Monday, September 27, 2010

Elite Opposition to Online Information

Elite academia has their underwear in a bunch about use of online citations by college students. A few years ago, the History Department at Middlebury College went so far as to bar students from citing Wikipedia as a source in papers or other academic work, a story picked up by the NY Times (of course) and immitated by UC Santa Cruz and others.

Online sources, they say, have made it easier for students to copy material and submit it as their own writing (plagiarism). Much of that material, opponents claim, may be false because it has not gone through the editing and review process traditional for books and magazines.


In a recent talk on Freedom of the Press in the Digital Age at our local Philosophy Club, I used these examples to illustrate how "the authorities" always try to shut down alternative sources and technologies that undermine their monopoly control on information. The academic elite that controls the publishing industry and the main-stream press hates it when they lose control because they simply do not trust ordinary people.


Back around 1200 AD Pope Innocent III banned the common language (vulgate) Bible because, he said “… The mysteries of the faith … cannot be understood by everyone but only by those who are qualified to understand them with informed intelligence.” In other words, if you don't understand Latin you have to listen to the interpretations of "qualified" experts, i.e., the Pope and priests. In the 1450's when moveable type printing came into use, drastically reducing the cost of reproducing books which up til then had been a virtual monopoly of the Church and the Crown, no one could own a printing press without a license.

The English Parliament, in 1643, noting "Abuses, and frequent Disorders, in printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books" by people who "set up sundry private Printing Presses in Corners" ordered that no "Book, Pamphlet, or Paper, shall from henceforth be printed, … unless … first approved of, and licensed …” John Milton (yes the famous poet) responded the following year by publishing an UNLICENSED speech opposed to any kind of prior restraint on the freedom to publish. In general, the English-speaking world and our Western-oriented allies have the greatest degree of press freedom that has ever existed in the history of the world.


The advent of the Internet is the ultimate in freedom to publish without approval from "the authorities". Every day, millions of ordinary people post to Blogs like this one that nearly everyone in the world can read if they choose to. No licensing, no prior restraint by the government! Of course, if the information is libelous, injured parties can sue. If it is a matter of diffference of opinion, opponents are free to publish their own rebuttal on the Internet.

So, back to the ban on academic citations of Wikipedia and other online sources. Why does the academic elite think that books and magazines and newspapers published by established organizations are more reliable than Wikipedia? Well, they say, these organizations have editors and research staffs that act as "gatekeepers" to protect the truth. That is true, but it is also true that most of these gatekeepers have similar opinions on controversial topics. Would you make the Pope and priests the sole gatekeepers for religious information as Pope Innocent III wanted? If not, why would you put elite academics in charge of information about history and politics and similar topics where opinion and fact are not easy to separate?

I think Wikipedia, pound for pound, has a greater truth content than The New York Times. Yes, anyone can edit items into Wikipedia, but, if false information is edited into an item about an important topic, there are far many more people who are prepared to edit it out and make sure it is correct. Wikipedia has a system of voluntary reviewers. If an item is challenged, the author is given an opportunity to correct it and, if he or she fails to do so, there is a review and voting process that can delete the material. Corrections thus appear in hours or days. How long does it take to correct something in a book or magazine?

Wikipedia has Google-backed competition in the form of Google Knols (where a Knol is a bit of knowledge). Again, anyone may post Knol topics, but, unlike Wikipedia, authors must identify themselves. I have published 11 Knols that, in total, garnered nearly 17,000 page views as of a month ago.

As many of you know, I teach an online graduate course in System Engineering. I encourage my students to use online sources as wll as traditional published materials. I actually prefer online sources because it makes it easier for me to detect and prove plagiarism. When I see a phrase or sentence I do not think a particular student has written, and if it is not in quote marks with a proper citation, I do a Google on the phrase, using quote marks at either end. If I get a direct hit, I look to see if the rest of the sentence or paragraph is also copied, and, if so, I have positive proof of violation of the Academic Integrity policy of the university.

Ira Glickstein


Howard Pattee said...

Ira, your ideological ranting against the academic elites’ opposition to online information is baseless and misleading. Academics are the main users of online information for their work. They publish, teach, and do research online. Google Scholar is now reference librarians’ main search. If you teach your students that anonymous sources are authoritative you are doing them a disservice. It is almost a universal policy that no scholar, publisher, or journalist accepts anonymous text as legitimate reference. Sandra Ordonez, a spokeswoman for Wikipedia said, "That's a sensible policy. Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources.”


Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for your comment. You are correct for some areas of student research where it is absolutely essential to access peer-reviewed journals and books published by reputable companies. Google Scholar, as you point out, now provides access to these types of materials, but at a cost. I did a Google Scholar search for "optimal span" (my specialty when you were chairman of my PhD committee) and the two applicable hits would have cost me $22 and $11 to download.

The ban on online citations at Middlebury was by the HISTORY department. It seems to me that if a student needs to know the date and description of issues related to any major historical development, he or she will find it correctly reported at Wikipedia or other online sources. If it relates to recent history, such as elections and other current events, online is the only source that will be up to date.

My online grad students at the University of Maryland University College use internet sources to research an ongoing case study related to a security system and they find great info on biometric sensors, RFID, software engineering, and other applicable items. They write Research Papers on system and software related topics of their choice and most of the best information is from online sources. Best of all, I can easily access their sources to see the context when necessary.

The main knock against Wikipedia is that anyone in the world can edit (almost) any Wikipedia item and do so anonymously. True enough, but if the topic is at all popular, dozens of interested parties will edit the truth back in. They have a referee mechanism that can ban those who behave badly (based on their screen names and other digital ID stuff), they can lock certain items where there are "edit wars", and they have volunteer domain experts who police certain areas.

When I posted a scholarly item about Optimal Span, a reviewer objected to the fact I said it was from my PhD Dissertation. I changed that and did other updates to meet objections, but, after a two week period, the reviewers voted to delete my item. I think they were wrong to do so, but I am nevertheless quite pleased by their process.

My Optimal Span and related stuff is now at Google Knols where authors must identify themselves. Knols also have a review process, but it is far less stringent than Wikipedia. I have had around 17,000 page views for my Knols.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, you are missing my point and the principle. Nobody is against the internet for searching!

My point and the principle is that it is an ethical norm (and literally a definition) that anonymous text is not an authoritative source among scholars, professional journalism, writers, historians, the law, medicine, or any profession.

Whether you find anonymity OK is irrelevant. It is still misleading your students to teach them that outside your class they can get away with it.


Ira Glickstein said...

Howard raises two important issues, 1) Lack of credibility of "anonymous" text, and 2) Misleading my students that they can "get away" with citing "anonymous" text.

1-"Anonymous" text

Authors of traditionally published books and journals might as well be anonymous. We generally depend upon the good reputations and review processes of established journals and book publishers.

Though Wikipedia authors are anonymous, Wikipedia has an effective review system for topics in important areas. Volunteer domain experts monitor items. Readers post claims of bias or error. Items are edited by the "cloud" and errors quickly resolved. I believe Wikipedia, pound for pound, is as factual as traditionally published text, and far more timely (and free).

I've presented papers at many peer-reviewed engineering conferences where a substantial number of the other papers were lacking or flat out wrong, at least in my opinion. I am sure it is better when Howard is a reviewer.

Of course, I always apply the "smell test" to any information I get, from Wikipedia, conferences, traditional publishers or the main stream media.

Do you think the anonymity of Wikipedia makes it worse than Google Knols where authors are not anonymous? I put greater trust in Wikipedia because they have a much greater readership and a more widely-based review process.

For controversial areas, such as politics and some aspects of religion and history, even books and magazine pieces by established publishers may be laden with faulty interpretation and analysis to suit the author's biases.

For example, "Team of Rivals" by well-known historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is about Lincoln. It was written, according to positive reviews, to analogize President Obama's choice of Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, similar to how Lincoln also picked a rival for that position. I enjoyed the book and learned a lot I had not known about Lincoln, but I had this sneaking suspicion some of the facts had been interpreted in a slanted way.

When you and I researched Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life, it seems to me you did not accept many of the generally held interpretations in peer-reviewed journals - and for good reason! Why would you require a student to cite one of those sources in preference to something on Wikipedia?

2-Misleading my students

My online grad students at the University of Maryland University College all have Bachelors degrees and are going for their Masters in Information Technology (IT). Most are currently employed in the IT field and need to learn about System Engineering.

During the early part of my career as a System Engineer, pre-internet, we had a company library with books and journals plus a research staff that had access to a computer system they could search for applicable materials I needed for my Independent Research and Development tasks. It would take a week or more to get a paper. Even then, however, my most useful info came from the marketing departments of various vendors of sensors and computer hardware and software they were trying to sell. Of course I learned to take these sales materials with a large grain of salt!.

The internet is so much richer now that I think my students will get more current and applicable and usable information to do their jobs better from online sources than from refereed journals.

I accept that pure science researchers, such as physicists and medical doctors and the like, need refereed journals for most of their data. However, my students are not likely to be in research but rather in development and deployment and operation of IT products and services. For them, I think the ability to surf the internet (with appropriate skepticism) will serve them better than published books and journal papers.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, You're right. The value of every reference comes down to the author's objectivity and judgment. Authorities can be dead wrong.


Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard, and I agree that an author's objectivity and particularly his or her judgment is at least as important as being a recognized "authority".

I know you have considerable experience as an author and reviewer of scientific journal papers and as editor of at least one book of which I am aware. I will appreciate your opinion on the following:

SITUATION: A prolific writer and editor of a scientific publication has very strong opinions on a topic that is both important and controversial. He abuses his position at the publication by writing and publishing many papers putting forth his opinions and editing or not allowing publication of papers that express contrary opinions.

How would that be dealt with when brought to the attention of the board of that journal?

Just a week ago, a Wikipedia arbitration review board of seven members voted unanimously to "topic ban" a writer and editor who abused his position over several years to slant more than1000 items in the "climate change" topic area towards the alarmist and warmist positions and prevent the publication of skeptic views. See here for the ban order.

If you scroll the link up and down, you will also see other arbitration and review orders and proposed actions. I am impressed by the democratic nature of these reviews and particularly their open nature. Anyone in the world can read and comment on the process and decisions.

Is there any equivalent to this in any academic or scientific journal of which you are aware?

Ira Glickstein

PS: In another topic, Joel has posed some Tea Party-related questions for you Howard. I look forward to your reply there as well. advTHANKSance!