Thursday, April 05, 2007

I'm Boxes

While I'll likely never be important enough to warrant an actual page on Wikipedia barring something massively embarrassing, I occassionally edit. Mostly unimportant articles on podcasts, sports franchises and fraternities. I did intend to change the values on some of the chemistry pages while I was TAing as an attempt at teaching the undergrads who were in my class that they should check Wikipedia's sources, but I never did actually get around to it. Still, as a very occasional Wikipedian, having an account brings with it a userpage. Unfortunately, as with many profile-type pages, it appeared to demand that I actually come up with a coherent article about myself. Most of you know that I'm not very good at coherence. Luckily, userboxes exist and require very little in the way of design, which is good. Because I suck at design. I no longer need to find a way to work into an article the fact that I, too, enjoyed the Big Lebowski and drink water and know that 0.999~=1. These little things can do it for me. And so, direct from Wikipedia, my userpage.

In the process of filling those out, I took the Political Compass test again. I think this is the first time I've ever actually been on the right of center on the economic axis, though I'm still pretty much within "centrist" on that, as far as I can tell. Unsurprisingly, I'm about as wacky left as you can get on the Libertarian-Authoritarian axis. If you take it, or have taken it in the past, let me know where you are.


Hal said...

Hm, never taken that political axis test, but I might at some point.

Honestly, I don't see much wrong with Wikipedia regarding science articles. Yeah, anything politically motivated is probably to be taken with a grain of salt, but the science articles don't have much room for bias. Most of them are just copy/pasted straight from legitimate sources anyhow.

Yeah, some moron can come along and mess with the data (ahem), but when you have 1000 other people who will swoop in and fix it, I think it's a self-correcting system.

To me, it's almost like the peer-review system.

-Murphy said...

Some of it's copy/pasted straight from the legitimate sources. Other parts are copy/pasted from other science articles. I've found at least a few chemical articles that have had the standard form on the side with either no values or the values of another entry, and have seen specific language removed in preference of vague language (in the Chicago River article, "fluorescein dye" was recently replaced with "green dye", which is kind of correct but is much less informative and is less correct.

As far as "1000 people swooping in" to save the day, I don't buy it. It's not difficult to find errors that are somewhat longstanding, and I fear that they're more likely to crop up and stand on science pages, especially those that are about very specific subjects (like individula chemicals.) If you vandalize George Bush's page, it'll get caught quickly because a lot of people access the page and a lot of people are kind of expecting some vandalism. Less people are expecting vandalism on very specific scientific articles, and errors tend to stand for longer. I don't think it's like the peer-review system as the people who review things for publication in science are
1) generally at least moderately familiar with the field.
2) actually given articles to review, rather than having to stumble upon them.

In that, I do really support the Wikipedia Projects, which seek to improve certain related articles. They do really good work. But it's not perfect.

I don't have anything against Wikipedia as such. I think it's a great idea, I try to contribute when I can and I use it a lot. I just don't think that I'd rely on it as evidence of anything without checking sources, which is what citing it in a paper feels like to me. I think it will probably be a long time before I look through an article in JACS or J. Org. Chem. or Macromolecules and find a citation to Wikipedia. That's all. And I feel that a part of being a TA is teaching the students how to write a scientific article that could be published. It's a skill that's difficult to learn, that I don't have yet and that I think we need to teach better.