Sep 082012

Here is a scary story: after a university professor referred jokingly to two absentee students as “spooks”, he became the subject of allegations of racism despite being well-known for his previous work on civil rights and racial equality. It so happened that the two missing students were African American, a fact of which the professor was unaware.

This Kafkaesque nightmare was the inspiration of a novel, “The Human Stain”, by author Philip Roth. Yet the novel itself became part of a Kafkaesque story on Wikipedia recently. That is because the Wikipedia entry falsely stated that the novel’s inspiration was a New York writer. When Roth asked for the article to be corrected, he was told by a Wikipedia administrator that “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”

Wikipedia’s goals to have facts backed by sources and to not contain original research are laudable. But sometimes, they go a tad too far (to say the least), a situation I ran into myself when contributing minor edits to entries about certain television series. Original research is one thing, but when prima facie evidence that is available for all to check contradicts a “secondary source”, shouldn’t it be obvious that the secondary source is simply wrong?

The story does have a happy ending, though. Now that Roth published an open letter in The New Yorker, the letter itself qualifies as a “secondary source”, and the Wikipedia entry is now updated. But if anything, this resolution just adds to the Kafkaesque surrealism of the story.

 Posted by at 6:06 pm