[Smt-talk] Music theory on Wikipedia

John McKay jzmckay at yahoo.com
Wed Jul 20 20:33:17 PDT 2011

Dear all,

I just read through the thread on Wikipedia, and I thought I would offer some belated thoughts from my experience, given that I spent a while making significant contributions a few years back and ultimately decided it wasn't worth my time.  I agree that professional music theorists should do *something*, but my contributions these days are limited to anonymous comments on talk pages when I think an article is really bad.

I don't mean the following to be discouraging to people considering making contributions.  But I think it's good to be prepared, because it's not just as easy as writing good content and clicking "save."  In particular, new users are often viewed with greater suspicion these days, and they are more likely to have their contributions reverted.

Wikipedia's content on science and math is generally good, though always subject to random vandalism -- really, don't rely on *anything* you read -- I've seen vandals go through and change random digits in dates in articles.  Many vandals are quite subtle.  Usually a lot of vandalism is reverted these days automatically by bots, but articles can often exist for days, weeks, or even longer without being corrected (particularly if they are off the radar of most editors).  The few studies on Wikipedia's accuracy that I've seen don't adequately assess the problems outside the mainstream science and math core (along with bios on major historical figures and other high profile topics).  Big controversial subjects get a lot of attention, and the editing wars are very public, but there are lots of little wars going on among editors in many low-profile articles, whether it's bending the article to fit a particular user's ideology (or ignorance of the
mainstream opinion of a field), or simply trying to maintain a little "fiefdom" of articles.

To respond to a few things mentioned in the thread:

First, be aware that it isn't true that "nothing will ever be deleted" from Wikipedia.  There are groups of editors and admins who identify with groups known as "deletionists" and "inclusionists."  The latter editors want Wikipedia to be broad and fairly all-encompassing, and how could you not think that is already true of an encyclopedia with entire articles devoted to, e.g., every episode of many television series, random comic book characters, etc.?

Nevertheless, some editors and admins actively go around deleting articles that do not conform to Wikipedia's vague and inadequate "notability" guidelines, and deleted articles are *GONE*, along with all of their page histories (except for the deletion discussion debate, if it exists).  Most of the time, only admins can restore a deleted article; regular users will often not be aware that the article even existed, or if it did, anything about its history.

I've read of quite a few incidents and know people who spent hours writing up a new article only to have it summarily deleted for not satisfying notability guidelines, or for not including proper sources, or for being a "stub."  If you do put in the time to write a new article, be sure to save your work elsewhere and perhaps be prepared to fight to have it reinstated.  There are groups of editors who call themselves the "new article squad" who dedicate their time to sorting through newly created articles and deleting them.  They often are not that discerning, particularly for articles from editors who haven't contributed much to Wikipedia before.

I find the discussion about whether to delete the main article on set theory in music to be particularly interesting, since its "notability" was questionable in the early years on Wikipedia:


Another thing to mention is Dmitri's point regarding random teenagers.  It's not just random teenagers you have to worry about.  There are loads of (adult) editors and even admins out there who think they know a lot about how music works, and they will go to battle over ridiculous things.  If you spend any significant time contributing, you will eventually need to start learning all of the quotable Wikipedia policies, which may help you to "Wikilawyer" your case in a confrontation.  Wikipedia has a massive bureaucracy composed of thousands of pages of debates on all sorts of things dealing with the methodology they are trying to follow in their encyclopedia, and users who have been around for a while will try to make use of stated policies.  Of course, at its heart, Wikipedia is an anarchy -- it also has a policy WP:IAR, i.e., "Ignore All Rules," so good luck -- if you end up against a crowd and can't get powerful admins on your side, you probably
will just lose.


In fact, admins can often be a major problem too, particularly when they think they know something about a topic.  There are many editors on Wikipedia who make a name for themselves by doing lots of "grunt work" -- cleaning up grammar and style, correcting spelling, fixing organization, etc.  But many of those editors will also trade on their reputation to try to push an agenda (or simply their own opinion) in some articles or subjects of particular interest to them.

If you'd like to see an extreme example of how "wars" break out in this way, here's an example that speaks of how Wikipedia was having difficulty bridging the gap of understanding between an admin from one country (who is not a music scholar) and the rest of the world:


This debate should perhaps serve as a good introduction to how crazy things can get on Wikipedia.

The problem has to do with labeling of a cadential 6/4, which we could obviously have arguments about on this list.  In the end, this argument seemed to be about one admin against a bunch of other people.  Most people wanted to present multiple notations that are used in various textbooks; the admin wanted only one, because he believed that it was the only "correct" one from his conception of pure logic.  Citations were of little help in this argument. 

Anyhow, I could go on about various other issues with the Wikipedia bureaucracy, as well as various flaws and problems that new editors might run into -- but I'll stop here.  Ultimately, after having quite a few arguments with various editors, I decided it wasn't worth my time.

By the way -- if you do want to make contributions without encountering as many problems, I might start with more advanced esoteric subjects in music theory (as others have suggested).  If you provide a few citations (preferably online ones) and link to other Wikipedia topics where appropriate, only hard-core music theory editors are likely to bother you.

If you start trying to edit any general music topic or a music theory concept that might be found in somebody's random guitar theory book or something, be prepared to do battle occasionally.

Lastly, to answer someone's question about scholars getting paid or whatever, that's unlikely -- but there have been attempts to get credentialed scholars to sign up to write and review articles in a collaborative model, Citizendium being the most notable.  There you wouldn't be likely to have your contributions overruled or overwritten by some other random teenager.  But none of these projects ever really took off, and even Citizendium has stagnated lately.


Please don't think you're going to change major Wikipedia policies in this regard; they are not going to shift to a model that respects credentialed authorities or that requires real names for contributions or whatever -- at least not anytime soon.  Those sorts of debates go on at high levels across Wikipedia; just start browsing around various administrative policy pages before thinking that any movement on a big issue like that is feasible.

Good luck to anyone entering the Wikipedia community!  May your experience be more pleasant than mine.  Oh, and if you don't want to deal with this stuff yourself, I also recommend the idea of an "assignment" for students to write a Wikipedia article; I know some colleague who have found that to be a great approach.

-John McKay

Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory
Harvard University

--- On Thu, 7/14/11, kos at panix.com <kos at panix.com> wrote:

> From: kos at panix.com <kos at panix.com>
> Subject: [Smt-talk] Music theory on Wikipedia
> To: smt-talk at societymusictheory.org
> Date: Thursday, July 14, 2011, 11:56 AM
> Those of you who read my posts on
> AMS-L (the email discussion list of the American
> Musicological Society) might recall that I and a few others
> are enthusiastic about harnessing the power of Wikipedia for
> our disciplines.
> As a librarian, I tend not to think of Wikipedia as a
> resource except for hard-to-find people or topics which are
> not covered in standard reference sources. 
> (Confession:  I do contribute articles on topics which
> I don't find sufficiently covered elsewhere.)
> But I am in the minority.  As recent discussions at
> the American Library Association have revealed, after
> Google, Wikipedia is one of the 5 most used resources on the
> web throughout the world.
> Some of us may find it difficult to understand that people
> born into a world where the Internet is a given will not
> think of consulting Grove/Oxford, MGG or other reference
> works first, second, or third.  They will first go to
> Google and Wikipedia.  Many people know that good
> Wikipedia articles supply a good list of sources -- and it
> is these notes & bibliographies that launch people on
> their research - not the bibliographies in Grove/Oxford.
> Where does that leave us, the music theory community? 
> We can either choose to ignore it - which I tend to feel
> will increasingly marginalize us.  Or we can choose to
> engage it, which I feel can benefit those involved in music
> theory in numerous ways.
> Someone had started a "WikiProject Music theory" basing the
> project template on other such projects:
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Music_theory
> (See also the discussion page)
> When it was found that the founder was plagierizing
> articles, he was banned.  So despite stil having a few
> members, the project is dormant, waiting for energetic
> individuals to climb aboard and create/improve articles on
> music theory.
> It seems to me to be a great opportunity for subscribers of
> SMT-TALK to contribute content to Wikipedia.  In so
> doing, music theory has an opportunity to raise its standing
> among humanities.
> Bob Kosovsky, Ph.D. -- Curator, Rare Books and
> Manuscripts,
> Music Division, The New York Public Library for the
> Performing Arts
> blog:  http://www.nypl.org/blog/author/44   Twitter:
> @kos2
>   Listowner: OPERA-L ; SMT-TALK ; SMT-ANNOUNCE ;
> SoundForge-users
> --- My opinions do not necessarily represent those of my
> institutions ---
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