Wikipedia’s authoritative articles

Wikipedia used to have a warning label that said something to the effect that you had to take everything there with a grain of salt; which is sage advice for any encyclopedia.

The idea being that a tertiary source like an encyclopedia can never be as authoritative as a primary or secondary source. (Let’s gloss over the fact that the strength of Wikipedia derives partly from being an excellent primary or secondary source for a lot of subjects.)

Now Wikipedia wants to instill some kind of authority by vetting articles, then locking them. According to an article in the Times: The software to allow such “stable” articles, which will be closed off from further revision, is now in the final stages.

Why write new software when it already exists? An encyclopedia built by volunteers, absorbing Wikipedia articles (or the other way around), which are then vetted by specialists in the field and deemed “finished” already exists. Or perhaps I should say “existed”; Nupedia was an abject failure. The vetting process would take ages, and by the time a rare article had graduated from Wikipedia’s elementary school to Nupedia’s university, the original Wikipedia article would have progressed so far that the Nupedia bit was nothing but a pale shadow of it.

But let’s try and be constructive. How about this?

Wikipedia already has locked pages, namely the older revisions. When you edit a wikipedia article, the former version gets saved somewhere. This helps other contributors to check up on your work, by comparing your version of an article with older versions. It also helps me to link to a version of a Wikipedia article about Nupedia that I just checked for all too clear inaccuracies and signs of vandalism.

How about giving some editors an approval stamp? When they use it on an article, the article gets marked authoritative. Then, when somebody else edits the article, the authoritative versions moves down in the history again, and the current version will no longer be marked authoritative.

If there is an authoritative version of the article, you can display a tab at the top, next to the “Article” tab, that links to the “Authoritative version”.

You could even make it so that if a reader looks up an article, the authoritative version is displayed first, although I think that is a very bad idea, because it sends a message to the good contributors that their work is of less value than that of an authority. To which the good contributors could rightfully disagree–an excellent reason to leave Wikipedia.

Authories will only lend their names to articles if they are sure the articles are correct. An authority who thinks it is OK to rubberstamp any old article, regardless of its actual quality, should not be considered an authority — such folks are probably better off working for the Digital Universe encyclopedia anyway. But every article always contains at least a few flaws, which may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks to correct. Only very few articles would be vetted if the entire article should be OKed. So, the authorities should be able to mark only the parts of an article they trust, then move on.

This has the added advantage that the weak parts of an article stand out, so that the great masses can apply their energy to making the entire article good. Also, it helps make the authority’s voice clearer; he or she need not OK parts that he or she is not entirely certain about; that which the authority OKed, should really be OK. And of course, once you know that, you can better judge the quality of the authoritative voice, and vote it out when necessary.

Finally, an authoritative article should have a box explaining who deemed it authoritative, and what makes him or her so special. After all, an argument of authority is merely a heuristic; what makes somebody authoritative is first and foremost the things a person knows about a subject, and the fact that we know they know these things.

To be honest, Jimmy Wales probably has something like this in mind. Rarely have I seen a man who is misquoted so often and so badly by the traditional press as Wales; he knows what underlies the success of Wikipedia as well as I do, and it’s definitely not locking articles.

One response to “Wikipedia’s authoritative articles”

  1. Martin Wisse says:

    Exactly. I bet what the plan actually will be is that there will be stable versions of articles that are locked down, but the articles themselves will still be editable. It’s just that readers will have the choice between Wikipedia Raw and Wikipedia 1.0.

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