Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My writing style and the use of Wikipedia

I am aiming this book at the average person who knows little about environmental science. I therefore hope to publish it in a popular press, not a specialized academic press. In addition, I would like to make it available as an inexpensive PDF file. To make the material accessible to a larger audience I am writing the book in an informal, conversational tone, using the first and second person and active voice, rather than the third person and passive voice like the scientific literature.

I have used Wikipedia quite a lot for my preliminary research. However, I recognize the need to fact-check, i.e., check the original sources to verify the claims, and cite those sources in the final version. Wikipedia makes this easy because it usually contains hyperlinks to the original sources. The need to check sources was well-illustrated by an AP story on May 12, 2009, in which an Irish college student posted a fake quote on the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the composer died (see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30699302/). Many newspapers published the quote, demonstrating that many journalists rely on Wikipedia for information but do not verify the accuracy of that information.  The good news is that Wikipedia editors discovered the fraud within hours of it being posted and deleted it.  My plan has been to use Wikipedia as a preliminary reference; usually I use it to confirm what I already know, and so far, I've found it to be quite accurate. In fact, in 2005 the journal Nature conducted a study comparing science entries in Wikipedia and The Encyclopedia Britannica and found them to have similar levels of accuracy [1]. Wikipedia is especially useful because I can include links to its articles in my blogs, while many of the original sources are not online. During the revision stage of writing my book, I plan to fact-check and cite the original sources rather than Wikipedia. One reason I won't cite Wikipedia in my book is that the content of Wikipedia pages always changes, and future versions of a cited Wikipedia page may not support the claim I make when I cite it.

1. Giles, J., Special Report Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 2005. 438: p. 900-901. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

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