Sunday, September 24, 2006
How is the quality of serious writing assured? ::

In the physical world, raw power - which in fact drives these things - is carefully disguised. Quality - at least in the academic world - is assured by "peer review". Journals decide what to print, based on the assessment made of the work by a reviewer - expert in the field - who does not know the identity of the writer.

One defers, in the academic world to those who are recognised as "authorities". Usually they are recognised as such by titles conferred by reputable (the more reputable the better) institutions.

In theory at least these mechanisms are impartial and accurate. In practice, and in private, most academics admit that the system is not as equitable and egalitarian as it sounds. Influence abounds, a "good" supervisor can help ensure their students' work is published in prestigious locations, and so ensure their own prestige grows. If you scratch my back, I will ensure yours is scratched in turn!

Online there are no such mechanisms, no history or culture of deference, not authorities who can provide a seal of approval to new work. In this sense Wikipedia is the epitome of “online” - an encyclopedia (that most respectable of academic writings), at first glance composed by any one who cares to write.

The brouhaha around the battle of words between Wikipedians and Brittanicans has centred round this difference. Wikipedia is written by anyone, and relies largely on the self healing provided by the Wikipedian community (note that two of the articles referenced in this post are currently either closed, or "under dispute" - so much for "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" - to ensure the quality of its articles. Brittanica is written by “experts” and relies on their reputation – acquired in traditional institutions – to assure the quality of what is written. Wikipedia is swift to respond and up to the minute with the latest news of popular culture, if (occasionally, and debatably) dodgy. Brittanica is safe and reliable – if a touch staid and stodgy.

A new online encyclopedia project Citizendium (ht to if:book “a fork in the road for wikipedia”) seeks to combine some of the virtues of both systems. As Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger describes it one difference between Wikipedia and Citizendium will be the credentialling of editors:
We want the wiki project to be as self-managing as possible. We do not want editors to be selected by a committee, which process is too open to abuse and politics in a radically open and global project like this one is.
People who believe they have “suitable” credentials will propose themselves as section editors, they will post links to their credentials, so that these may be publicly challenged. Likewise all authors and editors must register under their own real names. Citizendium is to import elements of the “reputation” based system of the physical academy to an online community project.

Time will tell if the attempt to avoid in this way some of the problems that plague Wikipedia, yet still avoid the inertia that dedevils Brittanica will succeed.

Clay Shirky critiques this mixed approach, writing:
Deference, on Citizendium will be for people, not contributions, and will rely on external credentials, a priori certification, and institutional enforcement. Deference, on Wikipedia, is for contributions, not people, and relies on behavior on Wikipedia itself, post hoc examination, and peer-review. Sanger believes that Wikipedia goes too far in its disrespect of experts; what killed Nupedia and will kill Citizendium is that they won’t go far enough.
Ah, we live in interesting times!

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