Knol Short for Knowledge

I’m sure everyone by now has heard that Google is testing a new service called Knol, short for knowledge. I spent all day Friday buying books and creating a Libguide, and all weekend reading a book instead of grading essays (which has been my usual weekend activity recently), so it wasn’t until this evening during my chat ref shift that I read my news feeds. The IHT wrote about Knol today. Here’s a Knol screenshot from Google. Since I’m periodically fortunate enough to get people to pay me to talk about Google, I figured I’d better at least have an opinion on this.

The IHT headline says, “Google tests content service that may one day rival Wikipedia.” Maybe. Knol is designed to let people create information pages just like on Wikipedia, except the author’s names are included and only the authors can edit the pages. Supposedly, Google hopes to attract experts to write pages, including competing pages on the same topic, that will become authoritative enough to make them first stops for information, much like Wikipedia is now for a lot of people. According to one of the Google people, they want to make it easy for experts to publish knowledge online. Google thinks some experts don’t share what they know with the world because it’s too difficult to do that now.

That’s the line that stumps me. If someone really has information to share that would be beneficial to the rest of us, as opposed to most of the information they share online, how hard is it these days to publish? It’s not like one has to be a web expert to publish online formation. One certainly doesn’t need to know any html or other markup languages. There are plenty of free wiki services about that let anyone put information online as easily as using Wikipedia, without the anonymity and porousness of Wikipedia. The proliferation of blogs shows allows all sorts of experts and non-experts alike to immediate publish whatever they please. Google already has a user-friendly Page Creator and will host web pages for free. So for some reason I don’t think that’s really why Google is doing this.

The only difference is that Knol would gather these pages together into a website that would be more likely to be found on a web search than somebody’s blog or personal website, especially, I would imagine, if one was searching the web with Google. If enough people contributed, then there would be enough links that Knol pages would start showing up along with Wikipedia pages as some of the first pages on many searches. That’s great for ad revenue for Google, but how great is it for the rest of us? Besides a revenue engine, what is Google trying to create?

It seems to be some hybrid of Britannica and Wikipedia. Like Britannica, they are trying to attract experts, but it doesn’t sound like they’re verifying anyone’s expertise, nor searching out experts the way Britannica or the excellent and free Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does. So it can’t have the authoritative expertise that librarians traditionally like in reference works and that makes them hate and fear the Wikipedia so much.

Unlike Wikipedia, if another expert sees something false or misleading or biased, there’s no way to edit the information to try to make it better. Many see this as a flaw to the Wikipedia, but this is actually its great strength, and you can tell from the discussion pages and page histories that plenty of people take Wikipedia’s attempt at objectivity seriously. If launched, Knol will have some participatory elements, mainly a comments and a ranking feature. Presumably even with competing articles, the better ones will rise to the top through repeated high rankings, and the comments might lead to revisions or at least let people know about possible caveats, if people take the time to both read the articles and read the following discussions, which could be considerably longer than the articles.

It sounds like an interesting experiment, trying to create the traditionally authoritative encyclopedia in a freely available format. One benefit could be to bring together dispersed knowledge on topics that we might not have now, though that’s the main benefit I see of the Wikipedia and of the Internet generally. That the authors are known will make this “authoritative” in a sense, but the authority won’t be of the Britannica kind. Instead it’ll be more of the Internet Movie Database or Amazon reviews kind. “Rank: 7.5 based on 9,734 votes.” “5 out of 7 people found this Knol helpful.”

Most people don’t seem to mind the Wikipedia, but many librarians do. Will this Knol satisfy the reference source authoritarian streak so many librarians seem to have? Since there are authors and only they can edit, will this be the free online reference source that pleases the librarians? Or since there’s no central authority to guarantee the authority of the authors will it still be inadequate by librarian standards? Unless the “experts” are the sorts of scholarly experts we expect now, will Knol be any more authoritative than the Wikipedia or someone’s blog?

It seems like Knol will operate in some limbo between the sort of authoritative reference sources that librarians and scholars like and the often excellent but literally un-authoritative Wikipedia.

Most people don’t care about authority anyway, not in the way librarians do. If it’s popular enough, it’ll have authority. I think it would be great if Knol was successful and created a compelling and free encyclopedia of some kind. Maybe there’ll be good articles. Regardless of the quality of the articles, though, I think we can be sure they’ll show up highly in Google searches, and for many people that’s all the authority they need.


One problem librarians typically have with the Wikipedia is the anonymity of its authors. In a reference world understandably based on authority as a shorthand for reliability, Wikipedia is woefully inadequate right from the start. If authority – rather than truth, usefulness, convenience, or breadth, for example – is the criterion of judgment for a reference work, then the Wikipedia gets disqualified before the game even begins. I’ve given my two cheers for Wikipedia before, and addressed the problems of authority.

The new Wikiscanner helps to alleviate the problem of no authority a little bit. (Read the Sunday NYT article about Wikiscanner: Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikimedia Edits.) The Wikiscanner searches Wikipedia and links IP addresses to edited articles. The idea behind the Wikiscanner is to reveal self-interested edits to Wikipedia articles. The Times article notes such examples as someone from Diebold deleting criticism of voting machines and someone from the Washington Post changing “the name of the owner of a free local paper, The Washington Examiner, from Philip Anschutz to Charles Manson” (more mischievous than self-interested, but still a violation of public trust).

On the other hand, the Wikiscanner also reveals the fact that most of the edits don’t appear to be self-interested. This doesn’t mean that the editors are reliable, only that they aren’t trying to promote themselves. I did a Wikiscanner search for Princeton University IP addresses, hoping to find salacious edits like saying the Harvard football players are all cross-dressers or something like that. There were a lot of edits of “Princeton University” and Princeton-related topics which could have been self-interested, but just as likely to be based on authority. I didn’t check the edits to the eating clubs pages to see what mischief might be there. There were some bizarre early edits of something called “Easting Clubs,” the spelling mistake (“Easting” for “Eating”) surviving for several edits.

But there were also multiple edits for John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Equipotential, Computer, Filioque clause, Neocortex, John of Damascus, Particle in a box, Euler’s totient function, and many other topics that were probably not driven by self-interest, and, given the subjects, may very well have been driven by the desire of someone who knew to get the facts right online. Though I’m not sure this explains why in one week of March 2005 someone from Princeton made over 50 edits to the article on Yoko Ono.

The Wikiscanner certainly doesn’t eliminate the problem of authority and shifting entries, but it does help reveal some problems. It’s also another example of what’s good about the way Wikipedia works, taking advantage of dispersed knowledge. Wikipedia always challenges us to question sources, and now it’s easier to do this. Some critics of Wikipedia seem to act as if everyone is helpless when viewing information online, implying that without librarians to help them, people will just accept anything written on any website. I think most people are probably more skeptical than that, and the Wikiscanner now gives the skeptics one more tool. If only librarians would create tools for skeptics rather than just condemn projects like the Wikipedia or hope people don’t use them, because these projects aren’t going to go away. Pointing out all the ways the Wikipedia is bad just ignores all the ways in which it is good, especially when one considers that for many researchers, the good is often equated with the good enough.

Wikipedia and the Word of God

A review of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman says that in “many respects, the Bible was the world’s first Wikipedia article. So many hands have altered and edited the now lost originals that we will never know for sure what those originals said.” I don’t think that’s a very useful analogy, because it breaks down on so many levels, but it does bring up the question of authority, which librarians and scholars like, and which doesn’t seem to matter to most people, at least not in the same way. In terms of authority, how do Wikipedia and the Bible compare?

The review points out out that the Bible we have in English is a translation based on nonexistent original documents written by we know not whom, copied and recopied over several centuries in numerous manuscripts that may neither be complete nor agree with each other. This is hardly news to anyone who knows much about textual criticism of the Bible, but it seems to be unwelcome news to people who believe the Bible (and especially the KJV) is the unerring Word of God even in its details, so unwelcome that they probably wouldn’t read Ehrman’s book anyway and if they did they wouldn’t believe it or wouldn’t care, despite the fact that the reason people consider the Bible as authoritative is precisely because of its author, or at least who they think is the author — God. The Bible is an authority because it was written by God.

This is much the way some librarians would approach scholarly or reference sources. These sources have authority because of the authors.

The Wikipedia, however, is different. It can’t be judged adequately by the “authority” standard, because we don’t know who the authors are. For many people, this is enough to dismiss it as a useful reference source. The Wikipedia is often judged to be unreliable because anyone can edit it and we don’t know who really writes the entries. Because anyone can edit at any time, it can be changed for the worse, and the entries might be written by crazy people! Everyone has a favorite Wikipedia entry scandal to trot out in these discussions, even though I suspect the mini-scandals are in fact exceptions. If we apply the standard criterion to the Wikipedia (and similar wiki products), then they have to be dismissed out of hand. Is this a problem with the Wikipedia, or with our limited criteria of quality?

Librarians like to judge reference or scholarly sources by their authority. We know this book is good because the Outstanding University Press published it, or because some respected scholar at a respectable university wrote it. Professor Smith of Ivy U wrote this Encyclopedia Mundi entry, so it must be better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry in some way.

Authority is one of the tools of academic collection development and reference, a necessary tool because we don’t have the time or expertise to read and evaluate everything before we buy it, but we should be wary of using it too indiscriminately. After all, it’s not like authorities are necessarily right or true, and most renowned scholarly publications have other scholarly publications criticizing their shortcomings.

(To be fair, it’s not just librarians who have this sometimes irrelevant and medieval respect for “authority.” A lot of students of the humanities seems to have the same view of authority, and will use Derrida, for example, as an argumentative trump the way medieval scholastics might have used “the Philosopher.” I can’t count how many times in an earlier life I heard someone say “Well, Foucault says,” as if that somehow settled an argument.)

Perhaps the Wikipedia should be judged by a different standard, though, since authority isn’t relevant. Perhaps Wikipedia should be judged by some criterion of truth or usefulness. Because whatever librarians think of Wikipedia, it’s clear that people love it, and we’d be better off remembering that and figuring out how to exploit the Wikipedia than in dismissing it out of hand.

Two Cheers for Wikipedia

The Wikipedia seems to be the reference source reference librarians love to hate. Unfortunately, the rest of the world loves it, and they don’t pay any attention to reference librarians anyway.

Marc Meola (down the road from me at TCNJ) argues on the ACRLog that the Wikipedia has no place in academia because of its lack of accuracy or reliability, and that’s an understatement of his position.

Edward Zalta, editor of the outstanding open access Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, told a group of librarians at the ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion group a couple of years ago that he could never support an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, which is generally the librarian criticism of the Wikipedia as well. If anyone can edit it, there’s no authority in the sense we librarians like to have.

Last year Jaron Lanier wrote a scathing (and in my opinion overblown) attack on the Wikipedia and similar things as examples of the “hive mind,” “digital maoism,” and a “new online collectivism.”

The Middlebury College History Department banned it as a source in history essays (though I have to wonder why encyclopedias are showing up at all as scholarly sources in essays).

There’s even a website called Wikitruth, dedicated solely to lambasting the Wikipedia. I found out about this site when I discovered that in their zeal to attack the Wikipedia, they had taken a quote from me in our school newspaper out of context. The tag on Wikitruth is “the truth hurts,” but apparently they’re willing to sacrifice truth and accuracy to score points against their nemesis.

And most famously, perhaps, Stephen Colbert attacked the Wikipedia with his notion of “wikiality,” or “truth by consensus.” (Since I don’t watch television, I had to find out about that one on the Wikipedia.)

The New York Times a couple of weeks ago published an article about how a Wikipedia article on a current news event was created by, in the words of someone commenting to me about it, pudgy, Mountain Dew-drinking adolescents. It turns out they were very dedicated Mountain Dew-drinking adolescents, and if the adolescents are anything like some of the ones I see in classes at Princeton, there could certainly be worse people writing for the Wikipedia.

I want to go on record as saying that I like the Wikipedia, and I use it a lot, especially for information where I don’t care about accuracy. Does that sound heretical for a librarian? Perhaps, but let me point out some of the things I like about it.

First, I like the way it takes advantage of dispersed knowledge. This is not the same as a “hive mind” or “online collectivism.” I’m no fan of hives or collectives or that sort of thing. But, despite being surrounded by experts on numerous subjects, I also don’t think expertise rests solely with tenured professors and PhDs. Wikipedia takes advantage of the expertise of hobbyists, obsessives, fanatics, and dedicated pudgy adolescents and makes it easily accessible to everyone.

But it’s easily accessible crud! I’m not so sure about that. Based on my own reading in the Wikipedia and tests I’ve read about, most of it isn’t crud, and so it escapes Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of the Wikipedia is probably fine. The problem is distinguishing which 90%, which granted is a serious problem.

The Wikipedia realizes this, and one of the things I like about it are the built-in signals that you should beware the content. You see notices at the top of pages that “this article cites no sources” or other clues that it may not be reliable. In a sense, the Wikipedia is doing for its readers what reference librarians try to get all readers to do: question the accuracy of sources and go to more than one place to verify facts.

In practice, I’ve found it isn’t really that difficult for an experienced searcher to tell when information might be problematic, but even if it is, the Wikipedia is still a good place to begin an information search. Articles often do cite sources, and I’ve gotten to other more “authoritative” sources saying the same thing as the Wikipedia article faster than I might have otherwise.

Also, considering that the alternative to Wikipedia for many people is simply a Google search, not the in-depth techniques of advanced reference librarians, which is it better to begin with, Wikipedia or Google? Unless you’re shocked by the revelation that there was a factual error found on the Internet, would you necessarily think Google is any better place to begin than the Wikipedia for a general web search for certain types of information, especially factual information of the sort encyclopedias traditionally provide?

That’s exactly when I use Wikipedia the most, when I want that sort of information quickly. Why search Google or Ask when you can plug the query into Wikipedia and often find an article with citations and external links? For certain queries, it cuts down the search time considerably to just start with the Wikipedia.

I should admit, though, that there are times when I rely almost completely on the Wikipedia. I rarely go elsewhere when I really don’t care about the accuracy of the information, and when the information is on a current popular culture topic, and those are often the same thing.

But when wouldn’t I care about the accuracy of the information? Does this even make sense for a reference librarian? What can I say. I’m not always a reference librarian. For example, say I want to find out more about Monty Python. I could read any of the several books about them, but I’m not that interested. I certainly wouldn’t find out much in the Britannica (less than 200 words). I might find out a lot on various fan pages around the Internet, but I’d have to do a lot of sifting. But if I go to the Wikipedia, I find easily accessible about 10,000 words on Monty Python, including:

  • Multiple references
  • Info on all the Pythons, including Carol Cleveland, the “seventh python”
  • Brief descriptions of each of their films
  • A listing of their albums
  • A listing of the shows they worked on in various partnerships before Python
  • Hyperlinks with longish biographies of all of the cast members
  • Link to another page about the show proper (5000 words on Monty Python’s Flying Circus)
  • A link from there to an episode list and guide (3000 words)
  • Plus information on Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus and individual pages on a large number of the famous sketches.

But, you say, this information on Monty Python could be completely bogus! Highly unlikely. Even so, I don’t really care. I just like the TV show, I’m not writing a dissertation on it. I just want to find out a bit more about it, and if a few of the details are erroneous, I just don’t care. I’m not going to quote them, and I probably won’t even remember them.

Recently, I was also looking on information about German-style board games, because I was looking for more board games to play with my daughter after I’d taught her a dozen or so abstract strategy board games. There’s a website called BoardGameGeek which isn’t bad, but I found out more information more quickly on Wikipedia about German-style games, board games in general, abstract strategy games, tables games, the Spiel des Jahres, and specific games such as Carcassonne or the Settlers of Catan than I did anywhere else. And as a single source for information on specific proprietary games, the Wikipedia seems to be unrivaled, even by such excellent sources as the Oxford History of Board Games, and it’s better than most of the sales websites trying to describe the games or fansites raving about them.

Is some of this information unreliable? Perhaps, but what I can verify isn’t. Is it likely to be in Britannica? No. Is it likely to be in a more “authoritative” or “scholarly” source? No. It might be scattered around the Internet, but no source will gather this sort of information as thoroughly as the Wikipedia.

For certain types of current or popular culture information, especially the kind that is usually overlooked by scholars, the Wikipedia is likely to be as reliable and useful as any other source, and more so than most. It’s not a matter of obsessives overtaking experts. It’s taking advantage of the dispersed knowledge of ordinary people about subjects unlikely to be covered well or at all in standard sources.

Obviously Wikipedia isn’t perfect as a reliable source for information. Since anyone can edit, it might be wrong, or right one moment and wrong the next, which is even worse. So even if it’s generally right, and I would concede that it is, academic qualms about using it as a source are understandable and justified. Along with Marc Meola, I wouldn’t recommend this as a reliable source for any students.

But it can get us to more authoritative sources more quickly, and often more quickly than a simple web search. And for some topics, such as popular culture topics or very current information, it’s often more comprehensive than comparable sources. And when we want just a bit of information, but don’t really care if some of the details are accurate, it’s a quickly accessible and navigable source of information. For these reasons, I’d give two cheers for the Wikipedia.