Citational Fallacy

In the past few months I have written many essays necessitating the use of citations as a manner through which to lend credence to some datum or another. As you may have surmised from this article’s title though, I believe the current model for determining credible citations to be broken. Take, for example, XKCD comic #976, Citogenesis. In this comic, Randal Munroe once again displays brilliance by showing where citations come from.

When an author writes a book, he or she is not required to cite their sources. The author does indeed have a certain obligation to present true facts to the reader, but disregarding that obligation — depending on the degree to which it is done — will not necessarily prevent a book from being released to the public if those errors are not caught by the editor. In fact, even on the web, writers are not required to cite their sources. Take The Next Web’s article How 3 simple buttons raised tipping by $144 million in NYC cabs, plagiarized from Joshua Gross’ post The $144,146,165 Button, for example, which I wrote about quite some time ago.

As authors craft their montage of thoughts into a comprehensible written volume, most do their best to ensure correct information. However, such a goal is only possible to a certain extent when conducting original research, so especially in this case errors are likely to find their way into the finished product. Short of a re-publication though, a costly and slow process, nothing can be done to remedy this happenstance, and thus erroneous information presents itself as fact. The same principle applies to online publication as well: an author can write and publish anything he or she wishes. The degree to which that information must be proved reliable through a credible source depends on the venue through which the content is posted. Personal blogs and websites, for example, by and large do not operate under any oversight; larger publications, on the other hand, do, though — as Joshua Gross’ plagiarized article demonstrates — this system is far from perfect.

All this is in an attempt to make one point: although less so online, both physical and online publications are not infallible; it is possible for an author, knowingly or otherwise, to pass incorrect information as fact through one of these mediums, after which it is up to the readers to catch this flaw or miss it and, as time goes on, lend credence to this false idea through inaction. This is the point Randall Munroe humorously made in the comic strip cited at the beginning of this article, Citogenesis, and leads me to the main topic of this article: Wikipedia and its ridiculous persecution by academia. To reiterate one of my opening lines, I believe the current model for determining credible citations to be broken.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short essay comparing the life of the Hispanic knight El Cid to Spain’s struggle to expel the Muslim horde. In order to write that paper, I spent quite some time conducting research both into the life of Rodrigo de Vivar and the struggle for the control of Spain. One of the most interesting resources I stumbled across during this research was a page on Princeton’s website providing information for the Battle of Covadonga. It was not the information contained within it that interested me though, but rather the nondescript byline at the bottom of the page: “The article content of this page came from Wikipedia and is governed by CC-BY-SA.” The Princeton website scraped the first five paragraphs from the Wikipedia article and passed it off as its own content which, in an MLA citation, would have appeared as credible — if not more credible — than any of the other websites I referenced. In truth though, the information would have been exactly the same whether I had taken it from Wikipedia or Princeton. Exactly the same. Unfortunately, this short anecdote just scratches the surface of a system permeated with an incorrectly justified aversion to a resource that should be embraced rather than spurned.

I could create and publish a respectable website in a matter of minutes on any number of free blogging platforms, the contents of which would be completely subject to my discretion. I could, for example, claim to be a respected chemist and state that a molecule of hydrogen is an anabolic compound consisting of the Higgs-Boson particle, held together with dark matter. With a plausible “About” page backing up this false claim, an unsuspecting chemistry student could take this completely false fact and cite it properly as a truth, at which point who is to blame? The chemistry student for lacking the faculties to recognize that “fact” as an untruth, a shortcoming that brought that student, pursuant of more knowledge on the matter, to my fake website in the first place? I hope you realize how ridiculous it would be to blame the student for this, and I hope these examples highlight the point I am trying so desperately to make in this post.

Unfortunately, I have no solution though: the system itself is not an imperfect one; under the proper circumstances, it actually works quite well. It is under any other circumstances, however, that its shortcomings become evident, and it is in those situations that the need for some alternative is most dire. This is a call to find that alternative, and a call to stop banning the free encyclopedia.