Tag Archives: Scientific revolution

Journalists Citing Wikipedia: Rarely an Option

Reuters has just published its handbook online. A smart move (declaration of interest: I’ve done some training work for Reuters. I’ve got my old dog-eared copy on a shelf nearby.)

I posted (approvingly, but without comment) a retweet from Nieman pointing out that Reuters generally forbids quoting from Wikipedia:

Online information sources which rely on collaborative, voluntary and often anonymous contributions need to be handled with care. Wikipedia, the online “people’s encyclopedia”, can be a good starting point for research, but it should not be used as an attributable source. Do not quote from it or copy from it. The information it contains has not been validated and can change from second to second as contributors add or remove material. Move on to official websites or other sources that are worthy of attribution. Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries. It is only acceptable to link to an entry on Wikipedia or similar sites when the entry or website itself is the subject of a news story.

This is good policy, but the point could be made more clear. Wikipedia does not encourage the writing of entries that don’t cite existing sources:

Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

In other words, if it’s in Wikipedia it should have been somewhere else first, and anyone using the information should go to that original source to check before citing it.

This is true of any journalistic endeavour,  and so it’s no great issue. (“Who told you that?” “What’s your source for that?” “Where did you hear that?”: all questions a journalists asks of someone who tells them something that’s not their own direct experience.)

People should not be offended by Reuters’ polic; indeed, they should be following it already—as writer, as reader, as consumer of Wikipedia.

Confirming is easy enough to do, by the way: just click on the small number that should be next to the information you’re planning to use:


That will take you to the footnote, highlighted in blue:


Then click on the link, if any, in that footnote which should take you back to the source:


If it doesn’t—either because the link no longer works, or the source is an offline one–then you need to do a bit more digging before you’re ready.

Of course, if no footnote exists, then you should be skeptical, or look elsewhere to confirm the information.

The Inanities of the Visionary

I have a lot of respect for Doris Lessing but her recent remarks about the Internet reveal an ignorance and lack of understanding that is depressing and unbecoming of such a literary giant. Here’s what she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature:

We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.

Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Lessing knows what blogging is. And I am also one of those people who are concerned that the Internet is changing our society in ways we haven’t thought through. But it’s certainly not killing reading, learning and writing. In fact the opposite: the Internet is actually offering us so much information, and so much knowledge, the problem now is being able to judge what is important and what is not, and to retain a sense of mystery about the world.

If we can look down from heaven on any point of the globe via Google Earth, if we can look up any fact on Wikipedia, if we can communicate with any person in any country via voice for free via Skype, if we can listen to any radio station on the planet (and watch 100s of different tv channels) or read more or less any newspaper, if we can read tens of thousands of different books for free via Project Gutenberg, not to mention hundreds of thousands of excellent blogs, I can’t really see what is “inane” about the Internet.

Ms. Lessing is concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. Of course books won’t die. Books as books (pbooks) won’t die. They come in a form that has proved perfect for their content. They will also be available as ebooks, too, and in forms we can’t yet imagine or create.

The point is that writing will continue. Online it may be shorter — but not always — and it may be interspersed with other media. But I would say that there are more people reading and writing now than any time in history. As Ms. Lessing herself says, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy:

She contrasted her experiences in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, where people were hungry and clamouring for books even though they might have no food, where schools might not have a single book and a library might be a plank seat under a tree.

In a way the Internet is the solution to this kind of problem; in some ways it’s easier to bring knowledge to people and institutions via the Internet than by bringing them books. Or, failing that, bringing them the single biggest repository of free, community-based knowledge in the world: Wikipedia — printed out, or put on a CD-Rom and given via a refurbished $100 PC. I don’t think that the One Laptop Per Child idea is necessarily the correct way to go about it, but I do believe on the whole the Internet has brought people in the developing world closer to knowledge than any physical library ever has.

I’m sad that Ms. Lessing, who has been considered a social radical and has written some great science fiction, has not seen the Internet for what it is: a great leveller, redistributor and repository of information and knowledge.

( PS I just looked up dorislessing.com and dorislessing.co.uk: the first is up for auction (and sports a picture of a young woman in white with a white laptop in a white chair; definitely not Doris Lessing) and the second redirects to a radio and TV tuning website where you can tune in to dozens of radio and TV stations. Meanwhile anyone online wanting to know about her can find it on Wikipedia. It all seems somehow fitting.)

Nobel prize winner Lessing warns against ‘inane’ internet | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Books

Wikipedians, And Why They Do It

For Wikipedians, and folk wanting to understand why they do what they do, here’s a survey that aims to explore  the motivation of contributors to Wikipedia:

Joachim Schroer writes “We are a research team at the University of Wuerzburg (Germany) interested in the reasons and motives why participants are involved in Wikipedia as authors, administrators, or software developers. We hope this study will provide statistical data and insight about Wikipedia which go beyond previous reports in the media, encourage a helpful discussion between participants and reveal best practices for Wikipedia as well as related Open Content projects.

We would like to invite everyone who contributes to Wikipedia at least once in a while to take our online survey. The questionnaire will be available until August 3 at http://www.unipark.de/uc/wikipedia/.

Should be interesting to see the results.

Spanish Mules

Four Spanish ‘mules’ have apparently been arrested in Valladolid, according to an AFP report: Four face charges over phishing fraud :

Four people face charges in Spain after police uncovered an internet banking fraud believed to be conducted by computer experts in Eastern Europe.

However, the four who face charges in Valladolid, in northern Spain, were seen as merely pawns in the scam.

They had been recruited via the internet for “work at home” by “employers” protected by the anonymity of the internet and living in countries “with a weak level of international police and judicial cooperation”, Spanish police said on Wednesday.

The scam was conducted by “people from different countries, mainly Eastern Europe” who were well qualified in computer science and foreign languages, they said.

The recruits were offered jobs as intermediaries in “international money transfers” with remuneration in the form of a percentage of the transfers.

Nothing much surprising in there, but shows the same tactics are being used.

Is Wikipedia Reliable As A Source?

A few weeks back I wrote in my column of Wikipedia, the peer-produced online encyclopedia. Several readers and friends have asked whether it really stands up to scrutiny. How could something produced by a bunch of folk who may or may not have the qualifications, may or may not have an agenda, create something that’s objective and reliable?

Here’s a piece from the excellent Poynteronline by Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia Professor & Poynter Visiting Professor, which may convince the doubters. He says: “I was always wary of trusting Wikipedia, a giant, free, collaborative encyclopedia that’s getting lots of attention. But, slowly, I found myself impressed by some of the entries I came across.”

News: Broadband Isn’t About Speed

 British users are finding broadband isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, if it means confronting spam and other detritus of the Internet. According to a report by the iSociety project at The Work Foundation to be launched today:  ”Ordinary people are promised that broadband makes the internet better; in fact it sometimes leads to a disaster on the desktop which makes people consider stopping using the net altogether.”
Broadband providers and the industry as a whole must, the report says, “stop pouring hundreds of millions of pounds down the drain developing “rich media content” which doesn’t excite their customers” and start providing support. The report also makes another interesting point: the always-on Internet is not about ‘adoption’ — how many people get online — it’s about ‘absorption’ — about how people online actually get into the whole thing and find useful things online to read or do, or to communicate with others.