Sunday, October 17, 2004

Fact & Fiction in Encyclopedia Entries

I found the article by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang intriguing. I hadn't quite realized that the move from print to electronic encyclopedias change the relationship with section authors so dramatically. Now that encyclopedias are are updated much more frequently and with greater ease, sections need to be continuously revised and authors have much more work to do.

I then started thinking, is this a great thing or is this a bad thing? On one hand, the need for constantly updated articles regarding various topics may lead to further research and revelation regarding said topics. On the other hand, perhaps authors will start to include unproven or shaky scientific or historical information in their sections for the sake of publishing new information.

In this day and age, we are taught that newer is better, and (in my experience) we tend to give greater respect to those that incorporate new theories into old events. However, this isn't to say that these new theories are anything but theories.

For example, take the historical event of the assassination of Czar Nicholas II and his family. At face value, it is a well documented historical event with a well-known chronology. Not much more can be said about it. However, there is some small controversy regarding the supposed survival of his daughter Anastasia. Though her survival has never been proven, and in fact there much evidence that she was killed, will authors of articles regarding this historical event grasp onto this controversy as fresh material? Will the drive to "update" compromise the academic integrity of the section? This is just one example.

On the bright side, perhaps the drive for fresh material will lead authors to pursue further research regarding Anastasia and even solve its riddle once and for all. But in the mean time, could they resist it as a salacious tidbit to include in their updated histories?


Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

Great points... a natural solution is a p2p encyclopedia... wait! We've got just that in the Wikipedia! (Although I doubt Geoff or Paul have contributed... it would be cool if they did!)

Here's two interesting blog threads on Wikipedia... the first is from Princeton CS prof. Ed Felten and the second is from Joe Gratz, a friend and law student at Washington University in St. Louis.

1. Ed Felten does a Quality Check on Wikipedia comparing it to Britannica: Part I, Part II. (his follow-up)

2. On citing Wikipedia in legal decisions. (referring to these two posts at the Volokh Conspiracy)

3:20 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Echoing Joe's comments, it's easy to just go ahead and start your own encyclopedia, if you don't like what's currently out there, or if you want a particular sub-area to get its own coverage. For instance, Disinfopedia, an "encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the public agenda", and dKosopedia, a liberal-leaning political encyclopedia that sprung off from a popular liberal blog.

So not only can you revise and update an encyclopedia entry with great frequency, you can go ahead and create your own encyclopedia with very little overhead. (Particularly if it's community-based.) The encyclopedia metaphor still seems to be the driving idea (note the "-opedia" in the names), but the "drive for fresh material" that Jesse mentioned is finding new outlets all the time.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Morgan said...

I think that the academic reputation the authors want to maintain keeps the rcontent of most encyclopedias relatively trustworthy, even if they are frequently updated. This is especially true for events that happened long ago, since this presumably gives historians time to converge on a common interpetation of the event. (This may be why the recent Microsoft case Joe linked above was riddled with errors, but others were not ... that and the controversial nature of the case.) Though revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn do challenge traditional presentations and interpretations of history, these theories aren't included in encyclopedias or textbooks until the scholarly community agrees that the revisionist interpretation is "more correct" than the conventional one. (Just how this happens is another story.)

Aside: history is a curious mix of scientific inquiry and heresy. Historians can never truly re-create past events, yet they are obligated to attempt to be scientific in their investigations of information about the events. They confront the issue of information quality constantly in seeking and evaluating sources.

4:11 PM  

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