Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Wikis and Genealogy

I began thinking after reading a post by Michael J. Leclerc on the blog entitled, "Why Not Wikipedia?" From our standpoint as genealogists, the extensions of this question are "Why not the Research Wiki?" and ultimately, "Why not the Family Tree?" Here is a quote from the last paragraph of Michael's post that sums up his conclusions:
There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. But it should never be used as the sole source of information. It should be used to point you in the right direction to find credible, reliable, and authoritative information.
His post is a review of the most common objections and complaints against the standard wiki program. Those complaints can be summarized from another quote from the post:
Wikipedia started in 2001 as a collaborative resource. There are five fundamental principles, called the Five Pillars:
  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
  2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute.
  4. Editors should treat each other with respect and civility.
  5. Wikipedia has no firm rules.
And right away, we start to see some of the problems with using Wikipedia. 
The third pillar states that “anyone can use, edit, and distribute” any content. It goes on to say that “since all editors freely license their work to the public, no editor owns an article and any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.” One of the major problems for genealogists is that there is no control over who says what on Wikipedia.
 The core issues with wikis seem to be concerns about unreliability and change. Are these valid concerns? Michael gives a few examples that seem to illustrate the problem of unreliability. But at least one of the examples is a bugaboo. Why is this the case? He tells of someone who inserted bogus information into Wikipedia, "which anyone can still find by doing a search." Here is where I start my discussion. If you know the information is false and you can find it easily, then correct it. The example given is of a student (impliedly not Chinese) who "posted a fake entry for himself that said he was the mayor of a small town in China." The conclusion given in the post is that, "if you search for mayors of towns in China (or look on the student's name), his entry still shows."

OK, so I did exactly what Michael Leclrec suggested. I searched for "mayors of towns in China" on the Wikipedia website. That search produces 4,007 Wikipedia articles. The main article on China from this search is entitled, "Sub-provincial divisions in the People's Republic of China." According to the article, the administrative divisions of China are the following:

The article further points out the following:
The mayor or chairman of a sub-provincial division is equal in status to a vice-governor of a province. Its status is below that of municipalities, which are independent and equivalent to provinces, but above other, regular prefecture-level divisions, which are completely ruled by their provinces. However, they are marked as same as other provincial capitals (or prefecture-level city if not provincial capital) in almost all maps.
I could go on with this illustration, but my conclusion is that the example is overly simplistic and likely inaccurate. Here is the expanded view of the Administrative divisions of China:

Where did this student insert his name?

My point is this. Wikis are much more complicated than you can imagine. You cannot dismiss a reference works such as Wikipedia, the FamilySearch Research Wiki or the FamilySearch Family Tree or any other wiki by a simplistic criticism that the work is unreliable or changes too frequently. Those arguments against wikis ignore the core value of these types of programs. The real question here is unreliable compared to what?

Are peer reviewed journal articles more or less reliable than a wiki? I could start answering this question by citing dozens (hundreds) of articles that question the peer review process, such as this one:

Smith, Richard. “Peer Review: A Flawed Process at the Heart of Science and Journals.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99.4 (2006): 178–182. Print.

The key to answering questions about wikis is understanding that they are not sources. They are summaries of sources. The value of any wiki is in the number of sources cited. As Michael Leclerc correctly points out, they are starting points for research. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by ignoring the wikis. They are one of the most comprehensive and valuable tools we have developed as a result of the information revolution. What ever the limitations they might have, they are much better than anything we ever had before for finding and preserving information. 

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