Recently, I wrote a post outlining some concerns that have emerged around the claims surrounding Jack Andraka, whose story is often cited by open access (OA) and lay science advocates to show that OA can benefit lay people and drive important scientific discoveries.
The purpose of that post was not to attack a promising young person, but to penetrate the fog of mythology that has sprung up around his purported accomplishments. His story has been exploited by the media and others to advance pre-determined agendas. One new example includes a recent attempt at fundraising by Creative Commons.
The post touched a raw nerve among some. This time, instead of being called nasty names or threatened with lawsuits because we offended someone’s finer sensibilities, the Scholarly Kitchen and the Society for Scholarly Publishing were attacked in a manner befitting the Internet Age — via Wikipedia.
Harassed on Wikipedia by a Disgruntled Commentator
One part of my Andraka post discussed some of the edits to Andraka’s page on Wikipedia, which were self-referencing and showed a history of excising critical citations and text. Toward the end of the day on Tuesday, January 7, I was receiving a stream of prosecutorial comments from a user identified as “ech,” who took exception to the phrasing in the statements about these edits. Fair enough — language can often be imprecise, and the written word can be interpreted by different readers in different ways. I did my best to explain the intent behind what I had written, realized we had an intractable difference of opinion, and went to bed.
The commentator known as “ech” turned out to be Erik Haugen, a Google employee and a long-time Wikipedia editor. Following our exchange, Haugen apparently deleted the Wikipedia pages for the Scholarly Kitchen and the SSP.
There was a lot of discussion and a wearying amount of back and forth over the course of the day.
Some argued that Haugen was technically correct in what he was doing, even if his motivation and goals were both questionable. In a particularly bizarre exchange on another blog, Haugen admitted deleting the pages would be “a ridiculous and inappropriate response to the article.”
Ultimately, the Scholarly Kitchen page was reinstated in a heavily edited form, while the SSP page was restored in a skeletal form. Notably, the editing on both pages introduced typos, incorrect information, and incomplete information.
Haugen apologized in that sort of obtuse style that leaves some room for doubt, in an exchange on Wikipedia about how he handled the deletions:
I really regret how long these were blanked/deleted for. That, among other things I did here, has really contributed to a feeling of hostility. I should have realized my actions came across that way and done things differently; I’m sorry about that.
All this seemed to be just a tempest in a teapot. But it gave me pause about two things — bullying and the editorial controls of Wikipedia.
This was a novel form of bullying — putting someone’s Wikipedia pages under the microscope just because you don’t like what they’ve said somewhere else. Haugen’s motivations are unclear, but it’s difficult to see this as anything other than a petty attempt at revenge.
Which brings us to the editorial controls of Wikipedia itself, which are almost completely impenetrable to anyone outside the small number of obsessive-compulsives who perform nearly all the edits on the site. What started as an attempt to create a completely open resource with no management structure has evolved into a “crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers.” Consequently, Wikipedia is losing editors, and experts are regularly vowing never to bother wasting their time contributing to a site that seems more interested in enforcing arcane rules than in collecting knowledge. I’ll add myself to that list.
It’s sad, because I’ve been very hopeful for years about Wikipedia’s potential, and a regular donor until last year, when my attempts to add factual information to the Scholarly Kitchen entry led to my banishment for these self-same arcane and rigid reasons. Rather than seeking a constructive solution, the editors I encountered in that instance were more interested in asserting themselves and Wikipedia rules than in adding to the knowledge base in the resource.
At the end of the day, when evaluating the potential harm to SSP and the Scholarly Kitchen from this, we discovered that Wikipedia provides so little traffic and exposure that its effect is immaterial. There’s no reason to give a Wikipedia editor, who seems accountable to nobody in particular, leverage over anything we do. While getting an entry on Wikipedia was at one time desirable because the theory was all about social media, search engine optimization, traffic, and legitimacy, my take-away is that any gains in these areas are probably meager, while the risk of having your presence on Wikipedia leveraged against you by untrained, unreliable, and unconstrained Wikipedia editors is high.
Even Andraka Feels His Story Has Taken On a Life of Its Own
Another complaint about my blog post was that I shouldn’t have questioned, and thereby diminished, Andraka’s claimed accomplishments. Well, it turns out that many, including Andraka himself, now see that his initial claims were too grand and have been blown out of proportion.
In an excellent article published January 8, 2014, in Forbes, Matthew Herper, who runs the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of interesting young innovators to watch, gave Andraka’s claims a bit more scientific scrutiny:
I decided not to include Andraka on the list, overriding the recommendation of an expert judging panel, because the work was not yet published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is by published work that scientists are judged. I still think this was the right decision. In fact, when Andraka volunteered to share a draft of a paper that he does plan to submit to a scientific journal, my concerns deepened.
After sending a draft of Andraka’s as-yet-unpublished paper to five scientists in related fields, Herper’s conclusion is this:
The consensus: Andraka’s sensor is a probably a publishable piece of science that could eventually appear in a journal, and was a remarkable achievement for a high school student. But it falls far short of changing science and is only a small step toward developing a workable cancer diagnostic.
Andraka himself has learned that his claims are much more modest than the media and others have led us to believe:
“While promising, the project really was extremely preliminary and is by no means as sophisticated as some stories say it is,” Andraka writes me [Herper] via email. “I realize that in retrospect that it was just a high school science fair project and it was a proof of concept experiment and initially I thought that it could get on the market in 1-2 years however I’ve learned so much over the course of this journey and realized that it will in reality take a lot longer than this.”
Andraka is clearly a gracious and talented young man swept up in events he couldn’t have anticipated. I like Herper’s conclusion, which is really why there is such a problem in exaggerating Andraka’s accomplishments in order to exploit them for self-serving purposes or attacking anyone who questions them and the limitations that have been emerging:
In one of the first stories about Andraka, Forbes Managing Editor Bruce Upbin asked: “Wait, Did This 15-Year-Old From Maryland Just Change Cancer Treatment?” Nineteen months later, I feel safe answering: No, he didn’t. And I think it’s unfair to him, and to the work he did do, that we expected him to. Because what he did — creating a cool biosensor while still in high school — was pretty neat on its own.
So, let’s stop exaggerating, exploiting, twisting, and misrepresenting this young man’s work to suit a particular goal or narrative. If a cause is worth supporting, let it be judged on its merits, rather than trying to smuggle virtues in through myths based on unexamined claims.
(Hat tip to BH for the Forbes link.)