Wikipedia and sf

Kathryn Cramer just posted a proposal that SF author bios should be posted to the ISFDB wiki instead of to Wikipedia. I think it's a fine proposal, but I realized that what I wanted to say in response was more about Wikipedia than about her proposal; and furthermore, it's stuff I've been meaning to say publicly about Wikipedia for quite a while. So I'm gonna post it here instead of as a comment over there. (Some of the following is recycled from a mailing list posting I wrote a month or so back.)

The thing about Wikipedia is that its goals aren't what a lot of people assume.

Its goal isn't to be like the great encyclopedias of yesteryear, with entries written by great writers who are also experts in the field. It actively avoids being a primary source, or even a secondary source in the sense of a publication that provides commentary and analysis. Its goal is, more or less, to be a great tertiary source--a great place to find information that has already been published in other reliable sources. The question of what counts as a reliable source is one that they devote a fair bit of discussion to.

To put it another way, probably the most important sentence in Wikipedia regarding this whole issue is: "The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth."

Another piece of this is their No original research policy. Wikipedia isn't meant to be a place where you post new information that hasn't been published before, whether it's original scientific research or (as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales put it) "novel narrative or historical interpretation."

The short version of that "No original research" policy, as summarized at the top of that page, used to say:

"Articles may not contain any unpublished arguments, ideas, data, or theories; or any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published arguments, ideas, data, or theories that serves to advance a position."

(As of a couple hours ago, the current version abbreviates "arguments, ideas, data, or theories" to "material"; but I think the older more detailed version is slightly clearer.)

It really annoyed me when I first encountered that policy, but I gradually came to understand that Wikipedia is intended to be a very specific sort of document: it's intended to be a compilation and summary and organization of material that publishers have already vetted. (There are other criteria too, but that's a major one.) In some cases that approach seems highly counterintuitive if you think Wikipedia's goal should be to be true or accurate in some objective sense ("Why can't I say X in that article? I personally know that X is true, and I'm an expert!"), but those aren't its goals. If you have a belief, even a very strong belief, but nobody has ever published that belief in a venue that Wikipedia considers reliable, then that belief probably doesn't belong in Wikipedia. If you have a personal experience about the history of sf, but nobody's ever written it up in one of those Wikipedia-trusted venues, then it still probably doesn't belong in Wikipedia.

I think a lot of people in the sf community get annoyed at Wikipedia, with more or less good reason: they want/expect Wikipedia to be something in particular, and they feel that it doesn't do a good job of being that thing. And it's true, Wikipedia is not good at (for example) being a primary or secondary source--but that's because its goal is explicitly not to be such a thing.

There are a lot of articles that don't adhere to the Wikipedia policies. For example, before I knew about this policy, a year or so ago, I did a heavy rewrite of the Wikipedia article on speculative fiction, in response to ESR's politically loaded previous rewrite about how people who used the term were using it derogatorily. So I did a neutral-POV revision in which I said, basically, "Some people use the term this way, other people use it this way." I was pretty pleased with that article, and am pretty pleased about the fact that, last I checked, it had survived nearly unchanged for about a year now; but I confess that (like ESR's version and the biased-the-other-way version that preceded ESR's) my version relies more on personal experience than on published sources, which makes it a less-than-ideal article for Wikipedia. (I did, however, provide a relevant Delany quote in the Talk page; I wasn't writing entirely without published reliable sources. Nor was ESR, for that matter.)

Somewhat similarly, TNH wrote a great article at Wikipedia a while back, about Roger Elwood, that consisted mostly of personal anecdotes. It was well-written and full of personality (like some of the old Britannica articles by major authors once were), and I couldn't bring myself to attach a note to it saying "This is, unfortunately, not the right style or approach for Wikipedia." But, sadly, it wasn't. And the article has subsequently been rewritten to fit Wikipedia better, though the current version (last I checked) contains a link to TNH's version. The Talk page for that article is a perfect example of clash of Wikipedia culture with sf culture: TNH gave a long and impassioned and compelling argument in favor of her version, but unfortunately her approach was wrong according to established Wikipedia policy.

(Which reminds me to mention: a lot of important stuff goes on on the Talk pages. If you see something major that you want to change in a Wikipedia article, it's a good idea to click the "discussion" link in the tabs at the top of the page and read what other contributors have written about it. It may be that the particular point you want to change has already been a subject of much debate and of "edit wars," and that by making your change you'll be fanning the flames rather than helping come to a consensus that everyone can live with. That said, Wikipedia does encourage contributors to "be bold" in making changes; I'm just saying you should learn about the context and the local culture and the history of the argument before taking bold action.)

So anyway, I think the issue is mostly one of expectations. A lot of people want and expect Wikipedia to be something in particular, and they get frustrated and upset when they discover it isn't. I totally sympathize--I went through the same thing--but in the end, I think we have to let Wikipedia be what it is.

So as far as I'm concerned, putting previously unpublished encyclopedic and/or anecdotal info about sf people over at ISFDB is a great idea (though I confess I don't know what the intent of their wiki is); I think it would be really cool to collect that info somewhere, and Wikipedia doesn't appear to be the right place for it.

But I do think that Wikipedia is an extraordinarily useful resource of the sort it's intended to be. And I encourage everyone who's interested in improving it to join in with editing--not to try to reshape it to what you want it to be, but to try to make it as good as possible at what it is.

P.S.: While I'm here, I should mention another relevant wiki that has a particular focus: the Feminist SF Wiki. It's explicitly not Wikipedia; for example, rather than striving for Wikipedia's "neutral point of view," it aims for a "feminist point of view." It's also not the right place for the kind of sf-author bio info that Kathryn Cramer is talking about. I'm just mentioning it as another example of a wiki that has a particular set of goals and ideas behind it. Every source of reference material has its own goals and ideas; I like it when the document makes those explicit.

6 Responses to “Wikipedia and sf”

  1. David Moles

    The thing is, I never go looking for anything on the ISFDB wiki. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve heard of it. Whereas I look for pretty much every damn thing on Wikipedia, and it’s usually there.

  2. Michael

    Once the info has been published at ISFDB, is that enough for Wikipedia to consider it published?

  3. Vocki

    I’m fairly sure ISFDB would do as a referenceable source for Wikipedia, unless Wikipedia editors and admins had reason to believe that it was inaccurate or untrustworthy (the difference being one of checkability, as Debbie is discussing above). As far as I know, there’s no Wikipedia list of what sources are and aren’t reliable, nor (imho) should there be.

  4. Vicki

    Sorry, Jed, for getting your name wrong. It’s too early (I mistyped my own as well).

  5. Mike Christie

    The current statement of purpose for the ISFDB Wiki is at:

    In a nutshell: it’s there to support the ISFDB itself, rather than as an independent Wiki. Kathryn posted her blog post on the FAQ talk page here:

    which also has my response (I’m an editor and moderator at the ISFDB) and will probably draw notes from other ISFDB contributors. Please feel free to participate over there too.

  6. Jed

    David: I suspect most people still turn to Google before Wikipedia, and another wiki could easily become the definitive source of info an sf authors. Also, people could link from Wikipedia pages to this hypothetical new wiki’s pages; I doubt Wikipedia editors would object to such links.

    Vicki: ISFDB itself might well be considered a reliable source, but the ISFDB wiki most likely would not be, unless it’s much more carefully edited/vetted than most wikis are. You’re right that there’s no Wikipedia list of reliable sources, but there is the reliable sources page that I linked to earlier; that page describes what constitutes a reliable source for their purposes.

    (The rest of this comment is not a response to Vicki, just me rambling.)

    Which reminds me of something I meant to mention in my entry (though I know this isn’t what you were saying): I fairly often see people saying things like “Wikipedia won’t accept my word for something if I write it in Wikipedia, but I could just go publish the same information somewhere else and then Wikipedia would accept it! That’s crazy!” To which Wikipedia’s answer is, more or less: (1) If you can publish your work in a reliable venue, then yes, it becomes verifiable and can be quoted in Wikipedia (but presumably to get into a reliable venue it’ll have to go through the publisher’s fact-checkers and such); (2) if you publish your work elsewhere in a non-reliable venue, then it’s still not verifiable; and (3) regardless, Wikipedia just isn’t the right place to publish stuff that hasn’t already appeared elsewhere in a reliable place, no matter how easy a time you would have of getting that stuff published elsewhere. That’s not what Wikipedia is for.

    (An analogy occurred to me, though it’s an extremely imperfect one: Say you (generic you) are the editor of a magazine that publishes only hard science fiction, a magazine called (say) Arpeggio Zeta. Say someone submits a truly excellent article to you that compares several 19th-century composers, because after all, there’s a musical term in the title of your magazine. It turns out to be a great article–so well-written that reading it brings tears to your eyes. And yet. It’s about 19th-century music–you can’t relate it to SF in any way, no matter how hard you try. And it’s nonfiction. And you don’t really know anything about the topic, so you have no idea how accurate the article is anyway. The author claims to be an expert, and even shows some impressive-looking credentials, but you don’t know enough to even judge those credentials. And anyway, your magazine just isn’t the place for such a piece. So you tell the author that, sadly, you’ll have to decline the article. And the author starts complaining that you’re rejecting a brilliant work, an important work, something that needs to be published. What can you say? The author’s right–but your magazine isn’t the right place for it.)

    …Another thing worth mentioning is that there are in fact Wikipedia editors who are loons. Some of them have a hobby-horse; some of them have nothing better to do than argue about tiny details of how Wikipedia does or should work. (In this obsessiveness, they are much like some sf people.) On the other hand, there are also a lot of Wikipedia editors who, I gather, just get a little impatient with people showing up and complaining that Wikipedia doesn’t work the way they want it to. And some of those editors, if they consider themselves pushed, will start to dig in and push back; and sometimes that leads to Wikipedia editors being ridiculously nitpicky about other people’s work, refusing to be at all flexible in any way. This shouldn’t happen, but it does, as Kathryn and others have learned, unfortunately.

    Mike: Thanks much for the links! I’ve posted a brief suggestion on that talk page; if I have further thoughts, I may return.


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