Google-Wikipedia-Connection and the decay of academia

10. Dezember 2007 um 02:49 6 Kommentare

Mathias pointed [de] me to a lengthy and partly ridiculous “Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google” by Hermann Maurer [de] (professor at the IICM, Graz) and various co-authors, among them Stefan Weber, whose book [de], I already wrote about [de]. Weber is known as well as Debora Weber-Wulff for detecting plagiarism in academia – a growing problem with the rise of Google and Wikipedia as Weber points out. But in the current study he (and/or his colleauges) produced so much nonsense that I could not let it uncommented.

The study tries to prove a “Google-Wikipedia connection (GWC)”-conspiracy about Wikipedia and Google working together for the bad of us all. Sounds like Daniel Brandt but this is a serious study! I am less interested in the called “Google-Wikipedia connection” (Till Westermayer did better in his posting, see also Jürgen Lübeck [both de]) but on the wrong conclusions the study draws from it:

When people google key terms, they need no brain effort to do research: everybody can type a word or a phrase into a search engine (in former times, one needed basic knowledge about the organisation of a library and the way a keyword catalogue operates, and one needed to work with the so-called “snowball system” to find new fitting literature in the reference lists of already found literature). So there is a clear shift in the field of research towards a research without brains.

I wonder how the study’s authors do research if not by using a search engine from time to time. Especially if you do research about Google or Wikipedia, you are pretty lost if you limit yourself to references in already published peer-reviewed papers. To me the argument unmasks a common angst among traditional researchers: on the Web everyone is allowed to do research, so someone without diploma could do better than someone with diploma! The quote continues:

But there also is another shift [...] Today one must observe countless students copying passages from Wikipedia. Thus a term paper can be produced within a few minutes. Students lose the key abilities of searching, finding, reading, interpreting, writing and presenting a scientific paper with own ideas and arguments, developed after a critical close reading process of original texts.

If you ask your students to create a paper that dozens of people have created before in the same way, then of course they will copy & paste it! It’s in the task formulation: If (and only if!) a question has already been answered in a Wikipedia article, then the solution should contain of nothing but a single link to a specific version. The key abilities is then to find out whether the Wikipedia article is appropriate or not (by the way the authors of the study seem to not know how to cite Wikipedia by article version).

In my opinion there is another shift that many traditional scientists do not understand: A shift from the culture of documents to a culture of networks. It’s similar to the shift from oral culture to written text. I am sure that when script was invented people complained about a loss of ability to memorize. But if you can store text on paper you do not have to memorize all. Same now with the Web: If you can link to a text, you do not have to copy it. You link to a specific version, change it, and the reader can see your contributions in a diff. Ok, there is the problem that inclusion, versioning, diffs, backlinks etc. are not supported very well on the current Web. But the shift from oral culture to culture of documents took far more time, and the Web is still in its infancy (by the way libraries should finally start to deal with archiving and documenting networked documents and collaboration).

The quote ends with a statement that I can partly agree upon:

Instead of that they use Google, Copy & Paste and PowerPoint.
they use Google, Copy & Paste and PowerPoint. Their brains are now contaminated by fragmented Google search terms and the bullet points of PowerPoint. For a critique on PowerPoint see also [Tufte 2006].

Tufte’s critique on PowerPoint is brilliant. But this is another issue and he more criticises bad and unappropriate slides. Of course you have to know your tools and media and how to use them in them right way. It’s the same with talks, research and publications: you can do it right or wrong. Looks like most parts of traditional academia still does it wrong.

If the authors of the study had used a public wiki to collaboratively create the report (=right), you could have found out at least, who wrote the interesting parts and who wrote the crap – but this is not how traditional academia works, where titles and lists of publications are more important than the actual outcome in growth and perfection of knowledge.

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  1. Hi Jakob, thank you for this fine article, which I agree on in great parts! Perhaps except for the last paragraph: I think you underestimate the culture of personal authorship in academia.
    I want to expand on this, and why I think this is important to us.
    Most authors want and (at least until today) depend on being the single accountable person for what they have written, identifiable by their name. It’s really great to see that Wikipedia grew so far despite this fact, and perhaps this is not at least because of Wikipedia’s proven ability to grow an own culture of debate, mutual review, accountability through use of real names or pseudonyms and so on. But obviously, a whole lot of authors still feel uncomfortable writing in a public wiki, where virtually anyone anytime may alter their text. They simply don’t want to be contributors to a collective work result, even if such a result would be better than their own one, and even if their own contributions can be clearly identified. Maybe sometimes there will be a greater transition away from this culture, but I think in the meantime we have to deal with it. By which I mean that we, as librarians, will have to support single authors (and closed groups of authors) with tools and strategies to create and to provide their own works to the community.
    Btw: Your weblog is a nice example that those single-author-tools and -strategies work, and that they have their meaningful place in the web’s communication landscape.

    Kommentar by Lambert — 10. Dezember 2007 #

  2. “Everybody can type a word or a phrase into a search engine” is a classical mistake: while both public opinion and search engine marketing suggest that this is true, it’s simply not.

    Knowing how to search is still crucial, and I bet I can produce much better Google results to virtually any given question than someone without much experience in googling: by knowing which terms to search, which phrases to use, what to exclude, etc.

    Next, an experienced researcher would know which search engines to use (or at least, which Google parts will be of help: Google Book Search or even Google Maps are often very helpful). Besides, everyone writing about search engines should at least have heard of the term “deep web”.

    Taking all that into account, it’s clear that not everybody can type a word into a search engine and produce a paper any more than one could produce a paper from looking a key term up in a printed encyclopedia (or library catalouge, for that). The situation is very similar to different levels if traditional researching capabilities. I venture a guess that Maurer simply does not know how to do a web search well enough to see that.

    Kommentar by AndreasPraefcke — 10. Dezember 2007 #

  3. Wikipedia, Wikipedia…

    Im Moment ist die Wikipedia ja mal wieder in aller Munde:
    Zum einen durch die “Vergleichstudie” des Stern in der die schon bekannte Tatsache bestätigt wird (cf. den Artikel des leider schon verstorbenen Roy Rosenzweig oder auch den Artike…

    Trackback by InfoWissBlog Saarbrücken — 12. Dezember 2007 #

  4. Back in elementary school 30 years ago, I remember being told to create research papers without the use of an encyclopedia, and that our papers would be given poorer grades if it was discovered that we did. While an encyclopedia, even Wikipedia, offer great generalized content, they certainly do offer a lazy way to conduct research. I’ve found many instances of excellent Web resources who refuted topics or questions the accuracy of information found in Wikipedia.

    Kommentar by Milwaukee SEO — 7. März 2009 #

  5. I agree with both authors but I can clearly state that intelligence is trained by research and this is the purpose of the university: to sharp your expertise skills. Today, many claim that staying in front of a computer and searching on google/wikipedia is all you need to surpass a degree. Others say that you don’t even need a degree to cope in the world of today. However, there is a little confusion here, in the sense that some uneducated people become frustrated by lacking the skills others have obtained by hard work. I totally agree that there are many intelligent people without a degree on this planet, but if you take a closer look, no evolution is shaping out without scientific academia, which is the basis of our development. And, to those that believe a degree is not an asset, I must let you know that every good scientist has proper education. The fact that google comes today and combines information together with encyclopaedic sites such wikipedia is not an asset in human development, but just a meaningful hand for the lazy bones. Moreover, the connection tries to redefine history according to western doctrines, which in many cases can be seen clearly when reading various pre-existing history files that have been ‘re-shaped’ by wikipedia and marketed by google. Thus, merely use google to find quick information (street maps, contact details, quick research on organisations etc.) BUT never use it as a source of everything, since information provided is mostly manipulated and you will become not only their messager, but also their slave. Peace on Earth and all best to all of you!

    Kommentar by Stephen Restern — 28. Juli 2011 #

  6. When doing research, both Wikipedia and Google are only tools. Very valuable tools, but you still have to know how to use them. In my experience a very good way to train research is detecting errors, gaps, and bias in Wikipedia articles and improving them. People should get degrees for this work. When people blame the ease of doing bad research with Google, Wikipedia etc. or the change to e-publishing, it reminds me at Plato complaining about the invention of writing. Sure writing has some disadvantages, so have Google and Wikipedia. But the benefits are worth the loss.

    Kommentar by jakob — 28. Juli 2011 #

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