Citation Needed

One of my most shameless abuses of this blog’s category of “opinion blog” is that I link to Wikipedia quite frequently, and there’s a very good reason for this.

It’s free!

In my post-college life, nothing has been more difficult than finding information. Wikipedia is easy to access, easy to explore, and easy to share. Yet still my academic background does twinge with a little guilt at how often I rely on Wikipedia to fill out background for some of the concepts I mention in my blogs posts.

Today I’d like to explain Wikipedia: why I use it, how to read it, and how to make it better.

Why I Use It

When I refer to something I read from Wikipedia I always make the connection explicit. My links take people to the Wikipedia article and I assume that people know it’s not an authoritative source. Wikipedia is a place where my readers –who often have no starting point on anything Arab or Islamic– can find a plethora of data points to follow up and round out their understanding.

the_problem_with_wikipedia
You know you’ve done it.

Investigating a new subject is hard to do, often because you don’t know the buzzwords or important concepts with which to refine your search. Wikipedia is a great way to scope out the field, see its big topics, and find how it connects to other ideas. And you can do this casually with no financial commitment. Most authoritative data is stored behind paywalls in databases and academic journals. Most books that I want to read for information are too expensive for me or my readers to casually buy. This isn’t an elitist conspiracy, it’s just the natural costs of human time and materials and the limits of selling to niche audiences. If your subject does not have a large audience, then each product needs to be priced higher to make up for the costs of production. It’s not the publisher’s fault that “pre-Islamic Arabia” is not a best-selling topic in the stores. Wikipedia, though imperfect, is a good workaround.

One of Wikipedia’s curious strengths is that its brand has no authority in and of itself. Traditional encyclopedias set up a brand-name and expect you to trust it. Especially since most encyclopedias originated as physical books, the limits of page space meant that they could not include a million citations to assure you their information was verified. Indeed, I think this limit drives traditional encyclopedias to talk in more general terms rather than make specific assertions. Though articles might include some references, readers are mostly expected to trust the integrity of the brand. By contrast, Wikipedia is a self-policing organism that demands transparency from its contributors. Wikipedia tries to be accountable, and it has to try because its brand is not authoritative. Its authors have to cite their assertions, and are not limited by page price to do so, thus Wikipedia can often be a good way to find authoritative sources on the article’s topic. In this way it is a useful search engine. This drive for transparent citations has also created a demand for public domain materials that are available for inspection, and the Wikisource library is one result.

How to Read It

Of course, there is a very simple way for Wikipedia’s self-policing to go terribly wrong.

citogenesis
All comics today come courtesy of XKCD.

Citations, the thing that make Wikipedia so great, also can undermine it. An easy habit to fall into is to look at a Wikipedia statement, say “it has cited a source,” and feel satisfied that the statement must therefore be true. Citations don’t always mean something has been verified. The comic above jokes about the genesis of false citations, but the academic world contributes its own fodder too. As I said, traditional sources often rely on the authority of their brand/author to tell you to trust their facts. Those sources –again, often restricted by printing limits– do not take the time to be transparent with their data. Was a statement based on data, bias, or assumption? As long as an academic author posited something in text, it is possible to cite that statement regardless of whether it was a point being defended or mentioned in passing. In academic writing there is a lot of due emphasis on “cite your sources!” But in academic reading there needs to be more emphasis on “read their sources!” This eye for citations is crucial to being able to read a Wikipedia article.

Unfortunately, this is where that paywall reappears, because the free information of Wikipedia is often derived from materials behind a paywall. You can’t always access a resource in a citation, so what remains is to evaluate the information in the citation. (Also, you can usually find a synopsis before you hit the paywall.) Does it look like the information being cited is central to the resource? A lot of unsubstantiated information in any given resource is the side-material not directly relevant to the topic’s thesis. Such side material may or may not be derived from “common knowledge” assumption or bias. Who published the work? Who wrote the work and why? Lots of research is motivated by financial incentive, particularly in the sciences. Lots of religious works are written for persuasive reasons and this may involve some unchecked bias. If you really want to feel expert at checking citations, I’d recommend this website (though it is more centered on database usage) or just this page about resource hunting. Checking sources is an unending rabbit hole, but as long as you can feel reasonably sure that good work has been done, then you can feel reasonably comfortable trusting the cited information.

Academic institutions have good reason to consider Wikipedia an invalid resource. The content of an article could change on any given day due to the open edit policy. That most anyone can edit an article is part of what makes Wikipedia a great casual resource, however. If an article is well trafficked, there’s usually a good chance that the pages have been policed for bias. Granted, some pages aren’t so well trafficked. If an area is very niche (say, like an obscure concept in a religion), then less people will discover and police it, and moreover those who do might be self-selected with a certain bias. Ideally, bringing in traffic should also help clean up the article. All Wikipedia articles come with a “Talk” tab in their top-left corner, in which you’ll see what conversations and opinions are pulling strings on the article’s content. Moreover, there’s a “view history” tab in the top-right corner in which you can find statistics concerning how often a page has been viewed and edited. That data mightn’t be the easiest to draw conclusions from, but it can help you get the sense of how stable or niche a page is.

And if you find something awry, there’s a process for fixing it.

wikipedian_protester
Which you totally should do!

 

How to Make it Better

In short: create a Wikipedia account, build a little editing cred by fixing typos to establish good faith, then share your time and research by cleaning and strengthening articles.

You don’t need an account to edit Wikipedia, but it will store and display your IP address if you don’t. Without an account you also won’t be able to edit certain pages. Creating an account is easy enough; the hardest part is getting a username since so many have already been taken. Wikipedia’s tutorials and tours are a little hard to navigate since they all tend to be dense articles. There are also a lot of other “departments” in the Wikimedia Foundation that your account will apply towards and that you might get directed to. Wikipedia is their encyclopedia, but there’s Wiktionary the dictionary, Wikisource the public domain database, Wikivoyage the… travel guide? Who knew.

Regardless of all that, the act of editing is easy. You won’t be able to edit high-trafficked pages at first. Wikipedia tries to keep out vandals by setting a little bar to jump over. It’s a very little bar: make ten edits that don’t distress the bots and editors. This bar is just to keep out casual jerks. The editing window might scare you at first. It looks like HTML coding and that might be intimidating. However, Wikipedia has added in a visual editor nowadays. In the top-right corner you’ll see a pencil icon, and from that icon’s drop-down menu you can switch to the visual editor. Everything is easy to explore and do from there. You don’t have to experiment on real articles, as every user is designated a little “sandbox” with which to draft work and test tools. Even playing in your sandbox gives you editing credit towards your profile. They want you to want to help.

There’s a lot more to the wider world and possibilities of Wikipedia, but that’s basically all you need for the essential act of editing. Use your power well, be polite in the face of disagreement, and the internet will be a better place.

But I Want to Brag a Little

In Surah 20: Appendix I wanted to investigate whether the Quran’s usage of “king” for Joseph’s ruler and “pharaoh” for Moses’ ruler supported whether the Quran thought firʕawn was a personal name. But I bumped into the history argument and turned to Wikipedia for hunting down information on the subject. Alas, Wikipedia had two conflicting statements about the first personal use of the title. One statement said that Thutmose III was the first user, the other said that Akhenaten had the first confirmed use of the title for a person.

pharaoh
“Pharaoh: Etymology” captured 01/23/2019

Unfortunately, the Akhenaten statement was cited with a resource that I could not find online. I mean, I found a part of it, but only the part that showed pictures of hieroglyphs. Can’t do anything with that. But I did find another source by the same author that at least confirmed the papyrus in question did address the king as “pharaoh,” though it made no comment about this being the earliest known reference. Still, a statement from a direct researcher: cite that.

But Thutmose III. Oh what an adventure I had over him. The Thutmose III assertion came from an article by Carol A. Redmont, “Bitter Lives: Israel In and Out of Egypt,” published in The Oxford History of the Biblical World

 

…So, fair warning. I am really cynical of religious history. Like, not skeptical. Cynical. This is largely due to having grown up in church and seen a lot of factoids be disseminated. A lot of them aren’t malicious, they’re just these little world-building ideas to fill out biblical pictures or “blow your minds.” But quite a number of them exist for the sake of bias confirmation, and a lot of them are baseless imaginings. Things like prostitutes having short hair (which must be why Paul considered short haircuts shameful on women) or ancient low-to-non-alcoholic wine (surely Jesus wouldn’t serve alcohol). The farther back in time you go, the harder it is to prove or disprove anything, and so a lot of these factoids get to survive by the life-thread “proof” that they can make you more comfortable with or confidant in a scripture. I’ve heard of several archeological digs “that they’re pretty sure are the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah.” What defines my doubt as cynicism is when I automatically suspect that these archeologists are selling the idea that they’re excavating a Biblical site in order to get free publicity and church support. Finances and volunteers are easier to come by when solicited from people who think your work will prove them right. So when I saw that the Thutmose claim was backed by a Biblical-themed resource, I threw my foul flag and immediately suspected the worst. Oxford is a prestigious academic institute, yet my mind says “but.”

The article in question was published in a physical book, and any pricetag that’s not “at your local library” was expensive for the small nature of my need. Yet Lo! Google books came through! Google books is sometimes a handy resource. They have lots of books scanned in, and though those books are frequently behind paywalls, they also include generous sample pages for your evaluation. From the article’s conclusion given in the sample pages (87-88), I could read that my cynicism was not warranted toward this article. Moreover, the sample included page 66, in which I found that the statement about Thutmose III’s use of “pharaoh” was neither central to the article nor defended by the author. This source gave information in summary and did not link its assertions to its references. So was I at a dead end?

Not quite. See, the citation for Akhenaten had also slipped in a footnote, “Although see also R. Mond and O. Myers (1940), ”Temples of Armant”, pl. 93, 5, for an instance possibly dating from the reign of Thutmose III.” I’d given it a suspicious eye at first, for how sneaky is that to add a footnote that undermines the thing you’re citing? But with that being my last thread to follow I searched for “R. Mond and O. Myers (1940), ”Temples of Armant”, pl. 93, 5.” Finding the article took some perseverance since plagiarism on the internet meant my first few search attempts were bloated with copy-paste Wikipedia content. (A lot of sites repost Wikipedia pages in order to monetize them with ads, particularly Revolvvy.) I found it available on Archive.org (bless them!) which uses text-recognition on its scans so that users can search for specific words (double bless them!). Looked up “pl.” to see what that abbreviation stood for, learned it was “plates,” as in images. Saw the plates were labelled with roman numerals, searched “pl. XCIII,” for four results, none of which involved an item no. 5. Suspicious. Plates were not included with this text so I searched for the same author on Archive.com and found they had the companion book of plates as well. Saw that plate XCIII did indeed have an item number five: a copy of some hieroglyphs. Returned to book of text and searched plain “XCIII,” which I probably should’ve tried earlier, and found a description of item number 5 on pages 91-92 –which did tentatively confirm that the inscription referred to a person called “pharaoh” and tentatively dated it to the reign of Thutmose III! Huzzah! I even found in my other searches a translation of the stela of Thutmose III that Mond mentioned, so I could follow his logic.

The internet is wonderful.

And so now, with a few reworked citations and arrangement of the text, the Wikipedia article looks like this:

Truly, the internet is a better place.

Also, kind of a sad note, the top result to my websearch “R. Mond and O. Myers (1940), ”Temples of Armant”, pl. 93, 5,” was the Rhino Resource Center, which seems to be an organization that collects any information they can about Rhinoceri… Rhinocerouses… Rhinos… I should check their site for the spelling I guess. This is a little coincidental and a little sad. Of all the inscriptions I was hunting down in this document, it was the one about Thutmose III boasting godhood by trophy-hunting rhinos.

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