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.


This comic is calling into question the accuracy 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'. Citation meaning quoting a source. Genesis being the origin of something. So, citogenesis would be the creation of a quote that can be used to back-up a fact or statement.

The comic is discussing citogenesis occurring on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a free and freely editable encyclopedia that aims to become the most complete and correct knowledge base available, in all languages, to all people. Wikipedia is managed by the Wikimedia Foundation who publish MediaWiki, a web-based wiki engine written in PHP. The explain xkcd wiki is run on a MediaWiki server.

Following this comic, the actual Scroll lock and Steven Chu articles were both wiki-bombed by "helpful" editors trying to enforce Randall's reality on the Internet. The Wikipedia article on Citogensis redirects to the information loop section on the article "Reliability of Wikipedia". That section ends with crediting the term to "citogenesis" to "webcomic artist Randall Munroe", with a link to this comic.


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.


  • We will probably never know the book or author Randall mentions in the title text, but there is a nice similar story about 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). But the joke doesn't stop there, because that minister was later found guilty of plagiarism, which resulted in the revocation of his doctorate and eventually his resignation as Minister of Defence, on March 1, 2011.

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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)

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)

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