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My latest Guardian column, “Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source,” explains why it makes sense for Wikipedians to insist that Roth’s claims about his novels be vetted by and published in the New Yorker before they can be included on Wikipedia:

Wikipedians not only have no way of deciding whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth, but even if they decided that he was, they have no way of knowing that the person claiming to be Philip Roth really is Philip Roth. And even if Wikipedians today decide that they believe that the PhilipRoth account belongs to the real Philip Roth, how will the Wikipdians 10 years from now know whether the editor who called himself PhilipRoth really was Philip Roth?

Wikipedia succeeds by “not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing”. Specifically, Wikipedia does not verify the identity or credentials of any of its editors. This would be a transcendentally difficult task for a project that is open to any participant, because verifying the identity claims of random strangers sitting at distant keyboards is time-consuming and expensive. If each user has to be vetted and validated, it’s not practical to admit anyone who wants to add a few words to a Wikipedia entry.

Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source

2 Responses to “Why Philip Roth had to explain himself in the New Yorker before his Wikipedia entry could be corrected”

  1. Sag Alles Ab

    In your article, you wrote,

    “For questions of real-world identity and personal authoritativeness,
    Wikipedia relies on the rest of the world to supply the credentials.”

    I think the dependency is even deeper than that: Wikipedia depends on
    “real-world”, reliable books, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio
    stations for the authenticity of ANY of its claims.

    How real is the real world? And are Wikipedia and its users a part of
    it? Apparently not.

    Isn’t it ironical to think that, if paper publications did not exist
    (imagine a world where they have all been replaced by blogs and web
    sites) then the authenticity of sources could not be safely decided

    Please do not misunderstand me. I agree that the PhilipRoth account
    could belong to someone other than Philip Roth himself. But aren’t we
    being a little too naive in transfering the burden of authenticity
    verification to the New Yorker or to any other “real-world”

    I grew up during the Cold War, in a Latin American dictatorship. I
    have learned not to trust “real-world” publications, especially those
    coming from the US.

  2. Klaus Consine

    Sag, Wikipedia necesita esas referencias al “mundo real”, sobre todo al principio cuando casi nadie creia en que el proyecto fuese exitoso ni en la veracidad de las entradas
    Recorda que una de las primeras declaraciones fue que Wikipedia no tenia mas errores que la Enciclopedia Britanica

    Sag, Wikipedia needed those references to the “real world”, more at the beggining when (almost) noone believes that the proyect were succeful nor in the veracity of the entries.
    Remember that one of the first claims was that Wikipedia has no more errors that the Enciclopedia Brittanica

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