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12 September 2012

Wikipedia vs Philip Roth

Why the online encyclopedia isn't just the self-referential US author's concern

By Philip Maughan

Last weekend Philip Roth published an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker, expressing his frustration at being unable to delete the “serious misstatement” at the heart of the entry about his 2000 novel The Human Stain. “‘I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,’ writes the Wikipedia Administrator – ‘but we require secondary sources.’”

It’s easy to smirk. Both at the idea of Roth reading about his own work on Wikipedia (sounds self-referential enough to have been a plot in one of his early novels) and the fact that the Author Himself cannot undo the damage wrought by the wiki-workforce. But does it really matter?

My time at university was recent enough for this issue to have been addressed on the very first day. The English Language and Literature intake of 2007 piled into an under-sized auditorium to watch a series of slides suggesting possible sources for research, which began in large block capital letters: NOT WIKIPEDIA. This merely established the stakes. We calmly exited the lecture hall and proceeded to surreptitiously utilise the free encyclopedia every day for the next three years. Was the advice given by our estimable don a symbol of her ludditism, of which Roth has since been accused? Or is it the dons who should be doubted, as one quirky pop band’s t-shirt argues: “University has taught me nothing that I couldn’t learn on Wikipedia.”

The need for secondary sources in Wikipedia’s terms and conditions puts it ahead of a great deal of “knowledge” available to students on the web. The site has written policies and guidelines (though non-binding) which aim to ensure clarity, reliability and resolve conflicts. A team of editors award small bronze stars to “featured” articles, which are used as a yardstick for others. Try the page on Samuel Johnson for example, a page which may or may not have proved highly useful in the second year of my degree. It all depends who’s asking.

It’s not surprising students keep on clicking. Wikipedia tends to be the top hit produced by most Google searches. Academic journals are often expensive and difficult to navigate, and while you run the risk of being fed BS on Wikipedia, the site does appear to share one’s own desire to crop unnecessary BS: giving the reader precisely what they want.

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While discussing my final year dissertation, my supervisor confessed: “It’s an inevitability – use it to establish the basics, then move on to something more reliable.” The problem lies in the fact that no single individual has the power to decide what is published on the site. Information may be given the shine of authenticity (look – it says it’s true, right there!) without any kind of mediation and less-than-foolproof referencing. This, of course, is paradoxically the site’s democratic raison d’être.

Roth isn’t alone in his concern. My own tiny splash in the web of knowledge is a page I occasionally marvel at for making the experience of being in a band in my teens seem a great deal more coherent than it felt, but it helps there’s nothing bad there. Not everyone is pleased with the scraps of biographical information that wind up on Wikipedia, as Tory party chairman Grant Shapps proved recently.

Roth argues at the end of his letter that he works from what Henry James called “the germ”, the autobiographical impetus that allows one to imagine “five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the centre of a novel.” Quite understandably, his fear (and most likely my lecturer’s) is that a mere handful of bits and pieces, presented as somehow comprehensive, may do the literary work a grave injustice. It should be noted that Roth’s letter provided Wikipedia the secondary source required to fulfill his wish and delete the “misstatement”. The article now has its facts straight, at least from the author’s point of view.