Digital Age/Knowledge Management and Wikis

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The question of what is knowledge becomes even more interesting when we try to apply it. Knowledge Management, as a discipline, lacks a single definition of knowledge. This raises an interesting question - if it isn't possible to form a common definition of knowledge, how is it possible to evaluate a knowledge management system?

To examine this, let's look at three different knowledge management systems that have quite a bit in common, yet, when we apply different understandings of what knowledge is, all reach different results when we try to evaluate them against it. For this we'll use three online encyclopedias: Nupedia, Wikipedia and Citizendium.

A pocket history[edit | edit source]

Nupedia was developed by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales as a free-content encyclopedia, in much the same sense as Wikipedia and Citizendium which were to follow. Wales formulated the concept in 1999, and hired Sanger (who was nearing the completion of his PhD in Epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge) to be the Editor-in-chief. Seemingly informed by traditional peer review models, Sanger, working with a Nupedia board, developed a seven step model for approving material in the encyclopedia. The editor in charge of a topic area, who was required to be highly qualified, was to work with an author whom he or she appointed to write a particular article and a team of reviewers and copywriters in order to develop, evaluate and prepare material for publication. The result was a fairly tortuous approach, especially given that all involved were volunteers – and, indeed, Sanger recommended simplifying the model later in the life of Nupedia.

In January, 2001, with very few articles having progressed through the complete process, the idea emerged to use a Wiki in order to develop material which could then be fed into Nupedia's review process. Thus Wikipedia was born, not as encyclopedia in and of itself, but as a feeder for the Nupedia project. However, the design of Wikipedia was such that its growth soon outstripped that of Nupedia, to the point where Nupedia lost funding and was allowed to quietly pass away, while Wikipedia continued to develop until it reached the stage where it is today.

In spite of its success by any measures, problems emerged with Wikipedia. Wikipedia suffers from a number of issues, not the least of which is the lack of qualified editorial review. Wikipedia relies on the idea of crowdsourcing - huge numbers of people combining their knowledge to create material, rather than a single, knowledgeable person generating each individual article. You also encounter a second problem with Wikipedia – as all articles are in a state of flux, constantly being modified over time, it is difficult to know if any particular version of an article is accurate.

To counter this, after leaving the Wikipedia project, Larry Sanger founded Citizendium. Citizendium, like Wikipedia, uses a wiki to allow for collaborative development. But unlike Wikipedia, not everyone can edit - contributors need to apply, presenting their qualifications as part of the process. In addition, those with acknowledged expertise in a topic area can "approve" versions of articles, and these approved versions are recognised as such. Thus, in theory readers can be confident that an approved version has been checked by an expert and therefore is unlikely to contain errors.

Evaluating with the standard definition of knowledge[edit | edit source]

We've been discussing a definition of knowledge based on Justified True Belief. So, let's try evaluating these three projects against that definition. To start with, how do they handle belief?

Belief[edit | edit source]

Belief is a tricky concept when evaluating knowledge management systems. Clearly, encyclopedias don't have beliefs of their own - that is something we reserve for thinking beings such as ourselves. In one sense, this means that these projects can't contain knowledge, because they don't have beliefs. However, there is another sense in which we can interpret belief - the ability to create beliefs in readers. It is viable to argue that knowledge management systems don't contain knowledge as such, but that they are able to manage knowledge by storing information (or data) that becomes knowledge in users of the system. In this sense, do these three systems have the ability to create beliefs?

I'm inclined to answer that they all do, to varying degrees. However, the extent to which people believe what they read in the three projects is likely to vary based on the answer to the next two questions, so I'm putting that one aside while we move on.

Justification[edit | edit source]

There are a few means by which "justification" can be interpreted. But for this discussion, the focus is on a simple idea: if these projects are going to provide or create knowledge, does the end user (the reader) have justification for believing the information contained therein?

There are a few means by which justification can be provided. One of them is justification by authority. If someone who should know something tells it to you, you can generally feel justified in believing that it is true. Thus if I ask a good friend for his or her phone number, and they tell it to me, I have justification for believing that I now know their number. I might not - it might be the wrong number, either because they made an error or because they deliberately wanted to give me the wrong one - but that comes down to the truth condition. I am still justified in believing that it is true, even if I might be wrong. Justification by authority is a major part of Citizendium and Nupedia. Both systems employed experts to write the material: in Nupedia's case as the author, reviewer and editor, and in Citizendium as some of the authors and, most importantly, as the approvers. Thus the reader can feel that the material is justified because an expert has written and/or approved what is being presented.

Wikipedia has a much harder time. While some authors on Wikipedia are experts, (for example, the UNU-MERIT survey found that a majority of editors on Wikipedia self-identified as experts in the field that they were working), the pseudo-anonymous status of contributors on Wikipedia, and the motto "the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit", provide little reason to be confident that this is the case. For even if it is true that the majority of editors are experts, there are still questions that can't be answered. After all, you can't tell if someone is an expert, even if they claim to be one; their area of expertise may not extend to the specific matters that they are editing; and there is no way to you tell that the particular person who added the material you are reading right now was an expert, even if the majority of the material was written by one.