I don’t know of a living soul who views Wikipedia as any type of authoritative resource. Why? Because no single person takes responsibility for any article’s content or quality. Some articles are heavily and well-edited, while others are much less so. At any given moment, you can’t say whether an article you’re reading is the highest-quality version on that topic or not. You can hope it is, but you have no easy way of knowing or telling.

What happens when you edit something going against one of 43 Wikipedia’s esoteric editing rules? (Wikipedia refers to these rules as “policies,” including the gem that every one of the policies can be ignored it if “hinders improving Wikipedia.” I can only assume that’s a relatively subjective standard.) It usually gets reverted fairly quickly. Oh, and you’d better read up on the over 65 style “guidelines” too, because if you violate one of those, you’ll find your edits lost more quickly than you can say “Engorged bureaucracy.”

Wikipedia has gone from “An encyclopedia ANYONE can edit!” to “An encyclopedia that you may be able to edit, if you follow all of our rules and don’t argue with us. Even if you’re an authoritative expert in the field.”

Recently, Gilles Frydman, head of the non-profit cancer support community ACOR asked the Wikipedia editing community that links to e-patient medical communities should be allowed as an exception to the guideline that links to forums should not be allowed. (By the way, this same rule discourages links to any site that requires even a free registration to view the content, ruling out links to most major newspaper articles that could give additional valuable information on the topic.)

To figure out the history of these odd prohibitions against certain types of links to information online, you’d have to dig into 20 archives on this particular policy alone. That’s a nice way to spend your afternoon. Be prepared to do a similar search on any policy you have questions about, because that’s what you’ll constantly be referred to, often without further explanation or comment.

In Gilles’ case, the other editors kept referring to the supposed fact that these are un-authoritative “support groups,” not authoritative information resources. Of course, as has become increasingly clear, even authoritative information sources are rarely as authoritative as we believe they are.

One favorite argument form is to keep reframing your opponent’s position with words and phrases that completely re-define their position in terms that you can more easily argue against. Gilles kept repeating the fact that these online medical communities are valuable information resources, not just support groups. Instead of acknowledging that reality, the other editors kept saying, “No, they do not offer any valuable information to our readership.”

At the end of the ensuing debate, Gilles suggested the following be noted in such online medical communities:

If you or a loved one suffer from a rare condition you should not consider any wikipedia article to be an inclusive source of information regarding that condition. Due to the strict editing guidelines of wikipedia, some of the most useful sources of hard to find information regarding your condition, including all patient communities, cannot be mentioned in any article. In conclusion, wikipedia articles should be neither the first nor the principal source of information to give to a newly diagnosed patient, since wikipedia doesn’t accept, in principle, mention of any patient-generated information because that information is not considered “authoritative”.

Now there’s a guideline I can understand and agree with!

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