Another Kick in the Teeth for Wikipedia

For the record, I like Wikipedia just fine, as long as people understand what it is and what it isn’t. What it is: a useful and engaging enterprise in user-generated content about a mind-blowingly diverse range of subjects. What it isn’t: a dependable substitute for a reference work, at least not in many cases. We have touched on this dichotomy here and here and here and here.

The argument in defense of Wikipedia that I find most troubling is that it is self-correcting and self-policing, which is to say that, Hey, in the end all the mistakes and vendettas get fixed by caring and level-headed people. The problem, of course, is that if someone happens to read or cite a Wikipedia entry at a moment when all those things haven’t been fixed, which is obviously a vast, vast, vast majority of the time, then the mistakes get promulgated as fact.

So I was surprised to read in the 9/4/06 issue of Business Week that the U.S. Patent & Trademark office had been using Wikipedia as a source to help determine the validity of patent applications. According to the BW article, “Wikipedia has been cited in patent decisions on everything from car parts to chip designs.”

But as of August 15, the patent office pulled the plug on Wikipedia. “We’ve taken Wikipedia off our list of accepted sources of information,” said Patents Commissioner John Doll. The article also quotes Greg Aharonian, who publishes a patent newsletter and is a longtime critic of the patent office: “I’ve been complaining about this for years. From a legal point of view, a Wiki citation is toilet paper.”

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  1. Holy crap. I can’t believe the USPTO would use Wikipedia as a cited source! This just boggles my mind. I would like to think that most people understand the use of the Wikipedia like you do, but unfortunately many do not.

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  2. Holy crap. I can’t believe the USPTO would use Wikipedia as a cited source! This just boggles my mind. I would like to think that most people understand the use of the Wikipedia like you do, but unfortunately many do not.

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  3. “Hey, in the end all the mistakes and vendettas get fixed by caring and level-headed people”

    Heh heh. Substitute “caring and level-headed people” with “the market.”

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  4. “Hey, in the end all the mistakes and vendettas get fixed by caring and level-headed people”

    Heh heh. Substitute “caring and level-headed people” with “the market.”

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  5. Crosbie says:

    Perhaps if each Wiki contributor could build up a reputation for veracity and accuracy?

    Contributors could still remain anonymous.

    The more reputable the individual, the more they value their reputation and the more they have to lose.

    I’m actually working on a system such as this at the moment – where observers stake their reputation (as in gambling).

    Wikipedia are effectively having to build in a contrived hiearchy as it is. I reckon it would be more egalitarian if this hierarchy evolved organically from tons of mutual ‘micro-agreements’.

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  6. Crosbie says:

    Perhaps if each Wiki contributor could build up a reputation for veracity and accuracy?

    Contributors could still remain anonymous.

    The more reputable the individual, the more they value their reputation and the more they have to lose.

    I’m actually working on a system such as this at the moment – where observers stake their reputation (as in gambling).

    Wikipedia are effectively having to build in a contrived hiearchy as it is. I reckon it would be more egalitarian if this hierarchy evolved organically from tons of mutual ‘micro-agreements’.

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  7. Lars says:

    If the USPTO used wikipedia to check for prior art, there might not be a big problem using it as a source of reference.

    Something published on wikipedia may not be correct in the context of the wikipedia article but it would show that the idea has already been thought of. Articles published in journals (whether they are peer reviewed or not) are used for the same purpose.

    With wikipedia’s roll-back function the USPTO could essentially prove that a concept was thought of and in the public domain before the date of a patent application. This should indicate that a patent could not be issued for that application.

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  8. Lars says:

    If the USPTO used wikipedia to check for prior art, there might not be a big problem using it as a source of reference.

    Something published on wikipedia may not be correct in the context of the wikipedia article but it would show that the idea has already been thought of. Articles published in journals (whether they are peer reviewed or not) are used for the same purpose.

    With wikipedia’s roll-back function the USPTO could essentially prove that a concept was thought of and in the public domain before the date of a patent application. This should indicate that a patent could not be issued for that application.

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