Thursday, March 24, 2016

Guest Post: The Dark Knight on the Whacked-out Wikipedia References System

 Part of a series The Dark Knight has been running over at on the truth about certain Wikipedia issues.


No, this is not about applying for a job to write Wikipedia (you don't do it for money, you do it for love!). This is about those mysterious things found at the bottom of a Wikipedia article, usually found under a section called References.

If you've ever been unfortunate enough to bump into a Wikipedian and told them that their articles can't be trusted to be accurate, they probably tried to feed you one of their favorite pieces of propaganda: all information on Wikipedia is verifiable to reliable sources!!!??1! Well, yes, in theory. Since these FAQ entries are not meant to be huge volumes, we shall leave the issues of how Wikipedia usually makes a pig's ear of such a simple concept for a later date. This FAQ will concentrate on the method they use to achieve verifiability through reliable sources, which is, and I can tell you are eager to know, the copious inclusion of references in articles.

Where to start. Well, I guess the most important thing is style. Actually, let's back up a bit - the first thing to appreciate about referencing is that a hell of a lot of Wikipedia's content is not supported by any reference at all, never mind how it's formatted. And they likely never will. There are articles on Wikipedia which have been identified as needing references for years - and the cold hard reality of their ridiculous enterprise is that the maths just doesn't add up. The time it takes to find and add the existing missing references easily outstrips the rate at which new information is being added to Wikipedia without a reference. Adding references to articles that you didn't write, like most selfless acts on Wikipedia, is not a remotely rewarding use of your time, and can even lead to fights. You really have to be in it for the love of your fellow man to even do it (so if you find someone who does, and is doing it well, be careful, they might be compensating for being a serial killer in real life!)

Removing text not supported by a reference is officially discouraged, even prohibited if the unreferenced material isn't contentious or likely to be challenged. But in this context, you can appreciate why some Wikipedians spend all their days hacking out text simply because it is unreferenced - regardless of how easy it would be for them to find one if they just did a basic Google search (the usual response being some version of 'sorry, not my job' guv.) And of course, there are some Wikipedians who will happily claim that material which has no reference is by definition, open to challenge, and since tagging it to request a reference has been shown to be quite pointless, they will usually just hack it out there and then. Arguments about these things regularly break out in the haven of peace and love that is the Wikipedia community.

Now, back to style. For some stupid reason, the Wikipediots in their wisdom do not have one single uniform way of dealing with references in terms of how they appear on the page. Which is quite unbelievable given how obsessive they are about all things covered by their holy Manuals of Style (MOS), which dictates in precise detail how things on Wikipedia should be presented. When it comes to references, Wikipedia editors have a veritable smorgasbord of permitted styles to choose from - far too many to be called a sensible collection of useful variations, let alone a Manual of Style in the real world sense of the term.

Such are the variations, it cannot even be guaranteed that the references appear in the "References" section on an article, which is quite unbelievable, from a standardisation point of view. Many of the styles only exist for legacy reasons - the community either can't or won't upgrade older styles to new ones en-masse. But a hell of a lot exist because they all have their own preferred one, and will fight each other to the death to defend it (perhaps the best proof yet that Wikipedia is not built by a harmonious community with a common purpose as such, but by individuals with massive egos, simply putting up with each other for the reward of being allowed to micro-blog on their pet subjects to their heart's content).

It would beyond the scope of this FAQ to even begin to discuss all the merits of each style here, let alone the tedious technical details of how they're achieved (many of which make one style incompatible with others). Suffice to say, they range from the incredibly elegant and efficient, to the downright cheap and nasty, and all ranges in between - and there is almost no correlation between how easy/difficult using the style is, to how nicely it presents the references. It's sufficient just to inform you that arguing about the merits of each style is the sort of thing that appeals to the obsessive compulsive and egotists on the site. One crucial rule is that the first author of a page gets to decide which style to use - and that rule was only adopted because Wikipedians are predisposed to argue about anything which is not governed by a rule (counter-intuitively, as a result, Wikipedia has many of these first choice rules in the MOS).

So complex is Wikipedia's approach to referencing, it has numerous pages just for explaining it to beginners, in addition to even more pages giving the official guidance and advice to more advanced editors. They even have hundreds of templates supposedly dedicated to making the process quicker and simpler. But as usual, there is a time penalty to pay in terms of the learning curve in using them. Cheat sheets, they are not. In this respect, like most other aspects of actually editting Wikipedia, it's all about making you unwilling to abandon the site once you've beyond a certain point along the learning curve and can actually edit properly.

A common day-to-day activity on Wikipedia is an 'experienced' editor coming along to 'clean up' the reference/s in an article - even if the method used by whoever put it there in the first place already complies with one of the many acceptable styles, and there is no evident style in uniform use in the article already. Without a uniform style existing in the article, unless they are actually choosing to impose one, then this is at best described as pointless busy-work. But they do it anyway. Usually the person doing it will arrogantly portray this as a 'fix', or worse, will chastise you for doing something wrong, even though you obviously haven't broken any rule. Some people will actually waste their time on Wikipedia changing how the reference appears in the underlying code of a page to achieve their preferred style, or uniformity of style in the code on the page, even if it makes no difference to how it appears on the page. Crazy is as crazy does.

It's ironic that one of the most crucial parts of Wikipedia articles, the one which any competent editor needs to be proficient in if they want to get anything done, is both incredibly complex, and is prone to starting the most ridiculous fights. What's even more remarkable is that, according to Wikipedia's own research, most readers don't even appreciate the purpose or significance of referencing, let alone appreciate the differences in style. Which makes it all the more hilarious when you realise how many Wikipedians often come to a sticky end and quit or get blocked when they start assuming they know enough about referencing to start telling other Wikipedians how to format their references. it's a basic truism of Wikipedia that there will always be someone who knows more about referencing than you - the art is knowing what you don't know, and making peace with that fact. Not least because the people who desire to know everything there is to know about Wikipedia referencing, are not the sort of people you'd want to get to know.

And do you want to know the most hilarious thing about references on Wikipedia is? It's a complete and total waste of time. Doing it well, offers but a fleeting reward. By design, there are numerous ways in which even the most perfectly referenced article can descend into grey goo without constant monitoring by the one person who added the references in the first place (and therefore knows both the desired style, and which reference supports which text). All you are doing if you take the time to learn how to properly do Wikipedia references, is submitting yourself to a life sentence of misery, as a slave to the watchlist.

There are many different ways that specific references can become detached and ultimately lost from the text they were originally intended to support, known on Wikipedia as loss of "text-source integrity". As if Wikipedia/ns ever had integrity! Too many to list here. The common threads though are the indecision among the community as to whether the reference should be placed right next to the pertinent fact in a sentence, or at the next full stop, or at the end of the paragraph. Secondly, the fact that many people who alter Wikipedia text after it has been referenced often don't take sufficient time to check which text corresponds to which reference. This is understandable, as doing that takes the same amount of time as it would to write the text originally - and the people who edit pre-existing text are usually the sort of people without the time to write it originally. When combined with the fact most novice editors won't even have the first clue what the reference is even for, it all adds up to a hell of a lot of pathways to failure.

One amusing aspect of Wikipedia's referencing is that it has supposedly become more robust over time - largely through the insistence that the reference must be placed vaguely near the text it supports, to ensure that thing they call integrity. But as explained above, unless there is an obsessive compulsive watching the article, this is most definitely a case of giving readers a false assurance. Hilariously, many of even their so called Featured Articles (FAs), supposedly their best work, were written before this stricter approach, and their authors will often take umbrage at having to upgrade it.

FA writers in particular are a bunch of obsessive compulsive page owning freaks when it comes to referencing. They all have their own preferred style, and because they know what I have outlined above about the ever present threat of amateurs messing up their precious, they will often use the mere fact that the article is an FA to instantly reject any change to it, no matter how useful. Even though it goes against all that Wikipedia stands for, new edits to FAs must be perfect right out of the box, including referencing. It is no surprise then, that the chosen topic of FAs is rarely something that frequently changes in real life - which rather undermines Wikipedia's over-used selling point over traditional encyclopedias - that it updates itself.

And there we have it. If this FAQ over all others hasn't made it abundantly clear that sane people should not trust anything on Wikipedia, even if it appears referenced, then I don't know what will. It should certainly persuade you that editing Wikipedia just to change reference styles, is probably the stupidest hobby you could ever wish to have. Most Wikipedians are contemptible people, but when put side by side, the one who gives less of a crap about referencing styles and simply uses the quickest and easiest one to ensure whatever it is they're adding can be verified by a reader in the next few minutes, will probably the more sane of the two. I say this only to aid you in the event someone has a gun to your head and says you must talk to one of them on pain of death. A difficult choice all round, admittedly.

It hardly needs saying that for those who want to mess with Wikipedia/ns, referencing is fertile ground. If Wikipedia was a sensible organisation/community, it would have adopted a single standard for references long ago, and found some way to efficiently maintain text-source integrity even after the original author has long gone. It is precisely because Wikipedia is not sensible, that the same arguments and busy work over style will still be being repeated a decade from now, if God help us, the site still exists. Indeed, if you were looking for the single best argument for why Wikipedia is fundamentally flawed, it is arguably the fact that there is no amount of community harmony, sweat of the brow, or technical wizardry, that could possibly solve the issue of text-source integrity once and for good - it is an ongoing and ever present source of doubt, built into the design.

An amusing post-script is that the new fangled shiny thing that Wikipedia's tech people recently introduced to make it easier for people to edit Wikipedia, helpfully took out all notion of reference formatting away from editors - all you need to know is that you need one, and then plug in some basic details - just the url in online cases. As a result, it only has a few reference styles to choose from, even if you want to do it perfectly. Predictably, rather than use that as an opportunity to standardise, the embittered Wikipedians who wear their insane levels of knowledge about referencing as some kind of weird badge of honour, have engaged in multiple fights and screaming matches over its introduction. People even run around adjusting the style of references added automatically by this tool, whining incessantly about how they should have been consulted about this or that. Tools indeed.


  1. Well put. Also let me quote from the book-wiki material on the holy and sainted Wikipedia "Manual Of Style":

    Wikipedia does have a Manual of Style. However, unlike virtually every other publisher of information, Wikipedia cannot agree upon, and follow, its own Manual of Style. Ever since it was created on 6 October 2001, Wikipedians have argued over, fought over, editwarred, and mangled their own Manual of Style -- and turned it into a massive and incoherent mess. Any editor trying to write an article for Wikipedia would likely be discouraged after examining the MoS and its vast number of "rules".

    items of discussion as of 2014

    The top level Manual of Style introductory section presently sits at an unwieldy 169k bytes.

    The "Content" subsection contains 8 lengthy articles. The "Formatting" subsection contains 8 also-lengthy articles. "Images" contains 4 articles. "Layout" has 4 articles, "Lists" contains 5 articles (including one for "Road Junctions"), "Legal" contains (ironically) only two very short articles. The "Arts Topics" section, predictably, contains very lengthy articles on how to format and write articles dealing with "Anime and Manga" and "Comics", which was later folded into just "Comics". Which is presently 86k bytes in length, making it one of the longest sections of all. The "Stringed Instruments tuning" section is unusually detailed.

    Bizarrely, "Regional Topics" contains only 12 "regions": Canada, China, France, Hawaii, India, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Poland, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago. The latter one is called a "noticeboard", has a whole set of subsections, was created in 2011 by an editor called "Kylekieran", and appears to be mostly empty and unused.

    "Religion" contains only two topics: "Islam" and "Latter-Day Saints". No mention of any other religions. Both sections are subject to constant argumentation about formatting and style, and editwarred occasionally.

    "Science" contains only "Chemistry", "Computer science", "Computing" (which is redundant), "Mathematics", "Medicine" and "Taxonomy". The medicine section is constantly argued over, and as a result of the attention of pseudoscience pushers and Western-medicine combatants like Dr. James Heilman, is full of "DO NOT" warnings.

    "Sports topics" consists entirely of "Snooker" and "Cue sports". This does not appear to be a joke.

    The Manual of Style talkpage stands at 161 archives as of October 2014, adding up to several megabytes of squabbling. There is a master list of "decisions", which is badly formatted, not well maintained, and has many empty subjects.

    As of 2016

    The front page is now 185k bytes, and the talkpage is up to 178 archives.

    The "Content" section was changed, with the content subject areas now listed under "By topic area". Said topic areas have changed very little. No major additions were made. The "Comics" section is now 87k bytes long and has a horrifying talkpage.

    And the "master list of decisions" mentioned above has been deleted, leaving no traces.

  2. 'Further Reading' is also a joke. In my last days at Wikipedia, I stubbed one of those innumerable articles that had been set up by sneaky IP numbers and which were patrolled by pederasts. My handiwork was immediately reverted and my objections about lack of sources led to a sudden expansion of the Further Reading list. The culprit had never read the sources in that list and they had nothing to do with the subject of the article. The list was Googled via key words.

  3. This is a must-read about what lurks behind the curtain at Wikipedia.

    Those who argue for using Wikipedia articles to find potential references prior to beginning research on an academic topic should explain how they would counter the unreliability of Wikipedia's references.