his alias editing gave rise to a major conflict of interest.

The Labour councillor’s fall from grace comes two years after he fought off stiff international competition to win a coveted seat on the 15-strong committee, which is responsible for settling hundreds of editorial disputes every day.

His membership of “ArbCom” was no longer tenable after it emerged that he had committed one of the most serious crimes in cyberspace: sockpuppeting – the use of multiple online identities to create the illusion of support for a point of view, person or organisation.

A log of publicly available page edits exposes several changes to Tory leader David Cameron’s Wikipedia entry by Mr Boothroyd under the alias of Sam Blacketer, including changing the picture to one “not carrying saintly overtones”.

My Wikipedia lolcat is not amused (but I am)

Yesterday Craig Silverman at Regret the Error spotted this correction from The Guardian newspaper:

An obituary of Maurice Jarre (31 March, page 36) opened with a quotation which we are now advised had been invented as a hoax, and was never said by the composer: “My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life.” The article closed with: “Music is how I will be remembered,” said Jarre. “When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.” These quotes appear to have originated as a deliberate insertion in the composer’s Wikipedia entry in the wake of his death on 28 March, and from there were duplicated on various internet sites.

Just the day before my husband blogged about this interesting “fact” he found in the Wikipedia entry for “Ancient Pueblo Peoples”:

The Ancient Pueblo were one of four major prehistoric archaeological traditions of the American Southwest who hunted, killed, and ate Sasquach [sic]. The others are the Mogollon, Hohokam and Patayan. In relation to neighboring cultures, the Ancient Pueblo occupied the northeast quadrant of the area and consumed almost all of the Sasquatch…

We couldn’t help but wonder how many term papers that will end up in this week.

For those of you who are new to my blog, here are links to some of my earlier Wikipedia-related blog posts:  my very first blog post on evaluating sources; my commentary on a study of college students’ research methods; and my Wikipedia lolcat.

I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…

I recently read the February 2009 Project Information Literacy Progress Report from the Information School at the University of Washington, titled “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age.”

The goal of the project is to “understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday use’ and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.”

While I admire these goals and am obviously interested in the subject, I wasn’t surprised by the findings, and I found some of the quotes from students unintentionally funny.

The report begins by asking:

What is it like to be a college student in the digital age? In a world teeming with information technology and overflowing with access to data, how do students find the information they need? How do students conduct research for course-related assignments? How do they conduct research for use in their everyday lives? What frustrations and obstacles do they encounter? What strategies have students developed to meet their information needs?

Their conclusion?

So far, we have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources make conducting research uniquely paradoxical: Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times… In general, students reported being challenged, confused, and frustrated by the research process, despite the convenience, relative ease, or ubiquity of the Internet. In our sessions, frustrations included the effects of information overload and being inundated with resources, but more. Participants also reported having particular difficulty traversing a vast and every-changing information landscape. Specifically, participants greatest challenges were related to finding the materials they desired, knew existed, and needed on a “just in time” basis.

Some specific findings:

  • Students treat everyday life research and course-related research differently, and they put a lot more time and effort into the former. “Students reported that searches for everyday life information could last for days, and were driven by curiosity, as students clicked on Google results or Wikipedia citations and unfolded layers of information.”
  • Students “reported almost twice as many frustrations, overall, with conducting course-related research than with everday life research, though the nature or type of participants’ frustrations had underlying similarities.” Everyday life frustrations included: too many results from a Google search and the need to sort through them; knowing the “answer” is online but not being able to find it; figuring out whether a source is credible; knowing that everything is not online; and never can find enough information on the obscure topic being searched. Course-related frustrations included: information overload; too much irrelevant information, can’t locate what is needed from online results; trying to find the “perfect” source; not knowing what to look for, yet still sifting through articles that might fit; trouble finding books needed on library shelves; and conducting research to meet another’s expectations.
  • Students begin their course-related research with Wikipedia. They begin their everyday life research with Google, followed by blogs and Wikipedia.
  • “The majority of the students we interviewed did not start on an assignment–thinking about it, researching, or writing–until two or three days before it was due.”

The study authors note that for students, conducting research “may feel a lot like being an inexperienced sailor heading directly into an oncoming wind, sails wildly flapping, and not being able to maneuver and get to a desired destination.” They believe this is because students are struggling to “find context,” and they go on to describe four types of context students seek: big picture; language, situational, information gathering.

But what do students do to find context? They use Wikipedia, despite its flaws and warnings from their professors. “We found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page. In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their ‘gut level’ interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system.”

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

  • Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.
  • Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.
  • Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.
  • Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

I wrote in my very first blog post, “Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.” Research also requires time and patience, but it is a skill that can be learned with a little knowledge and practice. However, research is much easier to do when motivated by a love of learning, intellectual curiosity, and passion for your subject, rather than obligation.  Even I don’t like researching subjects I find boring. So while we clearly need to teach students how to do research, we should also be giving them assignments that not only educate them, but also interest and inspire them.

A fascinating post last month in the blog In the Library with the Lead Pipe gave a librarian’s perspective on this, discussing some of the “questionable assignments” given to students by well-meaning faculty members:

Every semester there is at least one assignment that comes across my reference desk that makes me throw my hands up in exasperation (such as: a scavenger hunt that was written before we moved much of our content online or the requirement that the student must have at least one print source, library databases and ebooks do not count)…

We kept getting students who had the same (admirable) weekly assignment: find and read a newspaper article covering the event they were studying that week. The article (or possibly other primary source document) had to have been written during the time of the event and from the perspective of the people involved. We had been doing fine helping them find historical and foreign papers as needed, until they came to the Ottoman Empire. And it didn’t stop there. The class was a survey of world history. They continued to have topics that simply might not have ever been documented by the people involved, unlikely in newspaper article form, certainly not in English, and may not have ever been translated into English if it did manage to get written down and preserved. African events were also particularly difficult…

Scavenger hunt assignments are frustrating for everyone. Looking up trivia is not the same as conducting research and without a meaningful application of the process of using the library anything they learn through the scavenger hunt is less likely to stick…

Often the student, the faculty, or both don’t differentiate between the free web and resources that the library has purchased, but are available electronically…

Librarians are on the front lines of this battle, and both students and faculty would benefit from using them more as a resource.

It looks like I now have lots of subjects for future blog posts…

My peeps

Based on the ridiculous number of people who viewed my “Porn for Book Lovers” post, there are clearly lots of other book geeks like me in the blogosphere. If you are new to my blog, welcome.

I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day pranks, so I made you a lolcat instead:

research-cat-lolcat

research cat says Wikipedia not acceptable source

Don’t believe everything you read

“The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.” — Samuel Johnson

I thought this famous Samuel Johnson quote would be an appropriate way to begin my blog. The problem is that Johnson never actually said this, despite the fact that you’ll find this attributed to him on a number of different quotation websites. None of these websites identified the original source of the Johnson quote, so I decided to dig a little deeper. The Apocrypha section of Frank Lynch’s Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page identifies this quote as a corruption of something Johnson did say, which was recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson. The actual Johnson quote is:  “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” I confirmed this by searching the text of Boswell’s Life of Johnson online.

This illustrates a few important lessons about evaluating sources of information:

  • Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Just because the same information appears on multiple websites doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Bad information spreads like a virus.
  • Not all sources of information are equal. Don’t rely on only one source for an important piece of information. You should always try to find multiple sources, as well as different kinds of sources.
  • Use reputable sources and find out where or who the information is coming from. Is the author or source identifiable, knowledgeable, and credible? What are their qualifications or credentials? Are they biased, do they have an ax to grind, or are they selling something? Are sources for the information cited, or does information appear in a vacuum without any way of knowing where it originally came from?

Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.