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Grumpy Wikipedians

My experience with Wikipedia has been mixed, at best, particularly in the Operations Research area. Arguing with some non-OR person about what OR is has its advantages: it forces a rethink of one’s beliefs. But it can be frustrating, since it is not clear who you are discussing changes with or what their goals and interests are. And, if you are active in societies, blogs, and so on as I am, opportunities for “conflict of interest” abound. So a couple of years ago I decided to not edit operations research aspects of Wikipedia, leaving it to others. I am grateful that others work to make the entry better, though it is still far, far too historically based for my happiness.

My mixed experience with the (non-OR) denizens of Wikipedia might not have been unusual. Francisco Marco-Serrano of the blog FM Waves pointed me to an article in New Scientist about grumpy and close-minded Wikipedians:

Disagreeable and closed to new ideas – that’s the picture that emerges of contributors to community-curated encyclopaedia Wikipedia from a survey of their psychological attributes.

Led by Yair Amichai-Hamburger of the Sammy Ofer School of Communication in Herzliya, Israel, a team of psychologists surveyed 69 Israeli contributors to the popular online encyclopedia, comparing them with a sample of 70 students matched for age and intensity of internet use.

As Amichai-Hamburger expected, the Wikipedians were more comfortable online. “They feel the internet is a more meaningful place to them,” he says. But to his surprise, although Wikipedia is founded on the notion of openly sharing and collecting knowledge as a community, they scored low on agreeableness and openness.

“Wikipedia in a way demonstrates the spirit of the internet,” Amichai-Hamburger says. “People contribute without any financial reward.”

Amichai-Hamburger speculates that rather than contributing altruistically, Wikipedians take part because they struggle to express themselves in real-world social situations. “They are compensating,” he suggests. “It is their way to have a voice in this world.”

Of course, the same might be found out about blog writers!

{ 6 } Comments

  1. Larry (IEOR Tools) | June 29, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Can you really blame them? They must get hundreds of emails for contributions to a particular subject matter. Then they have to sift through the content. Not to mention that content needs to be wrung through peer review if it makes it to that stage. I love the openness of Wikipedia but I agree it does have its drawbacks. I hope its just still in a maturation process.

  2. Paul Rubin | June 29, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    ManMohan Sodhi had less than kind things to say about his experience with Wikipedia in the most recent issue (June 09) of OR/MS Today. I get a fair amount of use out of the Wikipedia, and for the most part I think the stuff I read is accurate, but stories like these snuff out whatever small inclination I might have to contribute.

    I just took a glance at the OR page Mike linked, and it mostly looked ok to my less than discerning eye. The fact that the “After WWII” section is only two sentences does kind of leave the impression that OR was a mid-20th century phenomenon. The scope section strikes me as disproportionately supply chain oriented. What about, for example, Eva Lee’s research on how to position X-ray shots?

    Maybe someone could start a forum someplace on how to make the OR-related entries in the Wikipedia better, and then volunteers from among the forum-goers (presumably people who don’t have a “conflict of interest”) could try turning the forum consensus into Wikipedia edits?


  3. Maurice Lanselle | June 29, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Inasmuch as Wikipedia intends to be an encyclopedia, I suspect that OR is best treated historically and not timelessly or prospectively. That it is mathematical for some, pragmatic for others, and perceived differently from country to country doesn’t help arrive at a concensus globally. Is economics a sub-branch of OR, or vice versa? Where to draw the line on ownership of algorithmics between informatics, mathematics, and “OR”? Aren’t engineering and medicine sciences of better? Et cetera.

    To the citation in question: I think this is what is called an “ad hominem” attack. If you can’t find flaws in the product, find them in the producers. I find the argument that homo is necessarily ecoenomicus and so anybody contributing altruistically isn’t really doing so altruistically but for psychological compensation, is more postulated than demonstrated. Open source software (or anything) mystifies “economists” but political and, especially, religious pamphlets seem not to be suspect. Dedicating part of one’s free time to accretion of knowledge would not be in the same realm as dedicating part of one’s free time to political or religious campaigning? Perhaps not. Who are the do-gooders?

  4. Paul Rubin | June 29, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Maurice Lanselle wrote: “Inasmuch as Wikipedia intends to be an encyclopedia, I suspect that OR is best treated historically and not timelessly or prospectively.”

    My recollection of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica as a child — I obviously had a shortage of friends — is that while portions were historical in nature, other portions (particularly those devoted to the sciences) strove to be timely, within the obvious limitations of the print publishing cycle. Those limitations do not apply to online encyclopedias. While I believe the historical origins of OR need to be covered, I see no reason not to include the current perspective — if possible (meaning that if there is something to be said that represents either factual statements or generally held opinions).

    Maurice mentions different perceptions of OR from country to country as an impediment to consensus. I agree, but I also think that some sort of summary of those differences is the kind of information I would find useful in a Wikipedia article.

  5. Maurice Lanselle | June 30, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Having now re-read the article, and the French article as well (the only other language I really understand) and compared the two, I agree with Paul Rubin. The French article may be too short on history (and was Pascal’s work on probability really OR?) but does treat types of problems, application areas, use in business and industry, relations with other disciplines, and principal classes of methods.
    I also agree that “some sort of summary of those differences is the kind of information I would find useful in a Wikipedia article”–but who would be competent to write it?Why don’t they, if they exist? Wrong personality type?

  6. Paul Rubin | June 30, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure who is competent to write such an article (although I can safely rule myself out), but besides the usual reason for nobody stepping forward (lack of incentive), it may be that qualified people are not convinced they are qualified. This is one reason I suggested a group discussion somewhere leading to someone (possibly a group of someones) writing relevant Wikipedia content — a group would provide some validation to each other, plus the courage of “strength in numbers”.

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