978: Citogenesis

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I just read a pop-science book by a respected author. One chapter, and much of the thesis, was based around wildly inaccurate data which traced back to... Wikipedia. To encourage people to be on their toes, I'm not going to say what book or author.
Title text: I just read a pop-science book by a respected author. One chapter, and much of the thesis, was based around wildly inaccurate data which traced back to... Wikipedia. To encourage people to be on their toes, I'm not going to say what book or author.

[edit] Explanation

This comic is calling into question the reliability of Wikipedia. This is a favorite pastime of librarians and professional researchers, and not usually one of Randall's. But, to take it seriously for a moment: People, Wikipedia is editable by anyone. If you are doing serious work, follow through the citations, and decide which are from upstanding sources, and which are just people writing on their blog, and which are people writing on their blog who know what they are talking about.

The title of the comic is a play on the word cytogenesis. Cytogenesis is the formation of cells and their development. Citogenesis, on the other hand is a portmanteau of 'Citation' and 'Genesis'. A Citation is a reference to a source, used to back up a specific claim. Genesis means the origin of something. By extension, citogenesis is the creation of text in a reliable source that can be cited to back-up a claim.

The comic is discussing citogenesis occurring on Wikipedia, a free and freely editable encyclopedia that aims to become a comprehensive, neutral compilation of verifiable, established facts. Wikipedia aims to provide only facts backed by reliable sources. However, this comic strip details a process in which Wikipedia can not only spread misinformation, but make said misinformation seem reliable through a process of "circular reporting".

In this distorted process, someone adds an untrue claim to an article in Wikipedia. A writer of some supposedly "reliable source" checks Wikipedia for information, and blindly relies on it, without checking for proper sources. Eventually, someone notices the claim in the reliable source, and cites it in the Wikipedia article. The citation then lends further credence to the claim in Wikipedia, so the claim is more likely to be used by other reliable sources, generating a positive-feedback loop.

Four years before, Randall commented on Wikipedia about that process happening to him (on a minor detail), which probably indicates the inception of this comic:

I've never referred to the boy in the barrel as "Barrel Lad" -- that seems to have started in this [Wikipedia] article. I've called him "Barrel boy" or "The boy in the barrel". Minor detail, but it's funny how sometimes something can appear on Wikipedia, get referenced in other places, and then Wikipedia cites those other places as supporting references. Hooray Wikiality! — Randall Munroe as user "xkcd", en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Xkcd#Notes_from_the_author, 3 October 2007

In turn, Randall originated the untrue assertion in this comic that Steven Chu, a physicist, and at the time of the strip the U.S. Secretary of Energy, invented the Scroll lock key, a common button on computer keyboards. Since most people are aware of the scroll lock key but know little about its function or origins, this false information would make for an interesting piece of trivia that would likely spread very quickly.

Following this comic, the actual Scroll lock and Steven Chu articles were both vandalized by "helpful" editors trying to project Randall's reality on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article on Citogenesis redirects to the information loop section on the article "Reliability of Wikipedia". That section ends with crediting the term "citogenesis" to "webcomic artist Randall Munroe", with a link to this comic. This now has three citations. To make matters even more surreal, some Wikipedia editor once flagged the link to this xkcd comic as "Dubious - The material near this tag is possibly inaccurate or non-factual."!

We haven't seen a book like the one Randall describes in the title text. But one example of the misuse of Wikipedia by "reliable sources" concerns the former German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. His complete name contains fifteen names/words and reads: Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. An anonymous user added one more ("Wilhelm") to the German Wikipedia, just the evening before Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was presented as the new Federal Minister of Economics and Technology on February 10, 2009. The next day many major German newspapers published this wrong name (translation of bildblog.de).

[edit] Transcript

Where Citations Come From:
Citogenesis Step #1
Through a convoluted process, a user's brain generates facts. These are typed into Wikipedia.
[A guy with short hair sits at a desk, typing on a laptop.]
Guy: (typing) The "scroll lock" key was was designed by future Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a college project.
A rushed writer checks Wikipedia for a summary of their subject.
[Ponytail sits at a desk, typing on a desktop.]
Ponytail: (typing) US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, (Nobel Prizewinner and creator of the ubiquitous "scroll lock" key) testified before Congress today...
Step #2
Surprised readers check Wikipedia, see the claim, and flag it for review. A passing editor finds the piece and adds it as a citation.
[Cueball sits on a couch with a laptop in his lap, typing.]
Cueball: Google is your friend, people. (typing) <ref>{{cite web|url=
Step #3
Step #4
Now that other writers have a real source, they repeat the fact.
[A flow chart, with "Wikipedia citation" in the center. The word "Wikipedia" is in black, the word "citations" is white with a red background.
A black arrow leads from "brain" to "Wikipedia."
A black arrow labeled "words" leads from "Wikipedia" to "careless writers," and a red arrow labeled "citations" leads back to "Wikipedia citations."
A black & red arrow leads from "Wikipedia" to "cited facts" which leads to "slightly more careful writers," which leads to "more citations," which leads back to :"Wikipedia" (all black & red arrows).]
References proliferate, completing the citogenesis process.

[edit] Trivia

  • The word "was" occurs twice consecutively in the first panel.

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Bonus points if the editor citing the work is also the person who created the fake source!Davidy22[talk] 06:59, 2 February 2013 (UTC)

The title text is not addressed in the explanation. I've read some popular science books, but they do not seem to suffer the problem cited there. Maybe there's a particular brand of pop science that is very susceptible to that sort of problem? --Quicksilver (talk) 17:48, 17 August 2013 (UTC)

We probably never will know, but as the comic itself says: Google is your friend! I found a nice story at the xkcd forum belonging to the German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. I have added this to the trivia section.--Dgbrt (talk) 12:00, 18 August 2013 (UTC)

On a more amusing note, it is impossible to actually verify half of the obscure references on Wikipedia, as they are often magazines or books unlikely to be kept by typical libraries. One could easily fake an obscure reference if you know of a book with a title that seemingly pertains to the subject matter, but you know that the book had a printing run of less then 10,000 copies. 18:09, 14 May 2014 (UTC)

Note however, that this would only work if the information is so obscure that there are no conflicting sources. Benjaminikuta (talk) 21:26, 10 February 2017 (UTC)

On a less amusing note it costs 30 dollars/pounds/euros to get a copy of a scientific article that may or may not be useful for journalists that may or may not have free access to said data. Or you could get a pirated copy of it from a suicidal source and have the FBI come after you instead. I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 13:24, 22 January 2015 (UTC)

This article doesn't actually explain the self-sustaining cycle that is the point of the article. It references citogenesis and where the word was derived, and references wikipedia. None of that explains the "fake article" -> "news writer references article" -> "wiki editor adds citation of news writer" -> "fake article referenced in other news". Cflare (talk) 18:56, 9 September 2014 (UTC)

Actually in the comic, citogenesis looks very similar to cyclogenesis. I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 13:24, 22 January 2015 (UTC)

What happened to the "portmanteau" in paragraph 2? SilverMagpie (talk) 22:41, 3 January 2017 (UTC)

Never mind, I fixed it. SilverMagpie (talk) 22:42, 3 January 2017 (UTC)
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