A Worthless Part of Wikipedia
Richard Sproat
April 15, 2014

In many ways Wikipedia serves a very useful purpose. If I want to find out about some historical battle, or someone who lived in the 18th century, or some aspect of medicine, I will as likely as not check the Wikipedia entry on the topic first. To be sure, if I want more information I'll try to find primary sources: books, or research papers on the topic, or web pages run by professional organizations that specialize in the topic. I would never cite Wikipedia for something, unless I could find no other reference. But as a jumping off point Wikipedia is often reasonable. That does not mean that Wikipedia is as good as other sources. Though there have been some studies that purport to show that Wikipedia is as accurate as professionally curated encyclopedias, others have called such studies into question. Nonetheless, there is little support for the common prejudice that Wikipedia is laughably inaccurate (though of course that may still be true of individual Wikipedia entries).

But there is one area where Wikipedia falls far short, and that is in biographies of living persons. To be sure there are some living persons who should have biographies: statesmen (whether good or bad), scientists who make discoveries that are so fundamental one can be sure that they will be cited centuries from now, perhaps major entertainers. I'm not exactly sure who should be on that list. I don't know that porn starlets belong. Or every minor politician people can think of.

But I am pretty sure who should not be on the list.

When I look at the Wikipedia entries that someone or other has written for people in my own field (broadly, linguistics and computational linguistics) I am left scratching my head. In what sense are these people "notable"? Will any of them be remembered a hundred years from now?

Now, if you look at the guidelines for biographies of living persons on Wikipedia, you'll find the following:

"All BLPs created after March 18, 2010 must have at least one source that supports at least one statement made about the person in the article, or it may be proposed for deletion."

In other words, it is an invitation for anyone who thinks their friend is worthy of note, and can find another friend to back them up. After all it's not so hard to come up with sources that can "verify" a person's "notability". Wikipedia does sometimes filter out obvious cranks (though not reliably so). But anyone with a solid academic reputation is fair game, so long as they have sympathetic admirers willing to put in the work.

Some examples from my own field:

I could list many more, but I think that gives the general picture.** Don't get me wrong: most of these people are perfectly fine scholars, and the first two have had long-standing academic careers. But that's the point: what else have they been besides good careerist academics? They have done solid work within their disciplines, but nothing "notable" in any meaningful sense of that word. I could with equal justification insist that my financial advisor be included in Wikipedia: he's been a good practitioner of his trade for many years, and has arguably made as much of a positive contribution to the world as any of these people.

What use do these entries serve? If I wanted to find out something about contemporary academics, whether in my own field or elsewhere, I would not visit their Wikipedia entry. I would certainly visit their personal web page. Or I would look up their papers or books. There is nothing of any use that I could learn from the Wikipedia entry. Nor, I would argue, is there anything of much use that anyone could learn. No, the only apparent purpose is to give someone bragging rights: "Look at me, I'm important enough to have a Wikipedia entry about me."

Of course there are summary entries that link to these entries: for example there is a list of American linguists. Such a list might in theory be useful. But it isn't really so very useful, since it is incomplete. Why? Because it only includes people whose friends and admirers have written and endorsed Wikipedia entries for them.

I am an American (computational) linguist, and many people would agree that I am a fairly prominent one. But if you looked for me on such a list in Wikipedia, you would be looking in vain. Why? Because, apparently, I am not "notable" enough to have had a Wikipedia entry written about me. Really? Am I really not as notable as the people listed above? Well here's some of the things that might be listed in a Wikipedia entry about me, if (God forbid) there were such a thing:

Those are (some of) the facts, and readers can judge for themselves whether any of these accomplishments are "notable". Certainly most of these things (with the possible exception of the last item) are of primary interest to my own field and not so much outside it. But it's fair to claim that they are at least as important as any of the work done by some of the people who do have entries about them that I listed above.

And there are many other people who have made similar or greater contributions who do not have Wikipedia entries: David Yarowsky, who invented the "Yarowsky algorithm" --- which oddly does have an entry. Juliette Blevins (CUNY), who has written a groundbreaking book on historical --- and synchronic --- phonology. Shalom Lappin, who among other things and along with Alex Clark, wrote the most careful critique to date of the "Poverty of the Stimulus" argument (central to much of linguistic theorizing over the past half century). And so on. Of course it is possible that someone did write an article about some of these people and they requested it be removed.

The world in which, say, Cole, Inkelas or Daniels are "notable" whereas, say, Hirschberg, Blevins, Yarowsky, Lappin, or I are not, is clearly absurd. And since it is absurd, it must be taken as reflecting something other than reality. But of course, the true situation is that none of us is "notable" in any real, historic sense.

What should the criteria for inclusion be? Well, consider what I hinted at above, and try this one: look at a person's accomplishments, and then ask yourself this question: "Will this person still be remembered a century from now?" If you can say "yes" with a straight face, then they should be in. If not then they should not be. Do I think I will be remembered in 100 years? I certainly doubt it. Will most of the other living people who have entries about them? Of course not.

Even better, in my opinion, would be to wait until they've been dead for 20 years, and see if anyone is still talking about them. Again, if they are, then perhaps they are noteworthy enough to have an entry. Of course that would deprive people of a certain feeling of self-satisfaction while they are alive, but after all, providing that sort of feeling should not be the business of Wikipedia.

As things stand, I do not see the point of what Wikipedia is doing with its entries for living persons. Wikipedia's "notability" criteria allow for the creation of vanity entries for people who are not notable in any meaningful sense. In a largely academic field such as linguistics, where mutual backscratching is ingrained in the culture; where in some parts of the field it is demonstrably possible to produce a steady stream of nonsense disguised in arcane formalisms, and still be considered "important" because you have colleagues who say you are; in such a culture the Wikipedia BLP system is just an open invitation for abuse. Wikipedia entries for such people serve no other purpose than as an institutionalized fan club, a high-tech version of People magazine where the audience gets to appear on the pages too. And because Wikipedia is generally so widely respected, and in any case so widely available, a large number of people reading these entries will not realize that they are being duped.

But, I actually like this state of affairs, since it serves to remind me that popularity has almost no correlation with actual worth, and that one can become "notable" for reaons that have little to do with real accomplishments. This of course is no news, but it is something that is all too easily forgotten. Wikipedia's main function when it comes to entries for living persons serves no other purpose than as a seal of approval on the petty prejudices about who is important and who is not that infest every academic field. In certain areas, like "formal" linguistics, the disease is particularly rampant, so that one can become "notable" by producing work that has no lasting value whatever, but merely serves to prop up a stack of cards than only seems like a solid fortress to those who inhabit it. Anyway, for my part I will be happy if I die the most notable computational linguist who does not have a Wikipedia entry.

Wikipedia occasionally runs its "please give me money" campaigns. I might in principle support such an outfit, but since there is no way to support the part of Wikipedia that I think is doing useful stuff, and not support the worthless portions, I do not feel like supporting them at all. I'd much rather give my money to enterprises like the Linguist List, which serves the community without promoting some people above others.


**The main reason I do not want to give a long list is that I don't want to give the impression that not including someone in the list is a tacit endorsement of their notability.

© 2014 and onwards, Richard Sproat