Sunday, July 22, 2007

Citizendium: Where are the women?

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

I know, I know. . . It's a question that gets asked way too frequently when we're talking about technology, but where the hell are the women in the Citizendium project?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Chances are you saw mention of the Wikipedia "expert" spin-off around the time it announced its pilot, and then you didn't hear much else. And, like me, you probably promptly forgot about the project.

This weekend my interest in the project's status was renewed when I stumbled across a mention of Citizendium at Ragesoss 2.02, where Sage Ross reports:

I've been keeping my eye on Citizendium, watching as the edit rate dwindles and the policy discussion about licensing stagnates. I hoped that Citizendium would help establish the legitimacy of experts contributing to the work of open content, and that it develop a mutually beneficial relationship with Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, it seems like Citizendium has missed its chance, and is slowly fading out.

(Sage's fuller analysis of the current status of Citizendium may be found here on Wikipedia. She also points us to a podcast that discusses Wikipedia's possible future place, if any, in the academy.)

And so I've been thinking quite a bit about wikis, the intellectual endeavor as represented in U.S. higher education, the distributed and partial nature of knowledge, and what it means to be a public intellectual--as well as how all of these subjects intersect with women's lives.

You can imagine, therefore, that this is going to be a long post.

Mixed feelings about encyclopedia, online or off

As an academic, I have mixed feelings about creating an encyclopedia on a wiki. On the one hand, I'm thrilled that people are finally realizing that knowledge is distributed--that is, it's constructed by multiple people; it doesn't just spring from the mind of a genius. I like employing collaboratively edited projects in the classroom because they reinforce this idea within students.

On the other hand, my students rarely understand the academy's insistence on "legitimate" academic sources--that is, sources that have passed some kind of critical muster, usually peer review by a panel of experts. Nor do my students understand that encyclopedia articles, are, by their very nature, inappropriate sources for academic papers because they omit more than they include. And what they omit is usually the messy, important stuff.

Many academics felt Citizendium held some promise. As a sort of peer-reviewed form of Wikipedia, it would provide a launching point for our students' research projects, a general but authoritative overview of subjects and academic subfields. Such a project, therefore, would require the focused and sustained participation of academics themselves, for academics tend to trust only other academics because they play by the same professional rules. (For Citizendium's own description of the project, see its "About" page.)

In doing research for this post, I can across very few women who have joined the conversation about Citizendium. The debate over its appropriateness is dominated by men. Even more importantly, in skimming the histories of Citizendium's articles, I saw very few contributions by women editors and writers.

What I did find

To better understand the Citizendium project, you should read founder Larry Sanger's essay "Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge." Here's an excerpt:
The most massive encyclopedia in history—well, the most massive thing often called an encyclopedia—is Wikipedia. But Wikipedia has no special role for experts in its content production system. So, can it be relied upon to get mainstream expert opinion right?

Wikipedia's defenders are capable of arguing at great length that expert involvement is not necessary. They are entirely committed to what I call dabblerism, by which I mean the view that no one should have any special role or authority in a content creation system simply on account of their expertise. I apologize for the neologism, but there is no word meaning precisely this view. I did not want to use "amateurism," since that word is opposed to "professionalism," and the view I want to discuss attacks not the privileges of professionals, per se, but of experts. The issue here is not whether people should make money from their work, but whether their special knowledge should give them some special authority. To the latter, dabblerism says no.

Wikipedia's defenders have a great many arguments for dabblerism: non-experts can create great things; the "wisdom of crowds" makes deference to experts unnecessary; studies appear to confirm this in the case of Wikipedia; there is no prima facie reason to give experts any special role; it is only fair to judge people by what they do, and not by their credentials; and making a role for experts will actually ruin the collaborative process.

Not one of these arguments is any good.

Sanger's primary concern seems to be about the reliability of any project that is built through open editing in which anyone and everyone holds equal authority. Citizendium, he claims, will privilege expertise by putting in place a system for recognizing experts. The one official respondent to the essay who is a woman, Gloria Orrigi, claims that the crux of the dilemma is really the contributors' reputations:
An efficient knowledge system like Wikipedia inevitably will grow by generating a variety of evaluative tools: that its how culture grows, how traditions are created. What is a cultural tradition? A labelling systems of insiders and outsiders, of who stays on and who is lost in the magma of the past. The good news is that in the Web era this inevitable evaluation is made through new, collective tools that challenge the received views and develop and improve an innovative and democratic way of selection of knowledge. But there's no escape from the creation of a "canonical"—even if tentative and rapidly evolving—corpus of knowledge.

Over at Many 2 Many, Clay Shirky questions Sanger's faith in experts:
Sanger’s published opinions seem based on three beliefs:

1. Experts are a special category of people, who can be readily recognized within their domains of expertise.
2. A process of open creation in which experts are deferred to as of right will be superior to one in which they are given no special treatment.
3. Once experts are identified, that deference will mainly be a product of moral suasion, and the only place authority will need to intrude are edge cases.

All three beliefs are false.

There are a number of structural issues with Citizendium, many related to the question of motivation on the part of the putative editors; these will probably prove quickly fatal. More interesting to me, though, is is the worldview behind Sanger’s attitude towards expertise, and why it is a bad fit for this kind of work. Reading the Citizendium manifesto, two things jump out: his faith in experts as a robust and largely context-free category of people, and his belief that authority can exist largely free of expensive enforcement. Sanger wants to believe that expertise can survive just fine outside institutional frameworks, and that Wikipedia is the anomaly. It can’t, and it isn’t.

Concerns about women's interests

Orrigi's comment about the human nature to exclude some people and favor others in any cultural project highlights my own concern. Across time and cultures, women have been deemed, sometimes subtly and frequently explicitly, to be less reliable sources of information. Today in the U.S., women are more populous than men in undergraduate education, but they are yet to be as well represented in graduate programs in the sciences as are men.

In a system where people with Ph.D.s may be favored over those without, and where the accuracy of scientific information is a priority (Sanger cites several scientific examples in his essay, and the major scientific journal Nature published an oft-cited report on the accuracy of scientific information on Wikipedia), it's likely that women's participation in the project may not be as valued or welcomed. After all, as Shirky points out, these experts come to Citizendium from institutional contexts, and their institutions haven't always been friendly to women's interests.

I'm hoping this is an unrealized fear, but history tells me events will probably play out in favor of men's claims of knowledge over women's claims, whether they be those of women writing for Citizendium or women written about in Citizendium. Already Anna Haynes has undertaken a brief comparison and critique of Citizendium's page on respected geneticist Barbara McClintock. She concludes that Citizendium's editors have, in subtle ways, toned down reports of the vitriol aimed at McClintock from the male scientists of her era. (For one snippet of this conversation, see this page from the article's history, with the editor's comment on a description of McClintock's critics: "Harsh skepticism? Are we sure about this?")

There is also the concern that, in adopting the very traditional, rules-bound divisions of the academy--its various disciplines--Citizendium further squeezes out women and people of color, whose concerns have been inadequately represented by most disciplines. (Hence the need for women's studies, Chicana/o studies, African American studies, queer studies, and the like.)

Kali Tal explains her difficulties with Citizendium, race, and gender:
I wrote to colleagues and friends about CZ and invited them to participate -- and especially appealed to African Americanist and feminist scholars, since that is my own area of expertise. I asked, in my announcements, what Wikipedia might have looked like if there were significant participation from black or women scholars from its inception. I assumed -- wrongly -- that Ethnic studies and Women's studies scholars would be welcome at CZ. I was gravely disappointed. We are not welcome, and our disciplines are not welcome. We may participate only if we are willing to subsume our work under the headings of other, "more traditional" disciplines. CZ as conceived of and enforced by Sanger is a strongly conservative endeavor, and adamantly opposed to progressive scholarship.

Sanger apparently responded privately to Tal's characterization of Citizendium; Tal rebuts him here.

Where do we go from here?

Citizendium may, in theory, be a worthwhile endeavor, but in practice it's flawed. (See Liz Losh's thoughts on the subject.) I'm worried about its reproduction of the categories of knowledge of the academy without questioning them. And those categories--in the forms of disciplines and departments and professional societies--traditionally have not strongly welcomed women's participation.

Unfortunately, much critique of Citizendium degenerates into name-calling. See this post and, more importantly, its comments for a prime example of this phenomenon. I wish internet denizens could have civil discussions about such interesting projects.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

dilletantism. That's the word he wants.

I like the openness of wikipedia. I haven't read a huge number of entries but I have read them, used them as a general overview. I certainly don't regard it as an authoritative source but you know, I haven't seen much that was wildly incorrect.

I don't see why experts shouldn't just involve themselves in wikipedia. Encourage their students to involve themselves in wikipedia. A wiki is only as good as the people who contribute. So contribute. For once. Instead of taking our collective academic ball home in a huff, let's play the game.

I think it's an especially promising opportunity to challenge the structures of the academy. I find the fact that men who are academically established are the ones trying to start an expert alternative that will be authoritative rather telling.

last thing, I think encyclopedia articles are really important for students to learn to use. There is no better way to get an initial handle on a topic than to head to a good encyclopedia and read the entry. No, you shouldn't summarize it or use it as your main source in a research paper. But if you're coming to a topic you know little or nothing about? Get an encyclopedia or dictionary and start there. I didn't learn that until I was a graduate student.

Anonymous said...

Why is my bibliography good looking and why are my blogs crap in their reviews? Got any tips?

The History Enthusiast said...

I had no idea that there was such debate over Citizendium. I had heard a while back that it was coming out, but I've never heard its name mentioned since (at least not among my institutional contacts). I will definitely check it out now--thanks for your thoughtful take on this!

Mike said...

Hi Leslie,

I've posted a response on the Citizendium blog. In short, I think you raise a good question, but I'm not sure of the tone you take.

Yours in dialog,