Taking issue with Wikipedia is a great way to draw attention, as Nick Carr does again. In this case, he is taking issue with the Nature survey that revealed greater accuracy in articles on scientific topics. Nick fisks it with good detail, a case study in how to draw doubt.
First he claims the article as being produced by the Nature staff paired with academic experts, instead of a peer-reviewed study. If you follow the rest of his arguments, this shouldn't be an issue. As he says, "Someone is in charge, and experts do count." Personally, I'd like to see Wikipedia's unprocess applied to critizing the article. But this first assertion by Carr does it's job of raising doubt of expertise and methodology. Even when the Nature article itself said "An expert-led investigation carried out by Nature--the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica's coverage of science."
Second he claims that surveying scientific articles is too narrow a challenge for Wikipedia. "As has often been noted, Wikipedia's quality tends to be highest in esoteric scientific and technological topics. hat's not surprising. Because such topics tend to be unfamiliar to most people, they will tend to attract a narrower and more knowledgeable group of contributors than will more general-interest subjects." I don't agree with this assertion. Quality tends to be highest where the greated amount of attention is directed. In the negotiation of edits, expertise within a larger group shines because it can be backed up. Excluding the unqualified implies unfounded prejudice. I personally find the selected scope of the survey more valuable for quantitative analysis as non-scientific topics will be more subjective.
Third he claims that the media took a narrow survey and implied broad implications for quality with high-level coverage. This is somewhat true, and, well, what mainstream media does. And what Carr did with his first claim. But the articles did link to the actual study.
Fourth he claims the study filtered out the comments by expert reviewers that criticized the writing style of Wikipedia. In fact, the summarized them in the article. The objective of the survey was a quantitative comparison, which was later complemented by supplementary qualitative information. Carr picks three examples of full expert reviews to highlight how the qualitative information may be more important than the quantitative. Fine and good, but I'd bet out of the 42 reviewed articles, you can find other examples that qualitatively favor Wikipedia, like this one:
ERRORS IDENTIFIED: WIKIPEDIA
1. Nobel Prize in Physics for key discoveries which have led to the currently accepted theory … [not for formulating the theory itself]
2. From 1933 to 1936 Chandra was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
3. Chandrasekhar joined the staff of the University of Chicago, rising from assistant professor of astrophysics (1937) to Morton D. Hull etc.
4. Books: Principles of Stellar Dynamics (1943).
ERRORS IDENTIFIED: WIKIPEDIA
Chandrasehkar, Subramanyan – no errors identified
And Brittanica entries: Woodward, Robert Burns and Mayr, Ernst. Which is part of the point. No editing system, closed editorial process or open, is perfect. Instead focus on media literacy and a little wabi sabi.
Lastly and most imporantly he claims hierarchy rules:
The problem with those who would like to use "open source" as a metaphor, stretching it to cover the production of encyclopedias, media, and other sorts of information, is that they tend to focus solely on the "community" aspect of the open source model. They ignore the fact that above the community is a carefully structured hierarchy, a group of talented individuals who play a critical oversight role in filtering the contributions of the community and ensuring the quality of the resulting code. Someone is in charge, and experts do count.
The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.
The open source metaphor for wikis is more than apt. Here is a whole (unfinished) chapter on how. Yes, in open source you have the role of project manager as a gatekeeper for contributions to ensure quality. One person is hardly a heirarchy, but in writing code it is required. Coding is vertical information assembly, marked by the dependencies between contributions. Contributing in wiki does not have dependencies between contributions. If you insert one wrong fact, it does not have a cascading or virulent effect. This distinction is critical, as it provides permission to participate which has driven adoption.
I would also argue that open source is democratic. Part of the reason you have a project manager is the same as an elected representative, the manager is a proxy for the community. The community as the right to fork which holds the leader in check. Any community member may gather a constituency to support the inclusion of their contribution. Debate is open and largely civil, such as the British Parliment operating under an unwritten constitution, but a key difference is the actual operations are transparent. A model that democracy will trend towards.
The open source model is a democratic model. It is the combination of community and leadership that makes it work. Community with hierarchy trends toward tyranny.
Aside: I think it's great having Nick in the blogosphere as it makes for fun and fair debate. As a thought excersize, consider if our two posts were on a Discussion page and a group had to sort out what the Article should be.