Twofish's Blog

September 18, 2006

Notes on Citizendium and the expert problem

Filed under: wikipedia — twofish @ 12:04 am

Some notes as to why I don’t think it will work…. As usual with these articles, they are intended as constructive criticism, and feel free to prove me wrong by making it work 🙂 🙂 🙂

The problem is that most experts would much rather work with the Wikipedia system in which identities are unknown than with a known identity for many of the same reasons that Superman spends much of his days as Clark Kent. It’s hard for me an expert editing wikipedia or any online encyclopedia with their real identity, because the risks are far too great, and the benefits are non-existent.

The big problem is that experts are human, and can say some really stupid things. In fact, an expert being human *will* eventually say or do something really stupid and reputation destroying. In the world of academic publishing, what happens is that drafts are reviewed very carefully (often in a non-for attribution basis) before they are actually published, so that any stupid things said are removed before publication with the intention of catching errors at that stage before someone puts their name and reputation on a paper.

The problem with this is that it moves the drafting process out of public view, and gives the false impression that papers with people’s names on it come fully formed, and missing the whole messy process of drafting a paper. The thing about paper drafting and idea formation is that it is a largely anonymous process, people trade drafts and comments orally or unsigned so that if someone says or does something stupid and they will say or do something stupid eventually, it’s untraceable back to them.

The review process is similarly anonymous. Experts are again human and it is harder to give honest feedback if the feedback is traceable. In peer review, the reviewers are anonymous so that the reviewers don’t know who the author of the paper is, and the authors don’t know who the reviewers are.

So at the two important stages of academic writing involving editing, the drafting and the review stage, the experts are anonymous, and it’s hard for me to imagine how to make it work if the process isn’t anonymous, nor do I see any benefit in people to participate in the system.

There are some other reasons that people don’t want to share too much about themselves…

First there is the privacy issue. I have a life outside of being an astrophysics Ph.D. and I have areas of expertise that I do not want linked to my astrophysics Ph.D. identity. For example, it is possible that I’ve become an expert in child custody law, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, or prostitution in Nevada (none of which are the case ). If I did, for example, develop this sort of expertise of various life experiences, I don’t want my identity of expertise to be linked to each other or to my expertise in astrophysics.

Finally, because wikipedia is new, you will get more cooperation from experts if you let them be anonymous. It was about two or three years on wikipedia before I felt comfortable mentioning *anything* about myself, and it’s only been slowly that I’ve come out of my shell, and learned some tricks for managing identity. One trick is that I don’t mention my name or wikipedia ID in my blog. It will take you about an hour to find it, but not mentioning means that you will have to do some legwork to stitch together my various identities, and its not going to come out of a google search. Someone with a huge amount of reputation (say a Nobel prize winner in physics) is unlikely to participate in anything where they have to put up their identity up front, but they wouldn’t necessarily be adverse to anonymously editing things.

The other problem is that experts *HATE* the academic system and the bureaucracy, and Larry Sanger mentions that the system for naming experts is going to avoid the bureaucracy and politics of academy. He doesn’t mention how. At this point I’ll have to argue from Hayek (which Jimbo Wales and I are both fans of) and argue that any sort of expert rating system is going to lead to bureaucratic dysfunction, and that a lot of the bad things you see in academia is not a function of the details of the system, but rather fundamentally arise from the fact you have any sort of selection.

The only reason experts to participate the in current system is because of money and power.  You just have to publish and get a good professional reputation to get money and power in academia.  The trouble is that because the thing is driven by money and power (neither of which are infinite) you end up with a lot of bureaucratic silliness.  Take away the money and power factor, then the bureaucratic silliness disappears, but so does any reason to participate in the system.

Again, if you disagree, just do it, and prove me wrong.

This brings up a final point. There is a lot of talk about how there is a lack of expertise in wikipedia. This raises the question, how do we know?

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