Tag Archives: Editor & Publisher

The “Danger” of Wikipedia: “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”

An interesting piece in Editor & Publisher on The Danger of Wikipedia, that quotes a USA Today piece written by John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist who served as Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s, says that a very personal experience has convinced him that “Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool”:

Seigenthaler writes that a “biography” on the site posted by an anonymous author libeled him when it offered the following unsourced statement: “For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”

As the founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Seigenthaler is not known to be an advocate of restricting the right of free speech.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Seigenthaler’s alleged role appeared in his biography. I could find no reference to him at all in the JFK books I have, and there’s nothing, at least obviously, online about it. Clearly it was a deliberate piece of falsification, and, to Wikipedia’s credit, it has investigated the case. The point made there is that there isn’t much one can do about chasing down vandals working via Internet Service Providers “with providers who use proxies and dynamic IP addresses to give their users complete anonymity.”

That’s not enough for Seigenthaler, and the story relates his frustration in trying to find out who had libelled him, and Wikipedia comes in for a bit of a pounding:

Seigenthaler disputes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ assertion that the site’s thousands of volunteer editors operate a quick self-correcting mechanism. “My ‘biography’ was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers ‘edited’ it only by correcting the misspelling of the word ‘early,'” Seigenthaler writes. “For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5.”

Seigenthaler concludes with the following: “And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.”

Well, yes. In a way I can appreciate his frustration (and you wonder how many more libels there out there in Wikipedia-land). But I fear he overreacts. The fact that there were no edits of the page for four months — and that it took him four months to find it, or for someone to point it out to him — has more to do with how little the page was read, I suspect, than with the invidious nature of the enterprise. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be improved — indeed, according to a poster on Slashdot, some improvements are in the works in the field of validation — but I think it’s harsh to say the the universe is “populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. Peppered with, dotted with, sprinkled with, scattered with, speckled with, strewn with; perhaps. But overall the sum of human knowledge is significantly increased by the volunteers of Wikipedia.

Can Software End Plagiarism?

With all this gadgetry, you’d think that plagiarism was a thing of the past.

OK, it wasn’t plagiarism, more like fiction, but the point is the same: Watching Shattered Glass, the movie about fabulating New Republic ‘journalist’ Stephen Glass, the other night, I couldn’t help wondering why no one had picked up on his lies earlier. I mean this was 1998, so the Internet existed, search engines existed. (The only solution I could reach was that the people who read The New Republic were not that bright, but that can’t be right, it’s the inflight magazine of Air Force One.)

Anyway, according to Editor & Publisher, the technology exists to check plagiarism quite easily. The problem is that newspapers and other publications don’t want to use it. John Barrie, president of iParadigms LLC, is quoted as saying (via the daily news Weblog of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review) that newspapers generally don’t want to use his online detection program to prevent plagiarism because they don’t want to admit there is a problem, reports Editor & Publisher. The software compares documents with databases containing news sources and encyclopedias.

So far the only journalistic use of Barrie’s software has been in revealing that Central Connecticut State University’s president, Richard Judd, plagiarized from several sources (including The New York Times) for an opinion piece he wrote for The Hartford Courant. Barrie is quoted as saying tha ombudsmen and public editors — a common feature nowadays at U.S. papers — are not enough. “It’s essentially as good as doing nothing,” he said. He believes that just having iThenticate around would deter writers from copying material because they know their work will be vigorously checked. 

The company’s website indicates the work they do is mainly for student essays, where the software is “now deterring plagiarism for nearly 6 million students and educators worldwide”. Editor & Publisher says iParadigms was founded in 1996 as a computer program that UC Berkeley researchers used to inspect undergraduate research papers. Folk wanting to use the software pay a $1,000 licensing fee and $10 per page. They then send the document to iThenticate and receive a report within minutes, detailing what (if anything) has been plagiarized and where it originally came from.