August 15, 2011

Wikipedia: I Fought the Lore and the Lore Won

"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build wikipedia..."Fighting the lore of wikipedia is an increasingly futile battle but there are people who resist using and improving the online encyclopedia. The remarkable thing is that some of this resistance comes from the scientific and academic communities, two groups of people who are supposedly concerned with the dissemination of knowledge.

Wikipedia is the lore

With around 300 million visitors each month, wikipedia is firmly in the top ten of most trafficked websites in the world. But you don’t get 300 million visits without attracting some critics, many of whom object to wikipedia’s inaccuracies and the anonymity of some its contributors. What many critics object to is that wikipedia is the lore. That is not the law, but the lore, as in folklore. Like folklore, wikipedian knowledge often comes handed down by word of mouth, copy-and-paste and other questionable practices. The trouble with lore is, it can sometimes be unreliable, based on hearsay, gossip and urban myths rather than hard facts and knowledge favoured by scientists and academics. To some people, wikipedia is a lore which should be fought in every way possible.

Fighting the lore of wikipedia

Professor Neil Waters is one of many examples of an academic who has fought the lore of wikipedia. Water’s students were infamously told that they can’t cite wikipedia in their work [1]. They are still free to use it, but are forbidden to cite it, because of the lack of academic rigour. Wikipedia, the argument goes,  is a “tertiary source” rather than a primary one and therefore not suitable for serious research.

But people like Patricia Dooley have pointed out that academics fighting the use of wikipedia is hypocritical. In a small study published [2], she found that some university faculty members (the “two-faced professoriate” [2]) depend on Wikipedia in their teaching and published research despite the fact that they often discourage their students from using it. Are critics of wikipedia in the academy hypocrites fighting a losing battle?

Has the lore of wikipedia won?

As with many keywords, if you Google just about any scientific term, wikipedia will be in the first page of results. Here are some examples, taken from by Darren Logan’s why wikipedia is important in science:

At the time of writing, 90% of the search terms above have a wikipedia page as their very first Google hit. So, when it comes to accessibility and visibility, the lore of wikipedia is winning.

Improving the lore of wikipedia: Don’t fight it, edit it

So wikipedia is winning but many articles with scientific content are incomplete, inaccurate or just plain wrong. What should scientists do about it?  Rather than discouraging students to use it, wouldn’t it be better if academics and scientists encouraged their students to correct it? Fusing the lore of wikipedia with the law of science in this way is perhaps, the “greatest ever opportunity for public engagement”.  Ornithologist Alexander Bond is the latest in a long line of scientists arguing exactly this case [3]. Where wikipedia is wrong, he suggests that scientists have a duty to make sure that it is accurate and up to date:

“Regardless of the academy’s views on Wikipedia, it will remain a resource used by students, researchers and the public for the near future. Academics should appropriate Wikipedia as a teaching and outreach tool, resulting in higher quality information, more engaged students and a better-informed public.”

So if you’re a scientist or any other kind of academic, there is plenty of help and advice on hand [4] and many different wikiprojects to get involved in. Don’t fight the lore, edit it.


  1. Neil L. Waters (2007). Why you can’t cite Wikipedia in my class Communications of the ACM, 9, 15-17 DOI: 10.1145/1284621.1284635
  2. Patricia L. Dooley (2010). Wikipedia and the two-faced professoriate WikiSym ’10 Proceedings of the 6th International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration DOI: 10.1145/1832772.1832803
  3. Alexander L. Bond (2011). Why ornithologists should embrace and contribute to Wikipedia Ibis, 153 (3), 640-641 DOI: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2011.01135.x
  4. Darren Logan, Massimo Sandal, Paul Gardner, Magnus Manske, & Alex Bateman (2010). Ten simple rules for editing Wikipedia. PLoS computational biology, 6 (9) PMID: 20941386
  5. Sonny Curtis et al (1959) I Fought The Law (and the Law Won) as covered by The Clash:

[Acknowledgement: thanks to wikipedian Paul Gardner for posting the Bond paper on the journal picks. Image above via wikipedia.]

1 Comment »

  1. No problem. Nice piece!

    Comment by Paul Gardner — August 15, 2011 @ 10:54 am | Reply

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