The Provenance of Facts

Brian Feldman has a newsletter called BNet and on May 30th, he published an insightful and whimsical take on facts and Wikipedia called mysteries of the scatman.

The essay is an excellent reminder that if a fact without proper provenance makes it way into Wikipedia and is then published in a reputable source, it is nearly impossible to remove said fact from Wikipedia.

Both the Scatman John and “Maps” issues, however, point to a looming vulnerability in the system. What happens when facts added early on in Wikipedia’s life remain, and take on a life of their own? Neither of these supposed truths outlined above can be traced to any source outside of Wikipedia, and yet, because they initially appeared on Wikipedia and have been repeated elsewhere, they are now, for all intents and purposes, accepted as truth on Wikipedia. It’s twisty.

mysteries of the scatman

This is not a problem of only Wikipedia. Last year I addressed a similar issue in an Information Literacy class for 4th year Political Science students when I encouraged students to follow the citation pathways of the data that they plan to cite. I warned them not to fall for academic urban legends:

Spinach is not an exceptional nutritional source of iron. The leafy green has iron, yes, but not much more than you’d find in other green vegetables. And the plant contains oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption.

Why, then, do so many people believe spinach boasts such high iron levels? Scholars committed to unmasking spinach’s myths have long offered a story of academic sloppiness. German chemists in the 1930s misplaced a decimal point, the story goes. They thus overestimated the plant’s iron content tenfold.

But this story, it turns out, is apocryphal. It’s another myth, perpetuated by academic sloppiness of another kind. The German scientists never existed. Nor did the decimal point error occur. At least, we have no evidence of either. Because, you see, although academics often see themselves as debunkers, in skewering one myth they may fall victim to another.

In his article “Academic Urban Legends,” Ole Bjorn Rekdal, an associate professor of health and social sciences at Bergen University College in Norway, narrates the story of these twinned myths. His piece, published in the journal Social Studies of Science, argues that through chains of sloppy citations, “academic urban legends” are born. Following a line of lazily or fraudulently employed references, Rekdal shows how rumor can become acknowledged scientific truth, and how falsehood can become common knowledge.

Academic Urban Legends“, Charlie Tyson, Inside Higher Ed, August 6, 2014

I’m in the process of working on an H5P learning object dedicated to how to calculate one’s H-Index and yet, I’m conflicted about doing so. There are many reasons why using citations as a measure of an academic’s value is problematic for reasons far beyond the occasional academic urban legend:

To weed out academic urban legends, Rekdal says editors “should crack down violently on every kind of abuse of academic citations, such as ornamental but meaningless citations to the classics, or exchanges in citation clubs where the members pump up each other’s impact factors and h-indexes.”

Yet even Rekdal – who debunks the debunkers – says his citation record isn’t flawless.

“I have to admit that I published an article two decades ago where I included an academically completely meaningless reference (without page numbers of course) to a paper written by a woman I was extremely in love with,” he said. “I am still a little ashamed of what I did. But on the other hand, the author of that paper has now been my wife for more than 20 years.”

Academic Urban Legends“, Charlie Tyson, Inside Higher Ed, August 6, 2014

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