I am trying very hard to become a contributing member of the 21st Century. In the classes I teach at the University of North Texas, I maintain the requirement that, at a minimum, legitimate citations must meet the following criteria: 1) have an identifiable author, 2) have an identifiable editor unique from the author, and 3) be locatable within five minutes using only the citation information provided.
Despite these rules, my students insist on citing Wikipedia articles (which don’t typically meet criteria #1 or #2), and I am forced to take points off their assignments for illegitimate referencing. Nonetheless, the beauty of Wikipedia is that is meets criterion #3 so well - finding the information sought is easy. When I search for engineering topics and concepts, more often than not, the top hit is a Wikipedia article. Realizing that I am a member of the last generation that remembers a time before the personal computer was mainstream, in my lifetime the definition of a “legitimate technical reference” will likely be strongly influenced by engineering professionals younger than me who never knew a world without computers. Therefore, I resolved to attempt to understand why Wikipedia is so compelling by learning how to write my own article.
An excellent article topic was readily available. In January 2010, top undergraduate students of UNT’s Mechanical and Energy Engineering Department banded together to found Sigma Sigma Pi, the nation’s first Greek letter academic honor society for energy engineering. Given the extensive list of articles on similar honor societies already posted on Wikipedia, an article describing formation of the energy engineering honors society seemed germane and low-risk.
So, I wrote my article, adhering to Wikipedia’s guidelines to the best of my ability, citing legitimate references that prove the existence of Sigma Sigma Pi, including the UNT Council of Engineering Organizations member societies roster and the UNT Student Activities Center list of recognized student organizations.
Fifteen minutes after submitting my Sigma Sigma Pi article for review by Wikipedia administrators, the article was declined for failing to adhere to “Speedy Deletion Criteria A7 - No indication of importance.” What? Surely the nation’s first Greek letter energy engineering academic honor society deserves at least as much Wikipedia bandwidth as Epsilon Tau Pi, the collegiate honor society for Eagle Scouts. (By the way, I am both an Eagle Scout and a member of multiple collegiate honors societies, and I can’t believe something as nonsensical as ΕΤΠ exists AND has a dedicated Wikipedia article!)
So, I added a paragraph to my article illuminating the importance of ΣΣΠ. Essentially, the spin-off of major new engineering fields from their mother disciplines often coincide with formation of an associated collegiate Greek letter honor society; for example the 1953 formation of Sigma Gamma Tau signaled the emergence of aerospace engineering from its parent fields, and the 1979 formation of Alpha Eta Mu Beta signified the birth of biomedical engineering. Surely, since energy engineering is now emerging as its own academic field, it is important to mark the date of this occurrence by the formation of the associated collegiate honor society - at least that was my augment.
The Wikipedia administrators didn’t buy it, and my Sigma Sigma Pi article was again declined and relegated to Wikipedia purgatory.
To try to understand the underlying reason for this decision, I went to a Wikipedia on-line forum to speak with those mighty administrators who hath so readily and callously smitten my hard and genuine work. According to one Wikipedia Admin, an article cannot be posted unless legitimate sources from the mainstream media, which should be cited, already mention the topic. (By the way, a Google News search for “Epsilon Tau Pi”, the Eagle Scout honor society, reveals not a single mainstream media article.)
Digging deeper, I located and explored the Wikipedia profile of Duncan, the Admin who twice declined my Sigma Sigma Pi article. What I expected was a venerable and seasoned technical editor whose vast life experience and professional knowledge readily qualified him to pass judgment on the legitimacy of my article. Instead, it turns out that Duncan is a 20-year-old Dallas native who appears to be starting his second year in college as a math major. I am left to wonder how this person is qualified to understand the importance of my Sigma Sigma Pi article in enough depth to decline it - twice.
So, my foray into Wikipedia proved unsuccessful, the nation’s first energy engineering honors society remains vilified and absconded in on-line purgatory, and my opinion about the illegitimacy of Wikipedia as a viable technical reference source has been reinforced.