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Wikipedia, Law Review Citations, and the Passive Voice:

I find Wikipedia quite useful, in the proper context, chiefly when I'm trying to find out about (1) something that's not terribly controversial, so the risk of Wikipedia error or spin is likely lower, (2) and — more importantly — something that's not very important to my work, so the cost of possible Wikipedia error is lower. We rely on plenty of less reliable information under those circumstances; for instance, we might rely on our own recollections' of partly forgotten sources, or conversations with friends. There's no reason to categorically disqualify Wikipedia in those situations.

On the other hand, some uses of Wikipedia strike me as unsound. Consider this, from a law review article:

The history of the concept of "responsibility to protect" [FN1] sounds almost like a fairy tale. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty developed this concept in its 2001 report The Responsibility to Protect.... In December 2004, this idea was taken up in the context of the debate on United Nations reform.... In March 2005, this finding was endorsed by the report of the UN secretary-general .... [More historical details omitted. -EV]

Not long ago, the notion of "responsibility to protect" was added as a key word to the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, where it is defined as a recently developed concept in international relations that aims at "provid[ing] a legal and ethical basis for 'humanitarian intervention.'"

The articulation of the concept of responsibility to protect is a remarkable achievement.

The seeming success of the movement to recognize a responsibility to protect may well be a remarkable achievement generally — but having something "added as a key word to the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia" is not a remarkable achievement: It can be done by one person anywhere in the world, with a modest investment of effort. It's even less of an achievement than being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Note also how the passive voice (another thing that I've defended, when it's used in the proper context) hides the unsound argument. The notion of responsibility "was added" to Wikipedia, the article says. But who did the adding? Some unknown and unscreened contributor.

Recasting the sentence in the active voice, as "Not long ago, a Wikipedia contributor added the notion of 'responsibility to protect' as a key word to Wikipedia," would have exposed the error. The passive voice conceals the error, especially to readers who don't fully understood how Wikipedia works. (And even if the author himself didn't fully understood how Wikipedia works, trying to recast the sentence in the active voice might have led him to figure the matter out.)

Justin (mail):
I'm assuming its clear from the article, that the mentioning of when the term was added was meant to give the term some credibility, rather than laziness and poor writing? (I.e., "normally, I'd use a dictionary definition here, but I can't find one, so I'll just cite Wikipedia, and mention that its recent so people will excuse me for not using a dictionary.")

Otherwise, this could be another reason to avoid using the passive term - you can lead people astray as to your intended meaning by hiding the active verb and thus losing the focus of purpose.
6.4.2007 4:23pm
Matt L. (mail):
Reminds me of my favorite use of the passive voice to make meaningless achievements seem meaningful: "X was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize."
6.4.2007 4:43pm
CDU (mail):
"But who did the adding? Some unknown and unscreened contributor."

It could even have been the person writing the article.
6.4.2007 4:56pm
BobH (mail):
My wife, who teaches 11th-grade AP English at a very, very good high school, insists that her students cite, in anything they turn in to her, the authority for every statement that did not spring 100% from their own heads. Though she accepts some Web sites as citations, she does NOT accept Wikipedia -- for the very reasons Prof. V and the pervious comments have laid out.
6.4.2007 5:00pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Justin: You assume correctly.
6.4.2007 5:03pm
Matthew J. Brown (mail):
Wikipedia is good, like any general encyclopedia, for an overview. Wikipedia articles should - and the good ones do - show where they got that information, in the form of reference information; that's where you go to find out what kind of authority the statement has.

If one stated that the concept was supported in the Wikipedia article with references to newspaper X, academic journal Y, respected authority Z - then it's more credible, but still ...
6.4.2007 5:29pm
Matthew J. Brown (mail):
BobH: I hope your wife also disapproves of use of paper encyclopedias, which are similarly unreliable and shouldn't really be cited at the AP level or higher.
6.4.2007 5:31pm
Dave N (mail):
I agree with EV and Justin on the proper use of active voice. We all would write better if we used passive voice rarely and thought about it when we did.

On the topic oif Wikipedia, I disagree with Matthew J, Brown in part. Because anyone can write for Wikipedia--and anyone can edit a Wikipedia article--Wikipedia is less reliable than its paper counterparts. Like BobH's wife, I do not accept Wikipedia as a source (I teach at the undergraduate level).

That said, I do agree with Matthew J. White that original sources are far preferable to encyclopedia entries.
6.4.2007 5:48pm
Dave N (mail):
OOPS--it should ahve been Matthew J. Brown BOTH times in my last post. My apologies.
6.4.2007 5:49pm
Andrew W (mail):
But the "reponsibity to protect" Wikipedia article's author isn't 100% anonymous. Checking the edit history shows that it was created by a Canadian university student: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Spencerk. Moreover, the article was refined by at least a dozen other users, not only with content but with outside references. Sorry to sound snarky, but an equally good use of one's time to criticize the entry on a blog would be to update the Wikipedia entry one's self.
6.4.2007 5:52pm
TomH (mail):
Re: Wikipedia's error rate compared to a "real" encclopedia.

See Slashdot's aticle (and make you own assessment of it authoirty).
6.4.2007 5:55pm
Nels Nelson (mail):
Andrew, I believe the page's initial author isn't necessarily the same as the person who created the key word, as the word could have origininated as a link on another page. If you look around Wikipedia you'll see a lot of "dead" links like this, to be fleshed out later.
6.4.2007 6:15pm
lucia (mail) (www):
AndrewW wrote:

Sorry to sound snarky, but an equally good use of one's time to criticize the entry on a blog would be to update the Wikipedia entry one's self.


I disagree.

EV probably amused himself writing the article he wanted to write and it happened to illustrate a point about writing. Both have some utility to someone. Editing the Wikipedia article would have accomplished neither of these things.

In contrast, spending time debating the use of passive voice with Wikipedia contributors seems rather useless.
6.4.2007 6:19pm
John Neff (mail):
In a discussion of political ignorance you posted recently I found the term "rational irrationality" and I wondered if it was a joke. A google search gave a large number of hits but wikapedia drew a blank.
6.4.2007 6:33pm
He Screams (mail):
Prof V --

The text that you quote, at length... what are you quoting?
6.4.2007 6:44pm
Visiting:
EV,
I fully understand the issue you raise. However, out of curiousity, would you ever cite Wikipedia in a scholarly (or not so scholarly) piece? Not like I have a lot of time on my hands, but this is a question I've often pondered of others.
Thanks.
6.4.2007 7:28pm
theobromophile (www):
A few weeks ago, opposing counsel cited Wikipedia in a brief.

Yes, some Wiki entries are founded upon information taken from respected and respectable sources, but why not cite those? It's nothing but laziness to not take the extra step to look up the original articles, especially when they are at the bottom of the page and you don't even have to do research.
6.4.2007 7:55pm
IConrad (mail) (www):
Well, I ran into something which might interest a few people here, which seems to be more of a start-up Wiki, at the moment: WikiFOIA I've found it worth reviewing, at least, as a tool for those attempting to promote "Sunlight".

Back on topic: As long as one recognizes the potential flaws of open-source information, it can be quite useful. If the topic were controversial, a quick perusal of the edit history and the discussion area of Wikipedia would be enough to verify almost all sources of bias -- and if the topic is that controversial and you're looking for documentation, oughtn't you be doing that level of research anyhow? Attention needs to be assigned to topics relative to their level of importance, and generally speaking the more controversial -- pre-assuming you are already researching -- the more energy will be needed to be invested under the significance level standard.

... I just redefined the value of boredom to an AGI. lol!
6.4.2007 8:23pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I'm a big fan of wikipedia, especially as a technical reference. If I forget the definition of Lipshitz continuous or want to know how doping works in semiconductors it's wonderful. The answers are both detailed and approachable and in these areas it would take a great deal of work and expertise to make a credible fake (at least one that would fool someone with a technical background like me).

However, I've also found entries about one of my professors claiming he was known around the department by a name that, well, suggested he was well endowed and went further to claim that he in fact was just the opposite. The page then went even further to accuse him of basically raping students in totally absurd situations. Obviously it was the work of a juvenile vandal who was probably upset at a grade they got in his class and it disappeared pretty fast but it does go to show that the mere presence of something on wikipedia doesn't show much.

However, people are very good at distinguishing the obviously absurd and slanderous like this from a well researched article with a neutral point of view. In fact the reliability of wikipedia on those articles that pass the smell test seems quite high. Still these reasons are why I think we need something like citezendium (search for it) in the long term to take over from wikipedia for stable subjects.

But yes this was a silly use of wikipedia.
6.4.2007 9:19pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
He Screams: I've updated the post to say it's from a law review article, but I will say no more.
6.5.2007 12:56am