Sunday, 25 March 2007

Chunky or smooth?

While thinking about the current discussion about the proposal to merge several of Wikipedia's content policies into a new policy, Attribution, my gut feeling was that the core content policies (verifiability, no original research and neutral point of view) are better off treated as separate concepts that are nevertheless to be applied in conjunction with one another, rather than to try to join some of the concepts together. As I thought about it, the best reason I could think of to explain this reaction was to do with the way that the concepts operate in different ways, and thusly, how they need their space in order to operate properly.

The verifiability policy, as it is currently called, focuses on discrete "chunks" of content. The basic idea is that it should be possible for any reader to find the material in an extant reliable source. I'll call this the chunky level. The neutral point of view (NPOV) policy, on the other hand, operates at a higher level: it is concerned with what is done with these verifiable chunks of material, how they are put together. The core concept there is that, looking at the final article, all significant views on a subject should be presented fairly, in accordance with their prevalence (that is, not giving undue weight to any given view). The neutral-ness of individual chunks isn't important, rather the overall impression. I'll call this the smooth level.

The prohibition on original research sits somewhere in between these two in terms of the way in which it operates. It applies to individual "chunks" of content, in that each must not be original thought, but it also works on a broader level by prohibiting original research by synthesis. It's not a small picture or big picture thing: it's everywhere, at every level, from every angle.

There is undoubtedly some overlap between the policies on verifiability, NPOV and no original research, but I don't think that that's inherently a problem, nor do I think that when it becomes a problem that problem can be solved by merging the policies, because the policies operate in different ways.

Merging the NPOV and no original research policies, say, would lessen the force of the prohibition on "chunk-style" original research by focusing on the overall picture painted by the chunks when put together. Similarly, merging the verifiability and no original research policies - the thrust of the attribution proposal - lessens the force of the prohibition on original research by synthesis by focusing on the "chunk" level and not in the way that the chunks are used.

I think that the best way forward would be to merge elements of the policies and guidelines on sourcing into the verifiability policy, and rename that the "attribution" policy (the name "verifiability" is often misunderstood), and to maintain the other core content policies separately. Naturally, where overlap or bloat becomes a significant problem, then the policies need to be trimmed, and I think this is where efforts need to focus from now on.


John said...

The single "Attribution" policy is a boon to those Wikipedians who claim to be "confused" by multiple policies such as the "Verifiability" and "Reliable sources" policies. These "confused" Wikipedians prefer to ignore details such as the need for fact checking by Wiki editors and the annoying task of finding sources that do fact checking before publishing. Wikipedia biographical pages that violate the "Biographies of living persons" policy are put up for deletion because they have no reliable sources. These pages are then voted "Keep" because they pass the "attribution test", that is, there are numerous blogs and internet discussion groups that mention the subject of the biography page. This sad degradation of Wikipedia standards will continue until we finally see a big lawsuit. Since there are now many Wikipedia administrators who joyfully close votes for deletion with the decision to keep biography pages that do not use reliable sources, it will be easy to make the case that the Wikimedia Foundation has established a system where sanctioned officials promote and support the posting of libel on Wikipedia.

Stephen said...

While I don't share your vehemence, I do agree that in its current form, the attribution proposal does represent a new idea, and not merely the aggregate of the things that have been merged into it. It particularly blunts the force of NOR.

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