Should I fix this mistake or not? On the ethics of researching Wikipedia

I’ve just finished some of the final edits for an article that will soon be published in has just been published in Translation Studies, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about an ethical dilemma I faced when I was preparing my research. So before I turn to a new project and forget all about this one again, here’s what happened.

The paper focuses a corpus of 94 Wikipedia articles that have been translated in whole or in part from French or Spanish Wikipedia. I wanted to see not just how often translation errors in the articles were caught and fixed, but also how long it took for errors to be addressed. It will probably not come as any surprise that almost all of the articles I studied initially contained both transfer problems (e.g. incorrect words or terms, omissions) and language problems (e.g. spelling errors, syntax errors), since they were posted on Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English, which lists articles that are included in English Wikipedia but which contain content in another language, content that requires some post-translation editing, or both. Over the course of the two years leading up to May 2013, when I did the research, some of the errors I found in the initial translations were addressed in subsequent versions of the articles. In other cases, though, the errors were still there, even though the page had been listed as needing “clean-up” for weeks, months, or even years.

And that’s where my ethical dilemma arose: should I fix these problems? It would be very simple to do, since I was already comparing the source and target texts for my project, but it felt very much like I would be tampering with my data. For instance, in the back of my mind was the thought that I might want to conduct a follow-up study in a year or two, to see whether some of the errors had been resolved with more time. If I were to fix these problems, I wouldn’t be able to check on the status of these articles later, which would prevent me from finding out more about how quickly Wikipedians resolve translation errors.

And yet, I was torn, partly due to a Bibliotech podcast I’d listened to a few years ago that made a compelling argument for improving Wikipedia’s content:

When people tell me that they saw something inaccurate on Wikipedia, and scoff at how poor a source it is, I have to ask them: why didn’t you fix it? Isn’t that our role in society, those of us with access to good information and the time to consider it, isn’t it our role to help improve the level of knowledge and understanding of our communities? Making sure Wikipedia is accurate when we have the chance to is one small, easy way to contribute. If you see an error, you can fix it. That’s how Wikipedia works.

In the end, I didn’t make any changes, but this was mainly because I didn’t have the time. I didn’t want to tamper with my data while I was writing the paper, and after I had submitted it, I didn’t get around to going back through the list of errors I’d compiled to starting editing articles. Most of the corrections would have been for very minor problems, such as changing a general word (“he worked for”) to a word that more specifically reflected the source text (“he volunteered for”), or changing incorrect words for better translations, although the original version would have given users the gist of the meaning (e.g. “the caves have been exploited” vs. “the caves have been mined”). I had trouble justifying the need to invest several hours correcting details that wouldn’t really affect the overall meaning of the text, and yet this question still nagged at me. So I thought that instead I would write a blog post to see what others thought: what is more ethical, making the corrections myself, or leaving the articles as they are, to see how they change over time without my influence?

One thought on “Should I fix this mistake or not? On the ethics of researching Wikipedia

  1. I think you did the right thing, Julie, not changing the data. And for TWO reasons.

    1. The general principle of not risking the validity of the research by tampering with the data.

    2. The more specific reason that the changes you were tempted to make would have involved your own subjective judgments on the translations. Others might not agree with your criticisms.

    All the best,

    Brian

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