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Brandon A


									Brandon A. Ceranowicz                                                         Assignment 1
Internet and Society: Technologies and Politics of Control                    Feb 8th, 2011
LSTU E-120 Spring 2011

             On Wikipedia, Collaborative Editing, and Original Research

         Wikipedia was founded with the intention of creating a collaborative
encyclopedia that was at once accurate and authoritative, as well as easily accessible to
all, whether as users or contributing editors.1 Accuracy, in particular, is fundamental to an
encyclopedia if it is to be of value to its users – namely, the information contained must
be “true”, or as close to true as is possible. Unlike a traditional publisher, which relies on
a designated editorial staff to ensure the factual accuracy of its publications, Wikipedia
by design (and necessity) has, theoretically, no “higher authority” to supervise the quality
of its content; this task is left to the contributors themselves. Furthermore, Wikipedia (by
definition an amateur endeavor) and its anonymous authors lack the qualities of
professionalism and necessity of maintaining reputation widely thought to help guarantee
accuracy and objectivity in traditional publishers. How then does Wikipedia ensure the
accuracy of its content? The answer is via three critical and interconnecting policies: the
requirement for verifiability, 2 the requirement for neutral authorship, 3 and the
prohibition on original research.4 It is with the last of these, specifically the ban on
synthesizing readily verifiable facts, which I propose to focus.
         If Wikipedia presents a clear definition of what it is (see Wikipedia’s Five
Pillars 5 ), then it is equally clear on what it is not: namely it is not a location for
“proposing theories and solutions, original ideas, defining terms, coining new words,
etc.” 6 Nor does it consider itself a forum for debate and discussion (beyond what is
immediately required for the maintenance of articles). As Wikipedia has no official
editorial staff to investigate the “truth” of any particular fact, it relies primarily on
“verifiability”, meaning that each entry should be supported by an underlying (preferably
secondary) reliable, published source which can be referenced. The ban on original
research is intimately related to verifiability, as it limits self-referencing and prevents
authors from presenting unverified information solely on their own authority. By relying
on consensus, authorial reputation, and traditional publishers and their editors to vet
published material, Wikipedia seeks to ensure the accuracy of content in cannot
guarantee on its own. Furthermore, the ban theoretically supports the neutral point of
view requirement by preventing authors from presenting their own opinions as facts in
the guise of original research, thus helping to eliminate authorial bias. In this way
Wikipedia is able to claim the authoritativeness it requires to function as a legitimate
         For this assignment, I chose to edit the “History of Crossbows” page 7; specifically,
I made a number of adjustments to the section dealing with military use of the crossbow
in Europe during the Middle Ages. I altered a few dates, inserted some facts, and
expanded on others. My primary focus was the (somewhat erroneous) assertion that the
English longbow’s use during the Hundred Years’ War led to the decline of crossbow.
While certainly true in England, this is at best partially true in France (the French
abandoned the crossbow temporarily, but resumed its use after the war) and definitely
untrue for the rest of Europe, where the longbow saw little action. I did research and
provided references to support my changes which have, thus far, not been challenged or
reverted. (This is not terribly surprising, as I took perhaps longer than I should have
researching and thus left little time for others to challenge my changes prior to writing
this report. I had naively assumed that the original content providers would see the
changes on their watchlists and rush to defend their content; in retrospect this appears
unlikely as the topic I choose was rather obscure, the discussion page fairly barren, and
the majority of edits over the last couple years procedural rather than content-based.)
         As most of my effort went in to sourcing my editorial changes, it would appear
that verifiability (rather than originality) was my major concern; certainly, I felt strong
pressure to provide reliable references in order to defend my content from any possible
challenges. However, the prohibition on original research had the greater impact on my
work by dictating what I choose not to edit: namely, I had originally planned to edit the
article on “Medieval Warfare”8 to challenge the Anglo-centric assertion (popular among
British historians) that the longbow, rather than the crossbow, was central to the decline
of the mounted knight in Europe. Unfortunately, as my research was unable to provide
direct support for my thesis, I would have been forced to rely on the synthesis of other
verifiable facts (principally the absence of longbow usage on the continent) to justify my
edits. Such a synthesis is expressly forbidden by Wikipedia’s original research policy, as
it constitutes a claim unverifiable by an authoritative third party. The policy is very strict,
with even wording which might indirectly imply synthesis being suspect. Thus I could
not easily make the changes I had intended without violating the rules.
         While it would be entirely possible, in my view, to make the aforementioned
changes, it would require a large investment of time and effort in research, careful
wording, and, most likely, defense of content. In this manner, we can see that the
prohibition on original research serves as a barrier to entry, discouraging casual
participation in the editing process. Not insurmountable, but high enough to encourage
this first-time Wikipedian to aim for an easier target (in this case, the “History of
Crossbows” article). Such a barrier has both positive and negative effects for the
Wikipedia community: in discouraging participation, it impedes the open, collaborative
ideals behind the site’s philosophy, but at the same time it serves to provide the
“authoritativeness” which the encyclopedia requires to counter the frequent criticisms
concerning its authenticity. I would hazard that this policy is most likely a necessity, even
if it does not always guarantee accuracy on a local level.

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