Word theft and feedback loops
Here’s something unsettling: a Wikipedia editor claims that a published book contains a verbatim copy of an old version of a Wikipedia article.
The book had been listed (innocently, it seems) as “further reading” in a subsequent revision of the Wikipedia article, as follows: Biographiq (2008). D. B. Cooper: Portrait of an American Hijacker. Biographiq. ISBN 1599861984.
Wikipedia editor Harry Yelreh caught and removed the mention of the book, leaving the following edit summary: “Biographiq book is verbatim copy of earlier versions of wikipedia article”.
This raises a couple interesting issues: first, Wikipedia’s role in a potentially disastrous “feedback loop,” where sources that are trusted by the public merely cite one another; and second, the ethical and legal impropriety of republishing Wikipedia content without proper attribution.
On a technical level, Wikipedia’s policies cover all the right bases. The license covering Wikipedia’s works, the GNU Free Documentation License, requires that any work republished in another medium be properly attributed. The authors of the text (not the Wikimedia foundation) have standing to take legal action against anyone violating this policy. (Some editors, myself included, choose to multi-license their contributions under less restrictive licenses, but most editors don’t bother, or prefer not to do so.) In other words, while much is made of the “free” nature of Wikipedia, there are in fact some limits on what can be done with its content.
And Wikipedia and its editors often proclaim its lack of inherent reliability: while extensive efforts are made to ensure accuracy and cite proper sources, it is widely acknowledged that there is no authority that can ultimately vouch for the encyclopedia’s accuracy
What’s most unsettling to me about this is the implicit message that an outside publisher would regard Wikipedia as being sufficiently reliable to republish its content without modification. Although the D. B. Cooper article has reached Featured status (a strong endorsement of its quality), the version apparently republished was from a few months before the Featured Article review.
The best Wikipedia articles (generally, the Featured ones) thoroughly cite all specific figures and potentially controversial claims. Our community of editors holds this principle in particularly high regard. Wikipedia’s utility, in essence, lies in its ability to connect its readers with published sources that have some measure of verifiability; it does not aim to become that kind of source.