Thursday, November 16, 2006


Refining original research

If you browse the theoretical pages of Wikipedia, you will find a number of threads on the issue of "original research" -- contributing to Wikipedia conclusions novel interpretations of existing evidence or new "discoveries". While the intent of this restriction was, at first, merely to keep the work of cranks who clutter the archives of the many Usenet sci.* groups off of Wikipedia, it has since been extended to forbid adding many different conclusions -- even those that are undeniably obvious. One recent example was one editor who stubbornly insisted that in V for Vendeta (film), how the section "The letter V and the number 5" is entirely "original research".

If one wants to play the part of a fool, as Thersites did in the second book of The Iliad, then others should be allowed to respond as Homer reports Odysseus had.

What has been overlooked in this expansion of the rule against Original Research is that many kooks and cranks want to publish their "new and important findings" in order to stop further debate. They are not attempting to present one more opinion, one more point of view -- which under the guidelines of Neutral point of View is permitted -- but to exclude all other points of view and replace them with only one -- their own. I doubt anyone would believe this is healthy.

I find the following, taken from the American Library Association's ideal professional standards for publishing original research, useful:

3.5.2 Scholarship:
  • Academic careers exist to make distincitons and to open up spaces of difference in order to produce new knowledge through experiment, speculation, and interpretaton or through study and
    commentary on or revision of work done in the past.

  • Scholarship is highly cumulative and iterative: it tends to resist closure. Academic books thus participate in and stir critique and controversy even as they pretend to settle the matter once and for all.

  • Although the range of subjects and variety of tones used in academic writing has expanded
    considerably of late, academic books tend to be critical rather than promotional and provide
    alternative views and counter arguments. They test and probe even as they assert and celebrate.

I doubt that Wikipedia will reach the point where we can enforce these standard; it's hard enough making sure contributions follow the rules of grammatical english. Yet I believe this is something to keep in mind in our ongoing quest to improve the quality of Wikipedia.


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