Saturday, February 21, 2015

Philip Roth's Complaint about Wikipedia Revisited

I believe that Wikipedia is one of the most important institutions of knowledge in the world today. Unfortunately, that statement still has to be qualified with the familiar “for better and for worse”. Indisputably, however, it is already having an enormous effect on the way we construct the boundary between the known and the unknown and, in the future, I believe its potential to provide “access to the sum of all human knowledge,” as Jimmy Wales hopes, will be tested and, I too hope, demonstrated. To that end, it is of the utmost importance that those of us who are interested in the institutions that support (and sometimes obstruct) the knowledge enterprise understand what Wikipedia is and how it works. Fortunately some work is being done in this area.

(I immersed myself in the virtual reality of Wikipedia a few years ago and I will one day write a proper account of what I learned there. This blog post can serve as a kind of introduction to that work. Indeed, it may become the introduction to a journal article about my experiences. But, to be clear, let me emphasise that I did not participate in any way in the events that I’m about to describe here.)

Last year, Dariusz Jemielniak published Common Knowledge, a book that is bound to become obligatory reading for anyone interested in Wikipedia. It is both a first-hand account of Wikipedia and an ethnography of its culture. While I don’t feel qualified to assess its methodology, and am, indeed, biased against ethnography as a scientific method, perhaps especially when studying something like Wikipedia, the book is clearly written by someone who has a deep and rich store of experiences to draw on when writing about the subject. My experiences largely confirm his, so I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to know what goes on behind the scenes at Wikipedia. When I finally write my own contribution to this literature, my approach will be somewhat different, but I’m certain that my work will ultimately only build on the foundation that Jemielniak has laid.

Perhaps that’s why I find it so important to do what I’m going to do in this post, namely, correct him on a small but telling point of detail. The Devil, I believe, is in these details, and when we get them wrong we distort our sense of the entire project. I should note that I have contacted Jemielniak by email and he agrees that his account of the events in the book misconstrues what happened. It’s good to see that sometimes people can admit their mistakes and stand corrected. Others might want to take notice.

In September of 2012, Philip Roth caused a stir (especially among Wikipedians) by publishing an “Open Letter” in the New Yorker, that recounted his irritation over his failed attempts to get Wikipedia to change its article on his 2000 novel The Human Stain. (Already at this point it’s important to keep in mind that Wikipedia articles are constantly changing. You can read the current version of the article here. But the version that he was complaining about is archived here.) “I am Philip Roth,” the letter begins inauspiciously, and goes on to say that the Wikipedia article on his novel “contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed.” In fact, he had already tried, he explains, to have it removed by other channels, but had now been forced to go public with his concerns because Wikipedia refused to do as he asked.

Let me pause at this point and note that much of the subsequent discussion turned on what is known in literary circles as “the intentional fallacy”, i.e., the question of how important it is to ask Philip Roth what he thinks when writing about a novel he has written. While I do have a view on that question, the point of my disagreement with Jemielniak really doesn’t depend on how we answer it. (Philip Roth clearly thinks it is important that he is Philip Roth and that the article in question is about a novel that he, namely, Philip Roth, has written. After all, he is Philip Roth. I am not. And I don’t.) Our real disagreement turns on matters of fact that, as far as I can tell, are entirely objective and beyond reasonable dispute. In fact, as I read those facts, it is Roth’s letter and not any version of the Wikipedia article that contains a “serious misstatement”.

“My novel The Human Stain,” Roth claims, “was described in the entry as ‘allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.’ (The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia’s collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands.)” None of this is true. As far as I can tell, the article never contained* the phrase “allegedly inspired” and even the “falsity” that the book was thus inspired was never stated, only mentioned, in the article. In all cases, and certainly at the time of Roth’s complaint, the claim was sourced to a named literary critic, Charles Taylor, and Roth’s rejection of it was duly noted and sourced (to an interview with Bloomberg). That is, Roth’s account of the facts in this case is highly misleading.

And yet when writing about it in his book Jemielniak swallowed it largely whole, producing an account of the “incident” that, I’m sure, Roth would take as a vindication of his outrage. I think this account is also, unfortunately, the default understanding of the event because it fits into a larger narrative about Wikipedia’s, if you will, silliness.*** The story can be found on page 21 of Common Knowledge, which, like I say, is worth engaging with precisely because it is likely to form the foundation of much subsequent research on Wikipedia culture. Here, in full, is Jemielniak’s account:

Over the years, both the Polish and the English Wikipedias have increased their requirements for sources. In some cases, the results are absurd. For example, in September 2012 the American writer Philip Roth issued an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker. He politely explained that he had tried to correct a misunderstanding about the origins of the story in one of his books, The Human Stain, on Wikipedia. One of the English Wikipedia administrators refused to permit the changes, because authors cannot make claims about their own work without confirmation from published secondary sources. Immediately after publication of Roth’s letter the Wikipedia entry in question was amended, as it now met the requirement of a published source, and the entire incident was accurately reflected in the entry, but the incident shows that the sources and verifiability policies are taken extremely seriously on Wikipedia, to absurd results.

The major claim of this paragraph (stated twice) is clearly that the incident is an example of the “absurd results” of Wikipedias “extreme” sourcing requirements. But beginning with its characterisation of Roth’s at least grumpy and arguably indignant letter as a “polite explanation”, Jemielniak has misunderstood pretty much everything that happened. What Jemielniak describes as Roth having “tried to correct a misunderstanding”, actually began on August 20, 2012, when an anonymous editor who identified himself as Roth’s biographer, removed 640 characters from the article. They constituted a full two-sentence paragraph: critic Charles Taylor argues that Roth had to have been at least partly inspired by the case of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who, like the protagonist of The Human Stain, was a man identified as Creole who spent his entire professional life more-or-less as white.[1] Roth states there is no connection, as he did not know Broyard had any black ancestry until an article published months after he had started writing his novel.[2]

The square brackets mark footnotes, i.e., sources. These were:

[1] Taylor, Charles (April 24, 2000). "Life and life only".
[2] Philip Roth interview at

That is, Roth’s biographer was not “trying to correct a misunderstanding”, he was trying to expurgate all mention of a theory about Roth's work, even Roth’s own opinion about it. The biographer’s edit was quickly “reverted”, i.e., the paragraph was restored. The biographer then removed it again, and it was once again restored. Apparently there was now some behind the scenes correspondence between Roth (or his biographer) and Wikipedia officials, which resulted in the open letter. At this point, on September 7, a lengthy discussion ensued on the article’s talk page (which had been otherwise inactive since April of 2011). In the meantime, i.e., between the biographer’s original intervention and the publication of Roth’s letter in the New Yorker, an editor had beefed up the portion of the article devoted to the, let’s call it, “Broyard hypothesis”, finding additional sources of people making the connection, to establish that it’s a serious position to take on the novel, and certainly not something that can be removed at the mere say-so of the author’s biographer acting at “Roth’s request”. Already in the immediate discussion among Wikipedians, we find an understanding of the issues—or rather non-issues—involved. On September 8, an editor named Sylvain1972 said:

There was nothing wrong with the article whatsoever, nor with the way policy was applied in this case. The section in question was about the reception of the novel, not an endorsement of Kakutani's** theories. It reported in an entirely NPOV manner the take of a critic writing for the most respected newspaper in the country. If her speculations were unfounded, that is an issue for the New York Times, not wikipedia. For that matter, the fact that Roth contested the claim was already noted right there in the section. If Roth objected to wikipedia even acknowledging Kakutani's published review, the solution is not to have the material deleted, it is to cite acceptable sources to further highlight his objection.

Shortly after, the editor who had beefed up the article agreed:

I agree with Sylvain. I was not adding the cited sources to reject Roth's contention that he did not know about Broyard, but to show that critics at the time of his book thought of Broyard and discussed him in relation to the novel. As you said, Roth's argument is with the NY Times** and other critics, not with WP, except to the extent anyone told him that he couldn't comment on his own work.

The important point that Jemielniak gets wrong stems from thinking that Roth's letter was needed to get the facts straight. In actual fact, there was no "absurd" requirement that made the error a necessary evil of Wikipedia's policies until he wrote an obsessively detailed account of the "real" source of his inspiration. Though the article does now also cite the open letter, its basic message is the same: Some people think Coleman Silk is based on Anatole Broyard, but Philip Roth denies this.

This is one of those long posts that should probably really be turned into something more “serious”. (In such an article I would go on to unpack the issues that the Wikipians were discussing, and explain some of their jargon. Again, I recommend Jemielniak’s book to anyone who wants to learn.) Or, perhaps, it is an indication precisely of what the blogosphere is capable of in the way of alternatives to traditional scholarly publication? Like I said at the ourset, it’s also a good lead-in for a discussion of my experiences with Wikipedia. (Watch for it. Here, or perhaps elsewhere, I haven’t decided.) I hope it can stand as an example of the sort of inquiry into Wikipedia that might, eventually, guide our integration of it into ordinary academic practices, as I have argued we should try to do before.

* This is of course a strong and categorial statement to make. I will stand corrected the moment someone shows me the version of the article where the phrase appears. I’ve used Wikipedia’s revision history search tool, supplemented with some manual sampling, to determine to my own satisfaction that I’m right about this. Do note, however, that even if the article had used the word “allegedly” it would not actually be claiming that Roth was inspired by Broyard, only that an allegation to that effect had been made. I’m not sure that Taylor’s speculation counts as an "allegation", however. And I think the fact that Roth thinks of it in those terms says more about Roth than he is himself perhaps aware.

**These references to Kakutani in the the New York Times have to do with the edits that were made after Roth's biographer had intervened. The theory was originally sourced to Charles Taylor in a Salon article.

***[Update: In his review of Jemielniak's book at Forbes, George Anders cited the incident as an example of how "tiresome" Wikipedia can be. In an article called "Who Killed Wikipedia" at the Pacific Standard, Virginia Postrel adopts Jemielniak's gloss that Roth was trying to "correct a description of the origin of his novel" and describes it as a "notorious case" of how Wikipedia's "paradoxical culture" works. At the time of the incident itself, the Guardian got it wrong, siding with Roth, as did ArsTechnica. In both of those latter cases, it seems to me we're just talking about lazy journalism. They simply take Roth at his word about what happened and the tell the story from his perspective.]


Gregory Kohs said...

Who is "Thomas" from Denmark? It's rather annoying when people don't really identify themselves when they write a thoughtful exposition like this. The reader should be entitled to know the author's credentials, background, potential biases, etc.

Thomas said...

Good point. I'm not sure why I've never but a good, clear author bio on this blog. I'll get to work on it. But I would point out that there are few links around here to some pretty unambiguous contact info. said...

With respect to your third footnote, I propose that very nearly all journalism is "lazy", as you define it. Electronic media nurture this phenomenon. And, of course, we see the same thing in social media with re-blogs, re-tweets, and other forms of link-and-post.

Academic writing has s similar form of laziness. Original references are abjured in favor of second- and third-hand citations, which are readily available in e-formats. This (apparently) absolves the writer from reading and understanding the original, unless one finds the rare manuscript reviewer that has actually read the source material and demands revisions. I suspect you have seen much of this, even beyond the Weick case. Alas.

Perhaps this is what the patchwriting mob means when they say there is no such thing as authorship any more. If so, they are correct, but wrong.

Thomas said...

Yes, in addition to laziness, there's also a lack of curiosity in this sort of storytelling. People are too eager to just to tell the story in the exciting form they first heard it, rather than consider that the excitement stems from misunderstanding.

halibutt said...

A better example of this problem arrived at Polish Wikipedia just last week.

A young Polish actress contacted me claiming there is a typo in her surname at Wikipedia (both Polish and English). As a child she played in one of Polish sit-coms. Her surname is Mongolian, apparently someone made a typo in the cast list - and it stuck: the typo is now repeated by IMDB, Filmweb and countless other film sites across the web. Against that we have her word, plus her Facebook page, LinkedIn profile and such pages.

I tried to convince her to do an interview for Wikinews where she could describe the fuss with her surname, but so far we should revert to the wrong surname per WP:Verifiability...