Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Wikipedia and its Prejudices: A Recent Example

Not reliable enough for Wikipedia
Wikipedia has a reputation for displaying bias against certain subject areas, and how it can work was demonstrated to me this week.  On 27 March I received a message on my Wikipedia ‘talk’ page headed ‘Information on forgotten members of the SPR’.  Signed by a ‘JuliaHunter’ (sic), it proceeded without preamble:Have you got any information on some of the original council members of the Society for Psychical Research, such as the electrician Desmond G. Fitzgerald (1834-1905)? See the talk page for the SPR.’

This came as a surprise because I had forgotten I had a Wikipedia talk page.  It dates from when, some years ago, I tinkered with a couple of articles on the site, notably the one on the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Thanks to my edits being consistently reverted by someone who it seemed to me had a strong desire, allied to obsessive patience, that the article should be as unhelpful as possible, I had abandoned the effort and had not participated in Wikipedia editing since.

It happened that I had come across the name JuliaHunter several days previously when I noticed a new, very brief, Wikipedia page on Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo (1868-1954), described as ‘a Russian psychical investigator and skeptic’.  Compiled by this JuliaHunter, it is entirely inadequate and ignores the lengthy affectionate obituary printed in the May 1954 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) by ‘W.H.S’ (W. H. Salter), though JSPR papers by the Count are listed.  There was a reason why Salter’s obituary could not be used even if JuliaHunter was aware of it, to which I shall come.

Thinking that JuliaHunter was merely gathering information on early SPR Council members I wrote back, referring to the SPR’s online library, the Psypioneer journal, and various academic books I thought she (assuming the writer was a female, something that is not necessarily the case with an online persona) might find worth looking at for her research.  I was surprised to receive a response which read in part:

‘Thanks for the reply, Unfortunately anything in the SPR journal or the Psypioneer (which I have read) and other parapsychology journals cannot be cited on Wikipedia, because they are not considered reliable sources per WP:FRIND or Wikipedia:RS. Also Wikipedia rules on WP:FRINGE balance forbid this sort of thing, this is a mainstream encyclopaedia that deals with reliable academic sources on such topics. This is why SPR journals or other fringe journals should only be mentioned in the "further reading" sections of articles or cited if they are quoted in secondary independent sources which is rare.

‘I have no problem with citing academic books from the SPR like Alan Gauld's or Archie Roy etc. Academic or scholarly books that can be cited on the history of the SPR are Shane McCorristine, Janet Oppenheim, Roger Luckhurst, Trevor Hamilton etc...’

Hence, in the example above, it was fine for the Wikipedia entry to cite Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo’s own JSPR papers in a further reading section, but it could not draw on Salter’s obituary, even if it was more informative, and authoritative, than the secondary sources upon which the Wikipedia article was based (after all, Salter knew him personally).

There was quite a lot more in JuliaHunter’s reply to me, but I knew that she had not accessed the SPR’s publications; she referred to an item in the SPR’s Proceedings, Fraser Nicol’s ‘The Founders of the SPR’, March 1972, pp. 341-367, in these terms:  ‘In Frazer Nichol's (sic) 1972 SPR paper (I have limited access on Google books) The Founders of the S.P.R, he says…’ before going on to talk about her uncertainty over resignations by Spiritualists from the Society in the 1880s.  She was struggling with Google Books despite Nicol’s paper being available in its entirety – not some ‘snippet view’ – in the SPR’s online library.  Later she sent an update which astonished me:

‘I finally managed to find some of the early spiritualists who resigned over the Eglinton affair, the list of names is as follows: Stainton Moses, Dr. Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton, H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:05, 27 March 2016 (UTC)

‘Do you have an academic book that would qualify as a reliable source (Wikipedia:RS) that mentions the above names that resigned? Oppenheim and other scholars have let us down here by not covering this in detail. Unfortunately we can't use the Nichol paper as it is not a reliable source. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:41, 27 March 2016 (UTC)’

That first paragraph sounded familiar.  Nicol had written the following:

‘Much could be said on this matter, but I need only mention that of 51 S.P.R. members who are known to have had sittings with Eglinton only six resigned: Stainton Moses, Dr Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton (Mrs Sidgwick's most ferocious antagonist), H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. One person who in another sense did retire was Eglinton—into private life.’

So JuliaHunter had managed to track down a list of resignations which must have originated in Nicol’s article, as the individuals are listed in the same order.  It sounds like she had experienced difficulty locating it, though it could have been found in the SPR’s online library in minutes – and I would argue that an editor who feels qualified to create and edit Wikipedia articles on the early history of the SPR should have read it already.  However, it is not good enough for Wikipedia as it appears in a source which is ‘fringe’ and consequently not ‘reliable’.

On the other hand, if Oppenheim et al had not ‘let us down’ and one of them had reprinted Nicol’s list of those who had resigned, it would have been acceptable for inclusion in Wikipedia, coming directly from a scholarly volume, even though the ultimate source and the value of the information would have been exactly the same.  What is particularly ironic is that while the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings are peer-reviewed there is no guarantee that a specialist has checked the contents of a book published by an academic press.  Why is one considered legitimate while the other is not?

As to Nicol being deemed not a ‘reliable source’, I have seen a great deal of private correspondence that passed between Fraser Nicol and his colleague Mostyn Gilbert and can confirm that Nicol was a painstaking scholar (as was Gilbert).  He was steeped in psychical research, unlike a couple of the ‘permitted’ authors JuliaHunter mentions who may have written excellent books but who have moved on to other things and do not possess the range and depth  of knowledge of the subject, gathered during a lengthy career, which he had.  Yet his work does not count even though it is more detailed on this point than the respectable Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.  Oppenheim, it should be added, refers to Nicol’s 1972 paper several times, clearly not sharing JuliaHunter’s reservations about it.

In one of her final messages to me JuliaHunter made a point of demonstrating the trustworthy sources she had employed in her Wikipedia article on CC Massey, then made a suggestion I found easy to ignore:

‘Let me give you an example, I created the page Charles Massey. Do you see what I have done there? Cited academic books, not cited any nonsense. This really shouldn't be up to me creating these pages, but nobody else can be bothered. If you could get anyone on board to create such articles that just cite academic books and don't push any fringe nonsense, then this would be appreciated.’

Leaving aside the condescending tone, I was being invited to ask people to contribute to a project which reflexively considers SPR material, however robust in fact, to be inadmissible ‘nonsense’ in Wikipedia terms.  Why I would do that is beyond me.

I had never heard of JuliaHunter before, but assumed she is new to the field.  It has been suggested to me that she is someone who has posted frequently on Wikipedia under a number of pseudonyms, including ‘GoblinFace’.  This individual swoops in, makes a huge number of changes (and a glance at the edit histories for the SPR and parapsychology articles shows how prolific JuliaHunter has been) then goes quiet before resurfacing later in a new guise.  That identification may or may not be accurate, but I think this episode has provided a small but illuminating insight into Wikipedia’s biased regulations.