The Quote That Never Was


About the Pitfalls of Wikipedia & Scholarly Misconduct.


[1] Now, I’m sure that most people are aware that Wikipedia is somewhat unreliable. The same is actually true for traditional encyclopedias.(1) Mistakes happen – spelling errors, lapses in attention to some miniscule detail, misattributions. That’s human. That’s fine. Chances are that these errors will be found and corrected eventually and the proponents of Wikipedia argue, of course, that that’s more likely to happen when the swarm intelligence of the web is involved. Any scholar worth their salt will be diligent enough in their research to not let that impact them, right? So far, so good.

[2] Except that’s not the whole truth. Many scholars use Wikipedia as their first source of information and, unfortunately, in some cases, their last. I have now come across an example that illustrates this rather beautifully and with a rare kind of clarity. It involves a quote attributed to the philosopher Hans Vaihinger (with the citation of a book and page number) that really does not exist at all in that shape and form. It also involves a number of scholars using that exact quote in their publications with the exact same citation, among them a professor for the history of science which I find slightly awkward, to say the least.

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