It’s okay to use Wikipedia to find a test to detect pancreatic cancer, but don’t cite it in the footnotes

150px-Wikipedia-logoOn 60 Minutes tonight, in a story about high school freshman Jack Andraka, who at age 15 developed a test that might save countless lives by detecting early pancreatic cancer, Jack said he did much of the research leading up to his discovery using Wikipedia and Google.

That amused me, as I know there’s a lot of specific language on Wikipedia that I’ve mentioned before on this blog that emphatically warns users not to depend on Wikipedia for research.

Quoting directly from Wikipedia, itself:

“Wikipedia is not considered a credible source. Wikipedia is increasingly used by people in the academic community, from freshman students to professors, as an easily accessible tertiary source for information about anything and everything. However, citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.This is especially true considering anyone can edit the information given at any time.

Heck, even Jimmy Wales warns students not to cite Wikipedia in a term paper. In 2007, I wrote about the history department faculty at Middlebury banning Wikipedia citations outright.

Nearly eight years ago, during the controversy that first inspired many in the Wikipedia community to come up with approaches that have greatly improved the accuracy of the encyclopedia, I wrote this blog post on which I used the subject line, “Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them.”

That was eight years ago. A guy who did his research on Wikipedia to help him develop a test that may provide early detection for pancreatic cancer was seven years old when I wrote that.

Turns out, Wikipedia is a gateway to truth.

But still, while it may be okay if you use Wikipedia to find a test for, or even a cure for, cancer, if you cite Wikipedia in the research paper that presents your findings, the Teacher’s Assistant will probably knock your grade down a letter or two.

Idea to File Away for the Future: A Wiki Your Customers Can Use to Create Custom eBook User Manuals

Yesterday, Wikipedia added the “ePUB” file format as an export option for collections of Wikipedia articles you want to compile. This may not sound like something new, as the ability to compile — and even order a print-on-demand version of — such a collection of articles has been around for a while.

What makes this new feature significant is that ePUB is a format optimized for display using all the major eBook reader devices or apps (Kindle, Apple iBooks, Google Books, Nook, etc.). While PDFs of such articles were readable on such devices or apps, the ePUB format will provide you with a document that is more “book-like.”

I encourage you to try the feature out. The best place to start is the Wikipedia Book Creator Help Page. It includes a step-by-step guide.

As you play with it, think what your customers could do if all of the information you create to help customers know how to use your products were collected and categorized in a wiki built on the same platform as Wikipedia.

Imagine being able to offer your customers the ability to go to this wiki and spend a few moments clicking around on product user manuals and how-to information they would like to compile for a project they’re working on — and then simply clicking a button and having all of that material magically appear as an eBook document formatted for their iPads and Kindles.

One day I hope the companies I love become as obsessed with the potential of the MediaWiki platform as I am. (Shameless plug: Hammock helps companies create such wikis.)

Side suggestion: For fun, even if you don’t want to purchase a physical print-on-demand version of a Wikipedia compilation, while you’re trying out the “book creator,” click the “preview” button on the “pediapress” option to see the tool that’s available for you to create a cover of a book. The template options and collection of public domain art related to your topic will impress you.

And, as always when I write about Wikipedia, let me add: The content you find on Wikipedia should never be considered, “The Truth,” however it can often provide a gateway to the truth.

Wikipedia has NO connection to Wikileaks (And why I keep saying it)

As I wrote in my previous post, there seems to be two things confusing people I know who, heretofore, have not been bombarded every day with news about something including the prefix “wiki.” This post is a continuation of that topic — and an explanation of why I believe it’s very important:

1. Wikileaks is not a wiki. As I noted previously, when they first launched a website, the people behind Wikileaks used a wiki software platform, but they soon decided it was not the best platform to use, so they changed their software approach and started describing themselves as a “news organization” or a “stateless news organization.” However, by that time, the brand “WikiLeaks” was so established, they continued to use it. So, love them or hate them, I think we can all agree on this: Wikileaks is not a wiki.

2. Another thing we can agree on: The online encyclopedia Wikipedia (that is very much, a wiki) has no connection with Wikileaks. Likewise, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit foundation that operates Wikipedia, has no relationship with the group that is behind Wikileaks.

Whether they love Wikileaks or they hate Wikileaks, I believe it is important for people to be informed that Wikileaks has no connection to wikis, in general, or to Wikipedia, specifically.

Why? Because the Wikimedia Foundation is in the middle of its annual fundraising campaign (yes, I’ve donated), and it’s important for potential donors to understand there is no connection between the people who are behind Wikileaks (no matter whether you agree with them, or not) and the non-profit group and the millions of individuals who have helped create Wikipedia and related wiki-model projects like Wikibooks, that is developing free text books; Wiktionary, that also includes a thesaurus, a rhyme guide and more; Wikiquote, a compendium of sourced quotations; and other projects that collect source material, open-source media and support material for training and educational purposes. (In other words, if you want to give money to Wikileaks, don’t worry about your money going to support all of these programs — and if you want to support these programs, don’t worry about your money going to Wikileaks.)

Why do I care?

In addition to my love of obscure prefixes, I care about the word “wiki” because a small team of people with whom I work at Hammock, provide services to clients who are using wikis to help them collect, organize and collaborate the information and knowledge that’s important to their organizations and to the audiences they serve. So, admittedly, it is important to me professionally, for people to understand that “wiki” does not always attach itself to things that are controversial or threatening. It is a software platform and content management approach and a type of website that can be used in many, many ways.

One of the projects of the Wikimedia Foundation is the open-source software platform, MediaWiki, the content management system that is used to maintain Wikipedia. If you consider the scaling and server-needs created by the multiple-language sites that comprise Wikipedia, and the need for tools to manage the controversies and governance challenges of such a vast community-run resource, and the unprecedented need for features and tools that enable the creation of ever-changing taxonomies, you begin to understand the challenges — and accomplishments — of the few programmers who work for the Wikimedia Foundation or vast community of volunteer programmers who contribute their time and talents to improving the MediaWiki platform.

As Hammock uses the MediaWiki software to run, I have become intimately familiar with the software. I started out frustrated and confused and, like most people who have ever tried to edit a Wikipedia entry for the first time, convinced that the software was hopelessly “un” user-friendly. After a while, however, as I began to embrace the software rather than work against it, I grew to appreciate its unique features and, more importantly, to understand how the community of developers are constantly solving those things I find frustrating.

So, yes, I have a personal reason for wanting to make sure that people who would like to support Wikipedia are not confused into thinking it’s related to something they may not want to support.

But chances are, you do to.

Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them

150px-Wikipedia-logoUse Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them: I am a fan of John Seigenthaler Sr. He is a great man and a legend to many (including me) here in Nashville. I feel sick that a man who has done so many great things was heinously libeled in a Wikipedia entry.

What happened to Mr. Seigenthaler is unfortunate, and if it happend to me and I had access to the platform, I also would use USA Today to go after low-lifes who would assasinate my character. John Seigenthaler has never been a back-down sort of guy. And after a story in Sunday’s News York Times, he will become poster victim for everyone who has experienced the darkside potential of Wikipedia.

But Wikipedia is not the problem. Something resembling accuracy will typically win-out in a Wikipedia war. It’s like watching sausage being made, but there is typically some wisdom in the crowds who work on entries. The debate that goes on in the creation and development of a Wikipedia post is an amazing thing to watch. I highly recomend John Udell’s screencast, “Heavy metal umlaut: the movie,” as a fun way to observe this process.

The problem is how people use Wikipedia. You learned the key to using Wikipedia before kindegarten, but you’ve forgotten it. I mean, really: How many times did your parents tell you, “Don’t believe everything that you read or hear!” Wikipedia, friends, is what they were talking about.

I agree with Dave Winer (who has been on the victim of lots of Wikipedia malicioius graffitists and axe-grinders), who wrote yesterday, “the bigger problem is that Wikipedia is so often considered authoritative. That must stop now, surely. Every fact in there must be considered partisan, written by someone with a confict of interest”

I’ll be even more blunt: You’re crazy if you take what you read in Wikipedia at face value. Don’t do that with what you read anywhere. Don’t do it with newspapers or magazines. But especially don’t do it with a personal medium like blogging (especially not this one) or a collaborative one like Wikipedia.

Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not as a source of facts. People who make Wikipedia entries often have personal (and passionate) points-of-view on the topic that taint their contributions with a clear bias. If it’s a tech-oriented or political topic, this often leads to months-long feuds and flames. Accuracy often takes months (if ever) to achieve and truth can have many sides.

Despite those caveats regarding how it should be used and scrutinized, I’m committed to the radically-opened Wikipedia model — especially, with certain filtering and judgement tools that will no-doubt evolve. I will be writing on this topic much more in the coming weeks, I feel certain. Along with a dozen or so others, I spent a couple years of my life pondering the dynamics of trust online in the context of collaborative knowledge sharing. There are ways to address the problems. Trust me. (Or don’t.)

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