Wikipedia, Original Research, and popular culture

Wikipedia has a (nominally) strict policy of “No Original Research” (NOR), which is for the most part both necessary and beneficial. After all, for most topics that warrant inclusion, there has been more than enough analysis in reliable published sources that original arguments are not necessary and simply degrade the quality and reliability of articles.

Occasionally, this policy leads to the deletion of valuable material, but mostly it keeps out the crap. (I recently instigated the deletion of one interesting and informative–and, I’m fairly certain, true–article that very clearly violated NOR. It left a bad taste in my mouth and reminded me why I don’t participate in any of the constant push to delete content that is clearly accurate but fails to meet the requirements for Notability and NOR.)

But there is (at least) one conspicuous area where banning original research gets in the way of creating high-quality content. Articles about popular culture fiction (for example, Battlestar Galactica episodes or little-known novels from “paraliterary” genres like science fiction) represent the borders of what can–and in many cases can’t–be analyzed using reliable published sources. Yet amateur literature or film analysis is often of high quality (especially when it can be contested, debated, and talked out among a group of intelligent fans), even comparable to academic criticism.

Of course, some kinds of original analysis are better than others. The Wikipedia Manual of Style guideline for “writing about fiction” (the only substantive guideline I’ve had a hand in developing and implementing as official) requires that articles on fictional content take an “out-of-universe” approach, looking at the work of fiction as a work of fiction rather than part of a “real” timeline. Out-of-universe analysis prevents some of the most egregious and useless original research, but the main reason why I supported (and continue to support) the “writing about fiction” guideline is that it just makes for better, more useful articles. Placing cultural products in cultural context is what makes for the most useful and interesting content. But the downside of this is that many articles, especially for fiction about which little or no criticism has been published, can offer no more than a plot summary.

See for example, the many articles on Battlestar Galactica (re-imagining) episodes. Following the letter of Wikipedia’s rules would mean deleting all or nearly all of them; there are no reliable, independent sources to established the notability (much less analysis) of every individual episode. And yet, these kinds of articles are of great interest to readers (especially since Wikipedia has so many, for a wide and growing range of tastes). However, current conventions lead to sterile plot-summary-only articles because original research about the allusions and symbolism, artistic and technical elements, dramatic development, acting, and resonance with contemporary cultural and political issues cannot be included. Even aspects that do have relevant sources are frequently excluded because articles are written more based on examples (e.g., other plot-summary-only articles) than on official guidelines. Most editors understand NOR, but not very many know about the “writing about fiction” guideline.

Case in point: Chief Tyrol’s speech as union leader in the final episode of season 2 comes almost word-for-word from Mario Savio’s famous Dec. 2, 1964 speech at Berkeley–“you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels”. Though the episode’s article makes no mention of it (as of now), the speech and its source are discussed in a podcast from the director–according to the Mario Savio article. But even if there were no official source, astute fans notice things like this. They notice when one piece of fictional material alludes to another one. They notice when an episode’s plot parallels what’s been in the news lately. They notice obvious hints and foreshadowing conveyed through camera work and music. These things aren’t part of a plot summary per se (and are decidedly out-of-universe, since they are related more to the viewing experience than to the internal “causes” of plot events), but they are often straightforward. Such analysis certainly involves a high level of originality (by both Wikipedia and conventional definitions), but when done judiciously it can be close enough to “right” (as far as there is a right interpretation of a work of fiction) to secure the consensus of nearly anyone who views or reads the work.

So that’s my argument. Wikipedia original research isn’t all bad, and Wikipedia’s rules about notability and NOR should be a little more lenient when it comes to cultural artifacts (music, movies, books, TV, etc.).