Examining Writing, Authorship and Fact in the Age of Wikipedia

RIT’s Amit Ray explores impact of wikis on public discourse

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Elizabeth LaMark

Amit Ray

The use of wikis, easy-share Web sites that allow multiple users to add and edit content, has exploded over the last decade from intranet sites with few users to massive collaborative, community Web sites with millions of visitors and contributors. This phenomenon is exemplified by the free, online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which claims to be the world’s largest with 13 million articles in 271 languages, written and edited by over 10 million registered users.

Amit Ray, associate professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, is currently examining the impact of these sites on writing quality and credibility as well as the changing concept of authorship.

“New media and digital publishing dramatically challenge long-held conceptions of law, property, credit and authority,” says Ray. “It is safe to say we have not witnessed anything this dramatic since the rise of print culture in the 15th century.”

Ray argues that while the use of wikis has opened up the information generation and sharing process, allowing anyone to be an author, it has raised important questions about the credibility of information, as well as drawing attention to writing quality. While perceived to be lacking the strong editorial component seen in established print sources, if a wiki community is active and engaged, the quality of information and fluency of writing can be very high.

Wikis also challenge concepts of individual authorship and attendant notions of plagiarism. He points out that wikis raise the kinds of questions we should be asking of all forms of information, regardless of source.

“While the idea that anyone can edit an article strikes many as disturbing, given well-defined guidelines and an active community, collaborative authorship can produce writing and content of the highest quality.” Ray notes.

Ray’s work includes a review of current user, company and government policies related to wiki use and digital publishing in general as well as a series of interviews with citizens, authors and publishers working in the medium.

He is also exploring new Web-based models of collaborative authorship; alternative copyright policies being developed for wikis and digital publishing and the impact of digital publishing on cross-cultural translation, dialogue and debate. The work builds on Ray’s previous analysis of Wikipedia, which compared how the author-function differed in this medium versus print publications.

“With the right design and methods, wikis can provide an open, accessible venue that is both a showcase and repository for deep cultural knowledge and memory,” Ray says. “It is my hope that a detailed examination of how this technology is changing publishing will assist in reforming laws and standards to better address the new Web environment and advance the obvious positives this technology provides.”