Wikipedia, Inspiration, and Secondary Sources

I enjoyed reading Philip Roth’s “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” published earlier this month in The New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog, from which flowed amendments to a Wikipedia entry.

In quick summary, as I understand events: Mr. Roth read a Wikipedia entry on his The Human Stain. He noticed “a serious misstatement” about the inspiration of the story. He petitioned Wikipedia for correction of the entry on his novel. Correction was not immediately granted. The New Yorker published Mr. Roth’s Open Letter. This letter recounted Wikipedia’s explanation that Mr. Roth, the author, “was not a credible source: ‘I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.’” Mr. Roth’s New Yorker entry thus constituted such a secondary source. The Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain was updated to include Mr. Roth’s explanation.

Immediately ensuing commentary was interesting. Some discussion took a premise along the lines of that it is so very silly or odd that Philip Roth can’t even clarify a Wikipedia entry on his own creative work; see here or here, for example. And, how amusing it is that Mr. Roth needed to create a secondary source to achieve a correction—and that a secondary source created by Mr. Roth himself would suffice, whereas a petition declared to be by him would not do so!

At first blush, the incident could be an interesting illustration in research instruction sessions for discussion about citation of Wikipedia as authority: the usual criticisms that it is full of errors, that one need not be knowledgeable to contribute an entry, (or at least that even a knowledgeable person can’t easily achieve a correction), etc. Indeed, it could be a useful discussion point, but from a different angle.

A little thinking leads to, I think, a more apt issue: What, exactly, is the fault in Wikipedia’s decision to decline a letter from Mr. Roth—a primary source, assuming identity verification— as sufficient support for a change in an entry? Why is it wrong or ridiculous to require the support of material that has been vetted by another publisher before an entry is corrected? And—key in the case of an entry such as the one in question here, I think—what is wrong with declining to alter an analysis of a creative work simply on the say-so of the creator? Cory Doctorow’s recent piece in the Guardian’s Digital Rights, Digital Wrongs series, Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source, addresses these questions. I recommend the piece for those who haven’t read it. It and a recent John Gregory column explain Wikipedia’s processes in much greater detail than I could hope to do.

Noteworthy is that the entry now includes not a correction, but Mr. Roth’s comments, along with those of others, in a section entitled “Critical Interpretation.” Perhaps Mr. Roth knows best what inspired—or didn’t inspire—his work. Or perhaps he doesn’t, at least not for every reader. Perhaps others take a different view in their critical analysis of a well-read work. Perhaps Mr. Roth had multiple inspirations, some of which memories faded over time. All of these possibilities seem like reasonable bases for a decision to decline to accept the uncorroborated word of an individual, even a central one, in altering a reference work, even Wikipedia.

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  1. David Collier-Brown

    Niggle the first: he needs a second source somewhat more than he needs a secondary source. Not indirection, confirmation. Those are not the same thing.

    Niggle the second: what I read from an author’s recounting is not the same as what the author writes. Second/secondary/tertiary or any other level of indirection is not required. These are not the same thing.

    Two niggles ::= one snark: Wikipaedia needs more philosophers.
    Gentleman Amateurs if they must, but more philosophers.

    A few lawyers wouldn’t hurt, either (;-))


  2. Niggle the first niggle: I agree a second source is not the same as a secondary source. But I disagree that a second source is what he needs. I could call up my sister and have her tell you this is what I think, which should confirm things. :)

    Or I could write an essay that tells my truth the best I can, and seek its publication via a publisher counting on (or somehow confirming) that truth-telling being a genuine recounting. That assumes some intervention, some external analysis or vetting.

    I’m going to need the weekend to deconstruct Niggle the second, I think. I agree, though, that what I and you read from an author’s recounting is not the same as what the author writes. On that point, it is worth recalling that a “correction” was not published in the end; a section reporting his recounting and others’ interpretations was included.

    Kim :)