University Library’s Laughably Biased “Selective Bibliography” Slams Wikipedia

The University Libraries here at UC have just published “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe?,” proffered as a resource to “help you start some interesting class discussions” about the free online encyclopedia. And the list certainly provides food for thought! I can envision some very interesting discussions resulting in my fall Computer & Internet Law course — not about whether Wikipedia is accurate or a good thing, but rather about how such a risibly one-sided “bibliography” (the most favorable item of which seems grudgingly to acknowledge that Wikipedia is “not really … a pariah”) ever came to be promulgated by the staff of a university that aspires to academic prominence.

Part of Wikipedia’s particular charm is that it is, in Dr. Weinberger’s memorable phrase, in “a continuous state of self-criticism that newspapers would do well to emulate.” Want to start a debate about whether Wikipedia is “friend or foe”? A far more comprehensive guide than anything in the UC Libraries’ page is available at Why Wikipedia is So Great and Why Wikipedia is Not So Great. On Wikipedia.

The UC Libraries’ page also manages to allude, in innuendo that is about as pointed as it can be without actually making a testable allegation, to problems with the “quality and reliability” of information on Wikipedia. Its bibliography, however, conspicuously omits a number of references that would appear to bear directly on that question, such as:

The UC Libraries’ list also includes a particularly tawdry reference to the controversy over user Essjay (highlighted by the Libraries with a rather breathless “don’t miss the Editor’s Note!”) without actually referencing the most up-to-date information on the controversy — which is freely available, again, on Wikipedia itself. (In brief: (1) user lied about credentials, (2) truth was revealed, (3) Wikipedia’s founder reacted with unwarranted nonchalance, (4) user resigned from Wikipedia, (5) Wikipedia’s founder issued apology for earlier reaction and emphasized unacceptability of user’s conduct. But you will only learn about items (1)-(3) on that list from the UC Libraries, even though items (4) and (5) seem to put things in a rather different light.)

The UC Libraries’ list also entirely omits legal and cultural contextual data that might actually support an informed debate in classrooms that rely on its bibliography. Yale law professor Yochai Benkler found himself so inspired by the example of Wikipedia that he released his entire 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks, online in the form of a wiki. The Wealth of Networks is itself a book-length essay on the entire social/political/technological phenomenon that gave birth to Wikipedia and nourished many of its forebears; it’s an indispensable reference in understanding the unique features of the present legal/technological regime in which we find ourselves. But it’s not on the UC Libraries’ reference list. Neither is Stanford law professor (and Berkman Center co-founder) Larry Lessig‘s Code version 2.0, a collaboratively edited update to one of the towering works in our genre — which is also available online in the form of a wiki.

Columbia law professor Tim Wu (who is not remotely as diabolical in real life as his online photo looks) recently admitted to being “a confessed Wikipedia addict, sometime contributor, and true believer[.]” I guess that on that scale, I measure about 0.65 Wus; I’m a frequent Wikipedia reader, also a sometime contributor, and if I haven’t quite reached the “true believer” stage yet, I’m at least persuaded that there is something highly interesting and valuable going on here. I strongly favor having discussions in an academic setting over the entire phenomenon of user-generated content online, the threat it represents to traditional informational gatekeepers, and the types of responses it has provoked. While the UC Libraries’ “Friend or Foe?” guide provides an interesting case in point for that debate, it hardly lives up to its billing as an informational resource for faculty.

6 Responses to “University Library’s Laughably Biased “Selective Bibliography” Slams Wikipedia”

  1. I’m an academic law librarian at another institution, and I appreciate this well deserved response to what must have been a hastily crafted so-called bibliography. On the other hand, I myself use Wikipedia very cautiously, i.e., with a heightened awareness of the manner of its production, for better or worse. This heightened awareness may turn out to be quite a positive legacy of Wikipedia and other user-generated configurations, even from a librarian’s perspective, for we have traditionally taken account of the quality of information resources in our evaluation and selection of them for our collections.

    I’d also like to defend the admittedly skimpy list by UC’s library against some of the charges leveled against it here, or at least to clarify some of the issues a bit. First, “bibliography” has been used rather loosely for quite some time to refer to a variety of lists of published works. Many academic books, for example, include an appended “bibliography,” a list of references cited in the main body of the work. In that context, the term isn’t being used exactly correctly, because a bibliography is supposed to represent a fairly principled enumeration of works (sometimes including descriptions of each of those works), including explicit designations of the universe from which the titles were gleaned, criteria for selection, reasons for exclusion, and so forth. Strictly speaking, a scholarly “bibliography” appearing as a compilation of references at the end of a book has been developed according to the scholar’s reading and citation practices, which do not per se amount to a very interesting principle underlying the work. At least the UC list did note its selectivity, a gesture to the default aspiration of comprehensiveness of a bibliography not so qualified. Obviously, this UC list is wanting in most other respects, too.

    Second, nothing about a bibliography requires it to be neutral with respect to its topic. One could legitimately and usefully compile a list of pro-X or anti-Y works, but a successful bibliography would explicitly define its criteria. The UC list fails to reflect literature favorable to Wikipedia, and is perhaps even implicitly passing itself off as objective in this regard, but it really fails bibliographically in the first place by not establishing its terms. In fact, it seems rather off-the-cuff, aimed at little more than generating class discussion, not exactly work that would demand the compilation of a bibliography.

    Third, the examples of Profs. Benkler and Lessig might support a contrary argument: yes, they have elected to contribute their works to revision via wikis, but they have done so only after establishing relatively static, traditional book versions of the sort accorded authority in academia. Quality and reliability vis-à-vis their texts are assured by reference to their original published works—the ones researchers are perhaps yet inclined to check out from their campus libraries—regardless of the resulting wiki’d versions. (Our copy of Benkler is presently out, and Lessig’s Code has circulated twenty times.)

    It seems likely to me that the UC library staff were making no pretenses to genuine bibliographic work. I note, too, the list’s own nod to user-generated content, the mailto: link at the end. Wikis start with stubs; so might bibliographies. I suspect that the language of “true belief” reveals a partial source of the rift here. As a librarian, I use bibliographies, OED, standard and fairly specialized reference sources, and so forth. I’d never thought to couch my reliance on them in terms of true belief, addiction, or mania (pace the link to ‘the “true believer” stage’). We come to admire and depend on a good bibliography or OED after evaluation, routine usage, noting responses of other users, and reflection. These are professional approaches to the literature, for the most part. But the discourse reflecting developments in technologies of collaboration and user-generation is evidently charged with an almost Messianic promise urgently requiring an exercise of faith. This discourse is what threatens “traditional information gatekeepers,” not the technologies and social configurations themselves, which do indeed hold out promises of very practical benefits that librarians, among others, have usually been eager to realize.

    “Traditional information gatekeepers,” by the way, contains a felicitous ambiguity. Are the gatekeepers traditional, i.e., old and grey, Luddite, resistant to change? Or is the information recorded in print media, once upon a time regarded as touchstones of quality and reliability, now receding into a remote tradition of quaint irrelevance? Are quality and reliability themselves evolving into merely traditional criteria?

  2. Hi Dean — I take your point that the library’s bibliography likely wasn’t intended as a comprehensive resource and isn’t billed as such. And while I would agree that a resource that doesn’t aspire to cover the waterfront perhaps ought not to be held up to the standard of “neutral[ity] with respect to its topic,” I see no inconsistency with requiring a resource proffered as supplying background for debate to actually include pertinent references from more than one perspective. If the UC Libraries suggested that faculty lead their students in debate over Darwin using a “select bibliography” composed entirely of resources on creationism and “intelligent design,” I don’t think anyone would excuse the obvious bias on the grounds that bibliographies need not be “neutral.”

    I take, too, your point with respect to Benkler and Lessig having cut their teeth on “traditionally” published works before turning to the world of wikis; as I’ve written before, there is clearly an issue of institutional incentives at play here, and one veers at one’s peril from the well-trodden path to tenure. The problem with the Libraries’ list is that it doesn’t recognize the possible existence of a benefit from the collaborative production model at all; not that it defines the benefit too narrowly. And my view of the significance of the “mailto:” link in the UC Libraries’ is just the opposite of yours — one of the the promises of the peer production phenomenon is precisely that it need not leave a single (and possibly biased) authority as the arbiter of what does and doesn’t merit inclusion. I read the mailto link as a barrier to, not a facilitator of, user-generated improvements to the list.

  3. Thanks, Tim, for this response. You are certainly better situated to discern the motivations behind UC Library conduct, but I’m going to guess that this particular selective list of titles was a response to a common experience among librarians. We often hear from students, and not infrequently from faculty, that they have used Google or Wikipedia to conduct their research. Period. Consequently, we perhaps overcompensate by too vigorously (yet tacitly) sidelining those resources. I’m not trying to justify the UC document, merely to explain it. I’m also suggesting that the Darwin theme simply wouldn’t strike so close to home.

    This, too, is why the value of collaborative production is not broached more pointedly in this context. To my mind, anyway, I think that many of the proponents of collaborative production suffer from a tunnel vision reciprocal to the librarians’. In a review of a collection to which Prof. Benkler contributed, for example, I addressed a version of this phenomenon when I wrote, “Avid proponents of the salutary effects of new technologies too often assume a clear correlation between instrumental operations of law and technology on the one hand, and the ‘hedonic’ enjoyment of creative fulfillment on the other.” The “promises” of technology are not inherent, nor do traditional media always (or even usually) rely on a single arbiter. Collaboration is a question of degree, not kind. Even traditional peer review modes of scholarly communication, not to mention the more idiosyncratic genre of student-edited legal scholarship, entail collaboration (this being one of the points well illustrated by the book I reviewed).

    I fail to see how the mailto: link is a barrier in other than a trivial sense, the same sense in which a neighborhood library devoted to facilitating access to its collection is nevertheless a barrier because it’s five miles from home. Yes, the e-mail link presumably channels all of the messages through one person’s inbox, rather than automatically posting them for all to see (and edit and comment upon). But the notion of a “biased authority” is (as I’m evidently fond of noting) ambiguous, in ways that complicate your point. A biased authority is only a problem when the authority is gratuitous or arbitrary, i.e., not really the sort of authority we intend when we refer to somebody as being an authority in such-and-such a field. (I have no basis for supposing that the recipient of the e-mail in this case is such an authority.)

  4. A new title for the UC reading list: Dennis M. Wilkinson & Bernard A. Huberman, Assessing the Value of Cooperation in Wikipedia, First Monday, v. 12, no. 4 (April 2007). The conclusion: largely favorable.

  5. I feel the pain of whoever compiled the original “bibliography.” I work with writing instructors, and a lot of them are noticing how heavily students rely on Wikipedia, are vaguely uncomfortable with this reliance, and are unsure why they feel this way. What they’d really like is something like this list, that gives them “ammunition” to use to convince students not to use Wikipedia.

    Students need to be educated a bit on the downside of collaborative wisdom, but teachers too need some education. Their students are growing up in a wiki world, and will be doing great things with this kind of collaboration (and making some spectacular pratfalls too, no doubt). Tim, I hope you’ve sent all your suggested additions to the person whose email appears on the Web page?

  6. [...] Tim wrote here recently about how the library at his home institution, the University of Cincinnati, has (mis)handled its approach to Wikipedia. [...]