Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wikipedia as rumour mill

Wikipedia reports today that they are blaming US Congress staff for partisan changes to a number of political biographies.

I use Wikipedia a lot and link to it frequently, and as regular readers will know my article on Scott Ross was used by a third party for Wikipedia's entry on that fine musician. But I find increasingly Wikipedia is being manipulated to reflect personal views rather than fact.

Yesterday I uploaded an article about early music pioneer David Munrow. I researched it over several months and talked to some people who worked closely with him. There is remarkably little published material available on Munrow, although an 'unauthorised' biography is in preparation. Some of the best sources are articles in the excellent periodical Early Music published immediately after his death thirty years ago.

In these circumstances Wikipedia should be an obvious source. There is an article in Wikipedia on David Munrow, but I ignored it. It is written from a highly personal viewpoint, and contains (as at 9 Feb 2006) the following statement: "Munrow committed suicide in 1976, while suffering from depression. There are many rumours as to why. He used to overwork, and it was an open secret that he was gay which must have caused domestic problems." This entry is of no use. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and should deal in facts, not rumours and 'open secrets'. Moreover does Munrow's alleged sexuality have any relevance to his achievements? Even if the reported speculation was correct he would hardly be the first gay classical musician.

The concept of Wikipedia is that anyone, including me, is free to correct misleading passages like the one above. But this only works if the article is fundamentally sound, and all that is needed is fine tuning. Increasingly the articles on Wikipedia are becoming fundamentally suspect as US Senators and others use them to reflect their own agendas. And that sadly is where the great collabarative dream breaks down.

Image credit - BBC
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Wikipedia is remix

5 comments:

Berend de Boer said...

Yhy mention Republicans explicitly in: Increasingly the articles on Wikipedia are becoming fundamentally suspect as Republican Senators and others use them to reflect their own agendas.

while the first congressman listed, who caused the controversy and who admitted it, was a Democrat: Marty Meehan. And he seems to have been doing the most controversial alterations.

Your statement makes it appear Republicans are doing it, most and foremost. An entirely incorrect conclusion which you cannot draw from this article.

I suggest you change the word "Republicans" to "Democrats".

Pliable said...

Berend, my reference to Republicans was based on the following from the BBC report quoted in my article:

One example was the entry for Republican Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, who it was falsely alleged had been voted "most annoying senator".

But I think your comment is valid. So I'm now taking a completely impartial position and have deleted references to either party.

With apologies for the unintentional impression of bias.

S. de Silva said...

I'm grateful that you brought this problem with Wikipedia to our attention. Still, in my opinion it's too soon to give up on the Wikipedia concept.

Here is a possibility that the managers of Wikipedia should consider:
If a contribution appears to cross the line between analysis and prejudice, the comment could remain, but be identified as opinion, and labeled with the name of the author. Of course, there has to be a mechanism for accomplishing this.

Many of the articles in encyclopedias have been highly biased in the past; if they had not been signed by an "authority", they would have been considered highly prejudiced. (Consider articles on Germany in Britannica during and immediately after WW2.) Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Searle88 said...


It would be great if you could kindly remove this post as david munrow gay does appear on the search engine! There may be another way round this, but I do not know..

Pliable said...

Searle88, thanks for that comment but unfortunately it would not be appropriate to remove this post for the following reasons.

The post makes a perfectly valid point and does not contain any factual errors. In fact it serves a useful purpose as the questionable Wikipedia entry - which is clearly identified as such - is repeated elsewhere and my post provides needed balance. Pragmatically deleting the post would be of little use as it is held and mirrored on many servers around the world - that is how the web operates.

But there is a second point. It appears the main problem with the post is that it is returned as a result on Google when the search term "David Munrow gay" is entered. But in fact there are 131,000 results for that search, of which OAOP is just one - again that is how the web operates.

I would also add that there are reliable reports of information management being imposed on Munrow biographies elsewhere. I have no reason at all to think this is the case here, but this is another reason for not retrospectively deleting records such as this.

David Munrow was an inspirational musician and hopefully that is communicated by the many posts about him On An Overgrown Path.