Monday, 2 April 2007

Interesting exercise

With the debate about the Attribution policy merger still going strong, I got to reading the position papers prepared by some of the prominent proponents on each side (broad agreement and broad disagreement) of the debate. While considering those, and some of the responses in the ongoing poll, it struck me that there is a remarkable degree of difference in understanding of Wikipedia's fundamental content policies.

I was particularly intrigued by some of the comments on both sides of the debate which have discussed the ways in which Wikipedia policies have evolved over time; the people supporting Attribution arguing that policies have always been changed, and some of the people opposing it arguing that policies have changed away from their original meaning. This got me thinking about the degree to which change has actually occurred with these long standing policies.

I've always thought that the core policies in particular were essentially well understood concepts that haven't really changed much, and that the development of policy pages over time has merely been a refinement of the expression of the central idea, and an adaptation to meet changing circumstances. I decided to test whether this was really the case by, quite simply, looking at old versions of policy pages.

Here's how the core content policies looked on my first day of editing (8 October 2004):

For both verifiability and no original research, the version that existed when I first edited was within the first fifty revisions of the page. Indeed, verifiability had only been edited by a dozen different users by the time of this version. NPOV had something of a longer history, having been around since the beginning of 2002 (and longer than that as an idea).

There are a few interesting nuggets in these old versions. Most surprisingly to me is that in the old version of no original research, the page posits Wikipedia as either a secondary source or as a tertiary source, whereas I've always considered Wikipedia to be only a tertiary source, as a necessary consequence of having the NPOV policy. You'll see that the old version excludes original ideas, but permits analysis, evaluation, interpretation and synthesis as legitimate techniques in writing articles. This would, I am sure, come as a surprise to many (my homework for today: find when the prohibition on synthesis was introduced).

It's also interesting to observe that contrary to what some people assert, the verifiability policy even back then was all about checking that sources have been used accurately and correctly (ie, not misrepresenting the sources), and not about only including content that can be proved to be true. The old version of verifiability also included a section about reliable sources, and offered a classic formulation which I still regard as eminently valid:

"Sometimes a particular statement can only be verified at a place of dubious reliability, such as a weblog or tabloid newspaper. If the statement is relatively unimportant, then just remove it - don't waste words on statements of limited interest and dubious truth. However, if you must keep it, then attribute it to the source in question. For example: 'According to the weblog Simply Relative, the average American has 3.8 cousins and 7.4 nephews and nieces.' "

I'm sure that there is more to be learned from these old versions of policy. I would encourage everyone who is interested in this subject to check out a history page for yourself: perhaps you'd like to view the policies as they existed when you first edited, or perhaps you'd like to delve even deeper into the past than that.

The historical development of policy can offer great insights into how it can be developed in the future.


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