Supporting the University of Edinburgh's commitments to digital skills, information literacy, and sharing knowledge openly

Month: May 2017

Wikipedia's front page 11 May 2017

Did you know – Mary Susan McIntosh

Did you know that that sociologist, feminist, and campaigner for lesbian and gay rights Mary Susan McIntosh was deported from the U.S. in 1960 for speaking out against the House Un-American Activities Committee?

Mary Susan McIntosh (1936–2013) sociologist, feminist, political activist and campaigner for lesbian and gay rights in the UK. A 1974 colour photograph from her time as a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. CC-BY-SA

Mary Susan McIntosh (1936–2013) sociologist, feminist, political activist and campaigner for lesbian and gay rights in the UK. A 1974 colour photograph from her time as a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. CC-BY-SA

Yesterday this ‘Did You Know‘ fact was on Wikipedia’s front page. The front page is viewed, on average, 25 million times a day.

Mary’s page was only written in March during our International Women’s Day event here at the University of Edinburgh by one of our attendees, Lorna Campbell (read Lorna’s blog article on Mary here).

While her page has only been live on Wikipedia for two months, Mary’s page has now been viewed in excess of 7000 times because a) editors were motivated to address Wikipedia’s gender gap problem where less than 15% of editors are female and less than 17% of biographies are of notable women and b) we felt Mary’s story was important enough that it should be shared on Wikipedia’s front page and introduced to an audience of up to 25 million.

Did you know you could do that? Nominate a page newly created in the last seven days, or significantly expanded on, to be included on Wikipedia’s front page in this way?

View the guidelines for Did You Know here.

The Wikimedia residency at the University of Edinburgh has been as much about demystifying the largest reference work on the internet as anything else so here are some other things I feel are worth knowing in the spirit of ‘did you know‘?:


  • Did you know that Wikipedia works with Turnitin to address issues of plagiarism and copyright violation using the Copyvio tool and that the Dashboard for managing assignments now offers Authorship Highlighting of students’ edits thereby making it easier to visualize and evaluate student work.
  • Did you know that Wikipedia does not want you to cite it? It is a tertiary source; an aggregator of articles with facts backed up from reliable published secondary sources. You can’t cite Wikipedia but you can cite the references it uses. In this way it is reframed as the digital gateway to further research sources.
  • Did you know that Wikipedia editing teaches source evaluation as a core skill hence Wikipedia education assignments help students combat fake news?
  • Did you know that Dr. Alex Chow at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity has developed a script to help assess the word count of Wikipedia articles for use with student assignments?
  • Did you know that only 7% of edits to Wikipedia areconsidered vandalism and that research has found that, unlike other parts of the internet, Wikipedia editing actually de-radicalises its editors of partisan political leanings?
  • Did you know you can learn:
  • Did you know that you can upload openly-licensed longer texts to Wikisource (the free content library) which are transcribed into 100% searchable HTML so that works such as Thomas Jehu’s digitised PhD thesis can be linked to, one click away, from his Wikipedia article or out-of-copyright texts such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on ‘Edinburgh’ (1914) can be enjoyed by new audiences?
  • Did you know that Wikidata, Wikimedia’s repository of structured open data, now has 3 million linked citations added to it which can be queried using the new Scholia tool – a tool to handle scientific bibliographic information? (The Scholia Web service creates on-the-fly scholarly profiles for researchers, organizations, journals, publishers, individual scholarly works, and for research topics. To collect the data, it queries the SPARQL-based Wikidata Query Service).
  • Did you know that you can now add automatically generated citations to millions of books on Wikipedia? Wikipedia editors can now draw on WorldCat, the world’s largest database of books, to generate citations on Wikipedia thanks to a collaboration between OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) and the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikipedia Library program.
  • Did you know that the latest estimates by Crossref show that Wikipedia has risen from the 8th most prolific referrer to DOIs to the 5th. And this is thought to be a gross underestimate of its actual position?
  • Did you know that Altmetric include Wikipedia citations in their impact metrics and that Altmetric automatically picks up on citations through Wikipedia’s citation generator?
  • Did you know that Wikimedia has received a $3 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to make a ‘Structured Commons’ to make freely-licensed images accessible and reusable across the web?
  • Did you know that releasing images through Wikimedia Commons can result in a huge increase in views with detailed metrics about the number of views these images are accruing? E.g. Images released by the Bodleian Library have accrued 218,460,571 views to date.
  • Did you know about the WikiCite initiative? Tidying up the citations on Wikipedia to make a consistent, queryable bibliographic repository enhancing the visibility and impact of research.
  • Did you know that thanks to the new I4OC initiative (April 2017) there exists a collaboration between scholarly publishers, researchers, and other interested parties to promote the unrestricted availability of scholarly citation data? Before I4OC started, publishers releasing references in the open accounted for just 1% of citation metadata collected annually by Crossref. Following discussions over the past months, several subscription-access and open-access publishers have recently made the decision to release reference list metadata publicly. These include: American Geophysical Union, Association for Computing Machinery, BMJ, Cambridge University Press, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, EMBO Press, Royal Society of Chemistry, SAGE Publishing, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley. These publishers join other publishers who have been opening their references through Crossref for some time.
  • Did you know that thanks to Wikidata you can now query, analyse & visualise the largest reference work on the internet? You can also add your research data to combine datasets on Wikidata.
  • Did you know that the University of Portsmouth have been running a Wikipedia assignment called Human Geography for the last five years where each student is assigned a different short stub article for a village in England and Wales, and asked to expand it to provide a rounded description of the place and, in particular, an account of its historical development?
  • Did you know that, so far, they have left Scotland untouched and so there will be many villages and towns in Scotland ripe to have articles created and improved?
  • Did you know that Wikivoyage is Wikipedia’s sister project and a Lonely Planet-esque travel guide? Students can write articles about their hometown area with bullet-pointed sections on ‘Things to do’, ‘Things to See’, ‘Things to Buy’, ‘Places to stay’ with Open Street Maps included and images added from Wikimedia Commons.
  • Did you know how students and staff at the University of Edinburgh have reacted to the Wikipedia in the Classroom assignments we have run this year? You can view a compilation of their feedback in this video.
  • Did you know that students can create entire textbooks, chapters of textbooks, on Wikipedia’s sister project, Wikibooks?
  • Did you know that every September the world’s largest photography competition takes place, Wiki Loves Monuments? Participants are encouraged to photograph and upload images of listed buildings and monuments to document our cultural heritage.
  • Did you know that the WikiShootme tool helps identify notable buildings in your area that require an image uploading?
  • Did you know that taking part in Wikimedia activities does not always require a heavy time component and that short, fun activities can also help: adding a citation through the Citation Hunt tool (“Whack-a-mole for citations”), playing the Wikidata game, adding images through WikiShootMe and FIST; taking part in fun Wiki Races (6 degrees of separation for Wiki links between articles).
  • Did you know that you can become a Wikipedia trainer with our new lesson plan and slide deck (available on
  • Did you know that you can learn how to edit at our 90 minute training sessions and how to become a trainer at our 3 hour Train the Trainer events?
  • Did you know that I can deliver presentations and training as you require; be it on Wikisource (the free content library), Wikidata (the free and open respository of structured data), Wikimedia Commons (the free media respository), the Wikicite initiative, WikiVoyage (the free travel guide), writing articles for Wikipedia, adding your research to Wikipedia or something else entirely?

If you would like to find out more then feel free to contact me at


  • Want to become a Wikipedia editor?
  • Want to become a Wikipedia trainer?
  • Want to run a Wikipedia course assignment?
  • Want to contribute images to Wikimedia Commons?
  • Want to learn more about Wikisource?
  • Want to contribute your research to Wikipedia?
  • Want to contribute your research data to Wikidata?

Sifting fact from fake news – International Worker’s Day

CC BY 2.0-licensed photo by CEA+ | Artist: Nam June Paik, “Electronic Superhighway. Continental US, Alaska & Hawaii” (1995).

Woodward and Bernstein, the eminent investigative journalists involved in uncovering the Watergate Scandal, just felt compelled to assert that the media were not ‘fake news’ at a White House Correspondents Dinner the US President failed to attend. In the same week, Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, felt compelled to create a new site, WikiTribune, to combat fake news.

This is where we are this International Worker’s Day where the most vital work one can undertake seems to be keeping oneself accurately informed.

We live in the information age and the aphorism ‘one who possess information possesses the world’ of course reflects the present-day reality.” – (Vladimir Putin in Interfax, 2016).


Sifting fact from fake news

In the run up to the Scottish council elections, French presidential elections and a ‘strong and stable‘ UK General Election, what are we to make of the ‘post-truth’ landscape we supposedly now inhabit; where the traditional mass media appears to be distrusted and waning in its influence over the public sphere (Tufeckzi in Viner, 2016) while the secret algorithms’ of search engines & social media giants dominate instead?

The new virtual agora (Silverstone in Weichert, 2016) of the internet creates new opportunities for democratic citizen journalism but also has been shown to create chaotic ‘troll’ culture & maelstroms of information overload. Therefore, the new ‘virtual generation’ inhabiting this ‘post-fact’ world must attempt to navigate fake content, sponsored content and content filtered to match their evolving digital identity to somehow arrive safely at a common truth. Should we be worried what this all means in ‘the information age’?

Information Literacy in the Information Age

Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want

and Google defines what we think.”

(Broeder, 2016)

The information age is defined as “the shift from traditional industry that the Industrial Revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on computerization or digital revolution” (Toffler in Korjus, 2016). There are now 3 billion internet users on our planet, well over a third of humanity (Graham et al, 2015). Global IP traffic is estimated to treble over the next 5 years (Chaudhry, 2016) and a hundredfold for the period 2005 to 2020 overall. This internet age still wrestles with both geographically & demographically uneven coverage while usage in no way equates to users being able to safely navigate, or indeed, to critically evaluate the information they are presented with via its gatekeepers (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft et al). Tambini (2016) defines these aforementioned digital intermediaries as “software-based institutions that have the potential to influence the flow of online information between providers (publishers) and consumers”. So exactly how conversant are we with the nature of their relationship with these intermediaries & the role they play in the networks that shape our everyday lives?

Digital intermediaries

Digital intermediaries such as Google and Facebook are seen as the new powerbrokers in online news, controlling access to consumers and with the potential even to suppress and target messages to individuals.” (Tambini, 2016)


Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg may downplay Facebook’s role as “arbiters of truth” (Seethaman, 2016) in much the same way that Google downplay their role as controllers of the library “card catalogue” (Walker in Toobin, 2015) but both represent the pre-eminent gatekeepers in the information age. 62% of Americans get their news from social media (Mint, 2016) with 44% getting their news from Facebook. In addition, a not insubstantial two million voters were encouraged to register to vote by Facebook, while Facebook’s own 2012 study concluded that it “directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour of millions of people.” (Seethaman, 2016)


image003Figure 1 Bodies of Evidence (The Economist, 2016)

This year has seen assertion after assertion made which bear, upon closer examination by fact-checking organisations such as PolitiFact (see Figure 1 above) absolutely no basis in truth. For the virtual generation, the traditional mass media has come to be treated on a par with new, more egalitarian, social media with little differentiation in how Google lists these results. Clickbait journalism has become the order of the day (Viner, 2016); where outlandish claims can be given a platform as long as they are prefixed with “It is claimed that…”

Now no one even tries proving ‘the truth’. You can just say anything. Create realities.” (Pomerantzev in the Economist, 2016)

The problem of ascertaining truth in the information age can be attributed to three main factors:

  1. The controversial line “people in this country have had enough of experts” (Gove in Viner, 2016) during the EU referendum demonstrated there has been a fundamental eroding of trust in, & undermining of, the institutions & ‘expert’ opinions previously looked up to as subject authorities. “We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers…There is nobody: you can’t go to anybody and say: ‘Look, here are the facts’” (Sykes in the Economist, 2016)
  2. The proliferation of social media ‘filter bubbles’ which group like-minded users together & filter content to them accordingly to their ‘likes’. In this way, users can become isolated from viewpoints opposite to their own (Duggan, 2016) and fringe stories can survive longer despite being comprehensively debunked elsewhere. In this way, any contrary view tends to be either filtered out or met with disbelief through what has been termed ‘the backfire effect’ (The Economist, 2016).
  3. The New York Times calls this current era an era of data but no facts’ (Clarke, 2016). Data is certainly abundant; 90% of the world’s data was generated in the last two years (Tuffley, 2016). Yet, it has never been more difficult to find ‘truth in the numbers’ (Clarke, 2016) with over 60 trillion pages (Fichter and Wisniewski, 2014) to navigate and terabytes of unstructured data to (mis)interpret.

The way forward

We need to increase the reputational consequences and change the incentives for making false statements… right now, it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful.”

(Nyhan in the Economist, 2016)

Original image by Doug Coulter, The White House (The White House on Facebook) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Modified by me.

Since the US election, and President Trump’s continuing assault on the ‘dishonest media’, the need for information to be verified has been articulated as never before with current debates raging on just how large a role Russia, Facebook & fake news played during the US election. Indeed, the inscrutable ‘black boxes’ of Google & Facebook’s algorithms constitute a real dilemma for educators & information professionals.

Reappraising information & media literacy education

The European Commission, the French Conseil d’Etat and the UK Government are all re-examining the role of ‘digital intermediaries’; with OfCom being asked by the UK government to prepare a new framework for assessing the intermediaries’ news distribution & setting regulatory parameters of ‘public expectation’ in place (Tambini, 2016). Yet, Cohen (2016) asserts that there is a need for greater transparency of the algorithms being used in order to provide better oversight of the digital intermediaries. Further, that the current lack of public domain data available in order to assess the editorial control of these digital intermediaries means that until the regulatory environment is strengthened so as to require these ‘behemoths’ (Tambini, 2016) to disclose this data, this pattern of power & influence is likely to remain unchecked.

Somewhere along the line, media literacy does appear to have backfired; our students were told that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not (Boyd, 2016). The question is how clicking on those top five Google results instead of critically engaging with the holistic overview & reliable sources Wikipedia offers is working out?

A lack of privacy combined with a lack of transparency

Further, privacy seems to be the one truly significant casualty of the information age. Broeder (2016) suggests that, as governments focus increasingly on secrecy, at the same time the individual finds it increasingly difficult to retain any notions of privacy. This creates a ‘transparency paradox’ often resulting in a deep suspicion of governments’ having something to hide while the individual is left vulnerable to increasingly invasive legislation such as the UK’s new Investigatory Powers Act – “the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy.” (Snowden in Ashok, 2016). This would be bad enough if their public & private data weren’t already being shared as a “tradeable commodity” (Tuffley, 2016) with companies like Google and Apple, “the feudal overlords of the information society” (Broeder, 2016) and countless other organisations.

The Data Protection Act (1998), Freedom of Information Act (2000) and the Human Rights Act (1998) should give the beleaguered individual succour but FOI requests can be denied if there is a ‘good reason’ to do so, particularly if it conflicts with the Official Secrets Act (1989), and the current government’s stance on the Human Rights Act does not bode well for its long-term survival. The virtual generation will also now all have a digital footprint; a great deal of which can been mined by government & other agencies without our knowing about it or consenting to it. The issue therefore is that a line must be drawn as to our public lives and our private lives. However, this line is increasingly unclear because our use of digital intermediaries blurs this line. In this area, we do have legitimate cause to worry.

The need for a digital code of ethics

  • “Before I do something with this technology, I ask myself, would it be alright if everyone did it?
  • Is this going to harm or dehumanise anyone, even people I don’t know and will never meet?
  • Do I have the informed consent of those who will be affected?” (Tuffley, 2016)

Educating citizens as to the merits of a digital code of ethics like the one above is one thing, and there are success stories in this regard through initiatives such as but a joined-up approach marrying up librarians, educators and instructional technologists to teach students (& adults) information & digital literacy seems to be reaping rewards according to Wine (2016). While recent initiatives exemplifying the relevance & need for information professionals assisting with political literacy during the Scottish referendum (Smith, 2016) have found further expression in other counterparts (Abram, 2016).

This challenge is not just for school librarians to prepare the next generation to be informed but for all librarians to assist the whole population.” (Abram, 2016)

Trump’s administration may or may not be in ‘chaos’ but recent acts have exposed worrying trends. Trends which reveal an eroding of trust: in the opinions of experts; in the ‘dishonest’ media; in factual evidence; and in the rule of law. Issues at the heart of the information age have been exposed: there exists a glut of information & a sea of data to navigate with little formalised guidance as to how to find our way through it. For the beleaguered individual, this glut makes it near impossible to find ‘truth in the numbers’ while equating one online news source to be just as valid as another, regardless of its credibility, only exacerbates the problem. All this, combined with an increasing lack of privacy and an increasing lack of transparency, makes for a potent combination.

There is a place of refuge you can go, however. A place where facts, not ‘alternate facts’, but actual verifiable facts, are venerated. A place that holds as its central tenets, principles of verifiability, neutral point of view, and transparency above all else. A place where every edit made to a page is recorded, for the life of that page, so you can see what change was made, when & by whom. How many other sites give you that level of transparency where you can check, challenge & correct the information presented if it does hold to the principles of verifiability?


Now consider that this site is the world’s number one information site; visited by 500 million visitors a month and considered, by British people, to be more trustworthy than the BBC, ITV, the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph according to a 2014 Yougov survey.


While Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website in the world, the other internet giants in the top ten cannot compete with it for transparency; an implicit promise of trust with its users. Some 200+ factors go into constructing how Google’s algorithm determines the top ten results for a search term yet we have no inkling what those factors are or how those all-important top ten search results are arrived at. Contrast this opacity, and Facebook’s for that matter, with Wikimedia’s own (albeit abortive) proposal for a Knowledge Engine (Sentance, 2016); envisaged as the world’s first transparent non-commercial search engine and consider what that transparency might have meant for the virtual generation being able to trust the information they are presented with.

Wikidata (Wikimedia’s digital repository of free, openly-licensed structured data) represents another bright hope. It is already used to power, though not exclusively, many of the answers in Google’s Knowledge Graph without ever being attributed as such.


Wikidata is a free linked database of knowledge that can be read and edited by both humans and machines. It acts as central storage for the structured data of its Wikimedia sister projects including Wikipedia, Wikivoyage, Wikisource, and others. The mission behind Wikidata is clear: if ‘to Google’ has come to stand in for ‘to search’ and “search is the way we now live” (Darnton in Hillis, Petit & Jarrett, 2013, p.5) then ‘to Wikidata’ is ‘to check the digital provenance’. And checking the digital provenance of assertions is pivotal to our suddenly bewildered democracy.

While fact-checking websites exist & more are springing up all the time, Wikipedia is already firmly established as the place where students and staff conduct pre-research on a topic; “to gain context on a topic, to orient themselves, students start with Wikipedia…. In this unique role, it therefore serves as an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web.” (Grathwohl, 2011)

Therefore, it is vitally important that Wikipedia’s users know how knowledge is constructed & curated and the difference between fact-checked accurate information from reliable sources and information that plainly isn’t.

Knowledge creates understanding – understanding is sorely lacking in today’s world. Behind every article on Wikipedia is a Talk page is a public forum where editors hash it out; from citations, notability to truth.” (Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, December 2016)

The advent of fake news means that people need somewhere they can turn to where the information is accurate, reliable and trustworthy. Wikipedia editors have been evaluating the validity and reliability of sources and removing those facts not attributed to a reliable published source for years. Therefore engaging staff and students in Wikipedia assignments embeds source evaluation as a core component of the assignment. Recent research by Harvard Business School has also shown that the process of editing Wikipedia has a profound impact on those that participate in it; whereby editors that become involved in the discourse of an article’s creation with a particular slanted viewpoint or bias actually become more moderate over time. This means editing Wikipedia actually de-radicalises its editors as they seek to work towards a common truth. Would that were true of other much more partisan sectors of the internet.

Further, popular articles and breaking news stories are often covered on Wikipedia extremely thoroughly where the focus of many eyes make light work in the construction of detailed, properly cited, accurate articles. And that might just be the best weapon to combat fake news; while one news source in isolation may give one side of a breaking story, Wikipedia often provides a holistic overview of all the news sources available on a given topic.

Wikipedia already has clear policies on transparency, verifiability, and reliable sources. What it doesn’t have is the knowledge that universities have behind closed doors; often separated into silos or in pay-walled repositories. What it doesn’t have is enough willing contributors to meet the demands of the 1.5 billion unique devices that access it each month in ensuring its coverage of the ever-expanding knowledge is kept as accurate, up-to-date & representative of the sum of all knowledge as possible.

This is where you come in.



It’s up to other people to decide whether they give it any credibility or not,” (Oakeshott in Viner, 2016)

The truth is out there. But it is up to us to challenge claims and to help verify them. This is no easy task in the information age and it is prone to, sometimes very deliberate, obfuscation. Infoglut has become the new censorship; a way of controlling the seemingly uncontrollable. Fact-checking sites have sprung up in greater numbers but they depend on people seeking them out when convenience and cognitive ease have proven time and again to be the drivers for the virtual generation.

We know that Wikipedia is the largest and most popular reference work on the internet. We know that it is transparent and built on verifiability and neutral point of view. We know that it has been combating fake news for years. So if the virtual generation are not armed with the information literacy education to enable them to critically evaluate the sources they encounter and the nature of the algorithms that mediate their interactions with the world, how then are they to make the informed decisions necessary to play their part as responsible online citizens?

It is the response of our governments and our Higher Education institutions to this last question that is the worry.


Postscript – Wikimedia at the University of Edinburgh

As the Wikimedia residency at the University of Edinburgh moves further into its second year we are looking to build on the success of the first year and work with other course leaders and students both inside and outside the curriculum. Starting small has proven to be a successful methodology but bold approaches like the University of British Columbia’s WikiProject Murder, Madness & Mayhem can also prove extremely successful. Indeed, bespoke solutions can often be found to individual requirements.


Time and motivation are the two most frequent cited barriers to uptake. These are undoubted challenges to academics, students & support staff but the experience of this year is that the merits of engagement & an understanding of how Wikipedia assignments & edit-a-thons operate overcome any such concerns in practice. Once understood, Wikipedia can be a powerful tool in an educator’s arsenal. Engagement from course leaders, information professionals and support from the institution itself go a long way to realising that the time & motivation is well-placed.

For educators, engaging with Wikipedia:

  • meets the information literacy & digital literacy needs of our students.
  • enhances learning & teaching in the curriculum
  • helps develop & share knowledge in their subject discipline
  • raises the visibility & impact of research in their particular field.

In this way, practitioners can swap out existing components of their practice in favour of Wikimedia learning activities which develop:

  • Critical information literacy skills
  • Digital literacy
  • Academic writing & referencing
  • Critical thinking
  • Literature review
  • Writing for different audiences
  • Research skills
  • Community building
  • Online citizenship
  • Collaboration.

This all begins with engaging in the conversation.

Wikipedia turned 16 on January 15th 2017. It has long been the elephant in the room in education circles but it is time to articulate that Wikipedia does indeed belong in education and that it plays an important role in our understanding & disseminating of the world’s knowledge. With Oxford University now also hosting their own Wikimedian in Residence on a university-wide remit, it is time also to articulate that this conversation is not going away. Far from it, the information & digital literacy needs of our students and staff will only intensify. Higher Education institutions must need formulate a response. The best thing we can do as educators & information professionals is to be vigilant and to be vocal; articulating both our vision for Open Knowledge & the pressing need for engagement in skills development as a core part of the university’s mission and give our senior managers something they can say ‘Yes’ to.

If you would like to find out more then feel free to contact me at

  • Want to become a Wikipedia editor?
  • Want to become a Wikipedia trainer?
  • Want to run a Wikipedia course assignment?
  • Want to contribute images to Wikimedia Commons?
  • Want to contribute your research to Wikipedia?
  • Want to contribute your research data to Wikidata?


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Search failure – Information Retrieval in an age of Infoglut

Search failure:

The challenges facing information retrieval in an age of information explosion.



This article takes, as its starting point, the news that Wikipedia were reportedly developing a ‘Knowledge Engine’ and focuses on the most dominant web search engine, Google, to examine the “consecrated status” (Hillis, Petit & Jarrett, 2013) it has achieved and its transparency, reliability & trustworthiness for everyday searchers.

A bit of light reading on information retrieval – Own work, CC-BY-SA.

“Commercial search engines dominate search-engine use of the Internet, and they’re employing proprietary technologies to consolidate channels of access to the Internet’s knowledge and information.” (Cuthbertson, 2016)


On 16th February 2016, Newsweek published a story entitled ‘Wikipedia Takes on Google with New ‘Transparent’ Search Engine’. The figure applied for, and granted by the Knight Foundation, was a reported $250,000 dollars as part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s $2.5 million programme to build ‘the Internet’s first transparent search engine’.

The sum applied for was relatively insignificant when compared to Google’s reported $75 billion revenue in 2015 (Robinson, 2016). Yet, it posed a significant question; a fundamental one. Just how transparent is Google?


Two further concerns can be identified from the letter to Wikimedia granting the application: “supporting stage one development of the Knowledge Engine by Wikipedia, a system for discovering reliable and trustworthy public information on the Internet.”(Cuthbertson, 2016). This goes to the heart of the current debate on modern information retrieval: transparency, reliability and trustworthiness? How then are we faring in these three measures?


  1. Defining Information Retrieval

Informational Retrieval is defined as “a field concerned with the structure, analysis, organisation, storage, searching, and retrieval of information.” (Salton in Croft, Metzler & Strohman, 2010, p.1).

Croft et al (2010) identify three crucial concepts in information retrieval:

  • Relevance – Does the returned value satisfy the user searching for it.
  • Evaluation  – Evaluating the ranking algorithm on its precision and recall.
  • Information Needs  – What needs generated the query in the first place.

Today, since the advent of the internet, this definition needs to be understood in terms of how pervasive ‘search’ has become. “Search is the way we now live.” (Darnton in Hillis, Petit & Jarrett, 2013, p.5). We are all now ‘searchers’ and the act of ‘searching’ (or ‘googling’) has become intrinsic to our daily lives.

By Typing_example.ogv: NotFromUtrecht derivative work: Parzi [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Dominance of one search engine


When you turn on a tap you expect clean water to come out and when you do a search you expect good information to come out” (Swift in Hillis, Petit & Jarrett, 2013)


With over 60 trillion pages (Fichter and Wisniewski, 2014) and terabytes of unstructured data to navigate, the need for speedy & accurate responses to millions of queries has never been more important.


Navigating the vast sea of information present on the web means the field of Information Retrieval necessitates wrestling with, and constantly tweaking, the design of complex computer algorithms (determining a top 10 list of ‘relevant’ page results through over 200 factors).


Google, powered by its PageRank algorithm, has dominated I.R. since the early 1990s, indexing the web like a “back-of-the-book” index (Chowdhury, 2010, p.5). While this oversimplifies the complexity of the task, modern information retrieval, in searching through increasingly multimedia online resources, has necessitated the addition of newer more sophisticated models. Utilising ‘artificial intelligence’ & semantic search technology to complement the PageRank algorithm, Google now navigates through the content of pages & generates suggested ‘answers’ to queries as well as the 10 clickable links users commonly expect.


According to 2011 figures in Hillis, Petit & Jarrett (2013), Google processed 91% of searches internationally and 97.4% of the searches made using mobile devices. This undoubted & sustained dominance has led to accusations of abuse of power in two recent instances.


Nicas & Kendall (2016) report that the Federal Trade Commission along with European regulators are examining claims that Google has been abusing its position in terms of smartphone companies feeling they had to give Google Services preferential treatment because of Android’s dominance.


In addition, Robinson (2016) states that the Authors Guild are petitioning the Supreme Court over Google’s alleged copyright-infringement; going back a decade ago when over 20 million library books were digitised without compensation or author/publisher permission. The argument is that the content taken has since been utilised by Google for commercial gain to generate more traffic, more advertising money and thus confer on them market leader status. This echoes the New Yorker article’s response to Google’s aspiration to build a digital universal library: “Such messianism cannot obscure the central truth about Google Book Search: it is a business” (Toobin in Hillis, Petit & Jarrett, 2013).


  1. PageRank

Google’s business is powered, like every search engine, by its ranking algorithm. For Cahill et al (2009), Google’s “PageRank is a quantitative rather than qualitative system”.  PageRank works by ranking pages in terms of how well linked a page is, how often it is clicked on and the importance of the page(s) that links to it. In this way, PageRank assigns importance to a page.


Other parameters are taken into consideration including, most notably, the anchor text which provides a short descriptive summary of the page it links to. However, the anchor text has been shown to be vulnerable to manipulation, primarily from bloggers, by the process known as ‘Google bombing’. Google bombing is defined as “the activity of designing Internet links that will bias search engine results so as to create an

inaccurate impression of the search target” (Price in Bar-Ilan, 2007).  Two famous examples include when Microsoft came as top result for the query ‘More evil than Satan’ and when President Bush ranked as first result for ‘miserable failure’. Bar-Ilan (2007) suggests google bombs come about for a variety of reasons: ‘fun, ‘personal promotion’, ‘commercial’, ‘justice’, ‘ideological’ and ‘political’.


Although reluctant to alter search results, the reputational damage google bombs were having necessitated a response. In the end, Google altered the algorithm to defuse a number of google bombs. Despite this, “spam or joke sites still float their way to the top.”(Cahill et al, 2009) so there is a clear argument to be had about Google, as a private corporation, continuing to ‘tinker’ with the results delivered by its algorithm and how much its coders should, or should not, arbitrate access to the web in this way. After all, the algorithm will already bear hallmarks of their own assumptions without any transparency on how these decisions are arrived at. Further, Google Bombs, Byrne (2004) argues, empower those web users whom the ranking system, for whatever reason, has disenfranchised.


Just how reliable & trustworthy is Google?


Easy, efficient, rapid and total access to Truth is the siren song of Google and the culture of search. The price of access: your monetizable information.”(Hillis, Petit & Jarrett, 2013, p.7)

For Cahill et al (2009), Google has made the process of searching too easy and searchers have becoming lazier as a result; accepting Google’s ranking at face value. Markland in van Dijck (2010) makes the point that students favouring of Google means they are dispensing with the services libraries provide. The implication being that, despite library information services delivering a more relevant & higher quality search result, Google’s quick & easy ‘fast food’ approach is hard to compete with.

This seemingly default trust in the neutrality of Google’s ranking algorithm also has a ‘funnelling effect’ according to Beel & Gipp (2009); narrowing the sources clicked upon 90% of the time to just the first page of results with a 42% click through on the first choice alone. This then creates a cosy consensus in terms of the fortunate pages clicked upon which will improve their ranking while “smaller, less affluent, alternative sites are doubly punished by ranking algorithms and lethargic searchers.” (Pan et al. in van Dijck, 2010)


While Google would no doubt argue that all search engines closely guard how their ranking algorithms are calibrated to protect them from aggressive competition, click fraud and SEO marketing, the secrecy is clearly at odds with principles of public librarianship. Further, Van Dijck (2010) argues that this worrying failure to disclose is concealing how knowledge is produced through Google’s network and the commercial nature of Google’s search engine. After all, search engines greatest asset is the metadata each search leaves behind. This data can be aggregated and used by the search engine to create profiles of individual search behaviour and collective profiles which can then be passed on to other commercial companies for profit. That is not to say it always does but there is little legislation to stop it in an area that is largely unregulated. The right to privacy does not, it seems, extend to metadata and ‘in an era in which knowledge is the only bankable commodity, search engines own the exchange floor.’ (Halavais in van Dijck, 2010)

The University of Edinburgh by Mihaela Bodlovic – (CC-BY-SA)


  1. Scholarly knowledge and the reliability of Google Scholar

When considering the reliability, transparency & trustworthiness of Google and Google Scholar it is pertinent to look at its scope and differences with other similar sites. Unlike Pubmed and Web of Science, Google Scholar is not a human-curated database but is instead an internet search engine therefore its accuracy & content varies greatly depending on what has been submitted to it.  Google Scholar does have an advantage is that it searches the full text of articles therefore users may find searching easier on Scholar compared to WoS or Pubmed which are limited to searching according to the abstract, citations or tags.

Where Google Scholar could be more transparent is in its coverage as some notable publishers have been known, according to van Dijck (2010), to refuse to give access to their databases. Scholar has also been criticised for the lack of completeness of its citations, as well as its covering of social science and humanities databases; the latter an area of strength for Wikipedia according to Park (2011). But the searcher utilising Google Scholar would be unaware of these problems of scope when they came to use it.

Further, Beel & Gipp (2009) state that the ranking system on Google Scholar, leads to articles with lots of citations receiving higher rankings, and as a result, receive even more citations because of this. Hence, while the digitization of sources on the internet opens up new avenues for scholarly exploration, ranking systems can be seen to close ranks on a select few to the exclusion of others.

As Van Dijck (2010) points out: “Popularity in the Google-universe has everything to do with quantity and very little with quality or relevance.” In effect, ranking systems determine which sources we can see but conceal how this determination has come about. This means that we are unable to truly establish the scope & relevance of our search results. In this way, search engines cannot be viewed as neutral, passive instruments but are instead active “actor networks” and “co-producers of academic knowledge.” (van Dijck, 2010).

Further, it can be argued that Google decides which sites are included in its top ten results. With so much to gain commercially, from being discoverable on Google’s first page of results, the practice of Search Engine Optimising (SEO), or manipulating the algorithm to get your site in the top ten search results, has become widespread. SEO techniques can be split into ‘white hat’ (legitimate businesses with a relevant product to sell) and ‘black hat’ (sites who just want clicks and tend not to care about the ‘spamming’ techniques they employ to get them). As a result, PageRank has to be constantly manipulated, as with Google bombs, to counteract the effects of increasingly sophisticated ‘black hat’ techniques. Hence, the need for an improved vigilance & critical evaluation of the searches returned by Google has become a crucial skill in modern information retrieval.


  1. The solution: Google’s response to modern information retrieval – Answer Engines

Google is the great innovator and is always seeking newer, better ways of keeping users on its sites and improving its search algorithm. Hence, the arrival of Google Instant in 2010 to autofill suggested keywords to assist searchers. This was followed by Google’s Knowledge Graph (and its Microsoft equivalent Bing Snapshot). These new services seek not just to provide the top ten links to a search query but also to ‘answer’ it by providing a number of the most popular suggested answers on the page results screen (usually showing an excerpt of the related Wikipedia article & images along the side panel), based on, & learning from, previous users’ searches on that topic.

Google’s Knowledge Graph is supported by sources including Wikipedia & Freebase (and the linked data they provide) along with a further innovation, RankBrain, which utilises artificial intelligence to help decipher the 15% of queries Google has not seen before. As Barr (2016) recognises: “A.I. is becoming increasingly important to extract knowledge from Google’s sea of data, particularly when it comes to classifying and recognizing patterns in videos, images, speech and writing.”

Bing Snapshot does much the same. The difference being that Bing provides links to the sources it uses as part of the ‘answers’ it provides. Google provides information but does not attribute it. Without this, it is impossible to verify their accuracy. This seems to be one of the thorniest issues in modern information retrieval; link decay and the disappearing digital provenance of sources. This is in stark contrast to Wikimedia’s efforts in creating Wikidata: “an open-license machine-readable knowledge base” (Dewey 2016) capable of storing digital provenance & structured bibliographic data. Therefore, while Google Knowledge Panels are a step forward, there are issues again over its transparency, reliability & trustworthiness.

Moreover, the 2014 EU Court ruling onthe right to be forgotten’, which Google have stated they will honour, also muddies the waters on issues of transparency & link decay/censorship:

Accurate search results are vanishing in Europe with no public explanation, no real proof, no judicial review, and no appeals processthe result is an Internet riddled with memory holes — places where inconvenient information simply disappears.”(Fioretti, 2014).

The balance between an individual’s “right to be forgotten” and the freedom of information clearly still has to be found. At the moment, in the name of transparency, both Google and Wikimedia are posting notifications to affected pages that they have received such requests. For those wishing to be ‘forgotten’ this only highlights the matter & fuels speculation unnecessarily.



  1. The solution: Wikipedia’s ‘transparent’ search engine: Discovery

Since the setup of the ‘Discovery’ team in April 2015 and the disclosure of the Knight Foundation grant, there have been mixed noises from Wikimedia with some claiming that there was never any plan to rival Google because a newer ‘internal’ search engine was only ever being developed in order to integrate Wikimedia projects through one search portal.

Ultimately, a lack of consultation between the board and the wider Wikimedia community members reportedly undermined the project & culminated in the resignation of Lila Tretikov, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, at the end of February and the plans for Discovery were shelved.

However, Sentance (2016) reveals that, in their leaked planning documents for Discovery, the Foundation were indeed looking at the priorities of proprietary search engines, their own reliance on them for traffic and how they could recoup traffic lost to Google (through Google’s Knowledge Graph) at the same time as providing a central hub for information from across all their projects through one search portal. Wikipedia results, after all, regularly featured in the top page of Google results anyway – why not skip the middle man?

Quite how internet searchers may have taken to a completely transparent, non-commercial search engine we’ll possibly never know. However, it remains a tantalizing prospect.


  1. The solution: Alternative Search Engines

An awareness of the alternative search engines available for use and their different strengths and weaknesses is a key component of the information literacy needed to navigate this sea of information. Bing Snapshot, for instance, makes greater use of providing the digital provenance for its sources than Google at present.

Notess (2016) serves notice that computational searching (e.g. Wolfram Alpha) continues to flourish along with search engines geared towards data & statistics (e.g. Zanran, and Google Public Data Explorer).

However, knowing about the existence of these differing search engines is one thing but knowing how to successfully navigate them is quite another as Notess (2016) himself concludes where “Finding anything beyond the most basic of statistics requires perseverance and experimenting with a variety of strategies.”

Information literacy, it seems, is key.

Information Literacy
By Ewa Rozkosz via Flickr (CC-BY-SA)


  1. The solution: The need for information literacy

Given that electronic library services are maintained by information professionals, “values such as quality assessment, weighed evaluation & transparency” (van Dijck, 2010) are in much greater evidence than in commercial search engines. That is not to say that there aren’t still issues in library OPAC systems: whether it be in terms of the changes in the classification system used over time or the differing levels of adherence by staff to these classification protocols; or the communication to users of best practice in utilising the system.

The use of any search engine, requires literacy among the user group. The fundamental problem remains the disconnect between what a user inputs and what they can feasibly expect at the results stage. Understanding the nature of the search engine being used (proprietary or otherwise) a critical awareness of how knowledge is formed through its network and the type of search statement that will maximise your chances of success are all vital. As van Dijck (2010) states “Knowledge is not simply brokered (‘brought to you’) by Google or other search engines… Students and scholars need to grasp the implications of these mechanisms in order to understand thoroughly the extent of networked power”(Dijck, 2010).

Educating users of this broadens the search landscape, and defuses SEO attempts to circumvent our choices. Information literacy cannot be left to academics or information professionals alone, though they can play a large part in its dissemination. As mentioned at the beginning, we are all ‘searchers’. Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to become literate in the ways of ‘search’ and pass it on, creating our own knowledge networks. Social media offers us a means of doing this; allowing us to filter information as never before and filtering is “transforming how the web works and how we interact with our world.” (Swanson, 2012)



Google may never become any more transparent. Hence, its reliability & trustworthiness will always be hard to judge. Wikipedia’s Knowledge Engine may have offered a distinctive model more in line with these terms but it is unlikely, at least for now, to be able to compete as a global crawler search engine.



Therefore, it is incumbent on searchers not to presume neutrality or assign any kind of benign munificence on any one search engine. Rather by educating themselves as to the merits & drawbacks of Google and other search engines, users will then be able to formulate their searches, and their use of search engines, with a degree of information literacy. Only then can they hope the returned results will match their individual needs with any degree of satisfaction or success.


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Bibliographic databases utilised


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