The Case of Philip Roth vs. Wikipedia

As Wikipedia becomes an increasingly dominant part of our digital media diet, what was once anomalous has become a regular occurrence.

Someone surfing the net comes face to face with a Wikipedia article — about himself. Or about her own work.

There’s erroneous information that needs to be fixed, but Wikipedia’s 10-year-old tangle of editing policies stands in the way, and its boisterous editing community can be fearsome.

If a person can put the error into the public spotlight, then publicly shaming Wikipedia’s volunteers into action can do the trick. But not without some pain.

The most recent episode?

The case of Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer Philip Roth.

His bestselling novel “The Human Stain” tells the story of fictional character Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who presents himself as having a Jewish background and the trials he faces after leaving his university job in disgrace. Widely read and highly acclaimed, the book was reviewed or referenced by many famous writers, such as Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin of the New York Times and the noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. [1] [2] [3]

The Broyard Theory

But there was a standing mystery about the novel.

After the book’s release in 2000, Roth had not elaborated on the inspiration for the professor Silk character . Over the years, it had become the subject of speculation, with most of the literary world pointing to Anatole Broyard, a famous writer and NY Times critic who “passed” in white circles without explicitly acknowledging his African American roots.

In 2000,’s Charles Taylor wrote about Roth’s new book:

The thrill of gossip become literature hovers over “The Human Stain”: There’s no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years.

Brent Staples’ 2003 piece in The New York Times wrote that the story of Silk as a “character who jettisons his black family to live as white was strongly reminiscent of Mr. Broyard.”

Janet Maslin wrote the book was “seemingly prompted by the Broyard story.”

It was such a widely held notion, the Broyard connection was incorporated into the Wikipedia article on “The Human Stain.”

An early 2005 version of the Wikipedia entry cited Henry Louis Gates Jr., and by March 2008, it relayed the theory from Charles Taylor’s review.

The view was so pervasive, a list of over a dozen notable citations from prominent writers and publications were found by Wikipedia editors.

Wikipedians researching the topic came across articles as secondary sources that drew parallels between Silk and Anatole Broyard. The references were verifiable, linkable prose from notable writers and respected publications. The core policies of Wikipedia — verifiability, using reliable sources and not undertaking original research — were upheld by using reputable content as the basis for the conclusions.

Roth Explains It All

However, information from Roth in 2008 changed things.

Bloomberg News did an interview with the author about his new book at the time, “Indignation.” Towards the end of the interview, he was asked a casual question about “The Human Stain:”

Hilferty: Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in “The Human Stain,” based on anyone you knew?

Roth: No. There was much talk at the time that he was based on a journalist and writer named Anatole Broyard. I knew Anatole slightly, and I didn’t know he was black. Eventually there was a New Yorker article describing Anatole’s life written months and months after I had begun my book. So, no connection.

It might have been the first time Roth went on the record saying there was no connection between the fictional Silk and real-life writer Broyard. It seems to be the earliest record on the Internet of this fact.

Fast forward to 2012, and according to Roth, he read the Wikipedia article for [[The Human Stain]] for the first time, and found the erroneous assertions about Anatole Broyard as a template for his main character. In August 2012, Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey, became an interlocutor who tried to change the Wikipedia entry to remove the false information. It became an unexpected tussle with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.

Unfortunately for Roth, by the rules of Wikipedia, first-hand information from the mouth of the author does not immediately change Wikipedia. The policies of verifiability and forbidding original research prevent a direct email or a phone call to Wikpedia’s governing foundation or its volunteers from being the final word.

Enter The New Yorker

Frustrated with the process, Roth wrote a long article for the New Yorker, detailing his Wikipedia conundrum. He provided an exhaustive description of the actual inspiration for the professor Silk character: his friend and Princeton professor, Melvin Tumin.

“The Human Stain” was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.

And it is this that inspired me to write “The Human Stain”: not something that may or may not have happened in the Manhattan life of the cosmopolitan literary figure Anatole Broyard but what actually did happen in the life of Professor Melvin Tumin, sixty miles south of Manhattan in the college town of Princeton, New Jersey, where I had met Mel, his wife, Sylvia, and his two sons when I was Princeton’s writer-in-residence in the early nineteen-sixties.

Good enough. But the problem arose when Roth attempted to correct the information in Wikipedia with the help of Bailey, his biographer. He wrote:

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.

The frustration is understandable. That someone’s first-hand knowledge about their own work could be rejected in this manner seems inane. But it’s a fundamental working process of Wikipedia, which depends on reliable (secondary) sources to vet and vouch for the information.

Because of this, Wikipedia is fundamentally a curated tertiary source — when it works, it’s a researched and verified work that points to references both original and secondary, but mostly the latter.

It’s garbage in, garbage out. It’s only as good as the verifiable sources and references it can link to.

But it is also this policy that infuriates many Wikipedia outsiders.

During the debate over Roth’s edits, one Wikipedia administrator (an experienced editor in the volunteer community) cited Wikipedia’s famous refrain:

Verifiability, not truth, is the burden.
– ChrisGualtieri (talk) 15:53, 8 September 2012 (UTC)

By design, Wikipedia’s community couldn’t use an email from an original source as the final word. Wikipedia depends on information from a reliable source in a tangible form, and the verification it provides.

Reliable sources perform the gatekeeping function familiar in academic publishing, where peer review guarantees a level of rigor and fact checking from those with established track records.

But even with rigorous references, verifiability can be hard.

Consider Roth’s New Yorker piece, where he says:

“The Human Stain” was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.

Compare that to the 2008 interview, when asked, “Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in “The Human Stain,” based on anyone you knew?” Roth said, “No.

This would seem to contradict the New Yorker article. This doesn’t make Roth dishonest. Rather, Roth likely interpreted the question differently in a spoken interview as to whether he knew anyone who “passed” in real life, as Silk did in the novel.

The point of all this?

Truth via verification is not easy or obvious.

Even with multiple reliable sources — a direct transcript from an interview or the words from the author himself — ferreting out the truth requires standards and deliberation.

As of this writing, Roth’s explanation about the Coleman Silk character has become the dominant one in the Wikipedia article, as it should be.

However, the erroneous speculation about Anatole Broyard was so prevalent and widely held in the years before Roth’s clarification, that it still has a significant mention in the article for historical purposes. There’s still debate how prominent this should be in the entry, given that it’s been flatly denied by Roth.


Roth’s New Yorker article caused the article to be fixed, but getting such a prominent soapbox is not a solution that scales for everyone who has a problem with Wikipedia.

After a decade of Wikipedia’s existence as the chaotic encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” its ironic that its stringent standards for verifiability and moving slowly and deliberately with information now make those qualities a target for criticism.

Wikipedia has been portrayed as being too loose (“Anyone can edit Wikipedia? How can I trust it?”) and too strict (“Wikipedia doesn’t consider Roth a credible source about himself? How can I trust it?”). The fact is, on balance, this yin-yang relationship serves Wikipedia well the vast majority of the time by being responsive and thorough — by being quick by nature, yet slow by design.

It continues to be one of the most visited web properties in the world (fifth according to ComScore), by refining its policies to observe the reputation of living persons and to enforce accuracy in fast-changing articles. Most outsiders would be surprised to see how conscientious and pedantic Wikipedia’s editors are to get things right, despite a mercurial volunteer community in need of a decorum upgrade and the occasional standoff with award-winning novelists.

Andrew Lih is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism where he directs the new media program. He is the author of The Wikipedia Revolution: How a bunch of nobodies created the world’s greatest encyclopedia, (Hyperion 2009, Aurum UK 2009) and is a noted expert on online collaboration and participatory journalism. This story also appeared on his personal blog.

How to make Wikipedia better (and why we should)

I’ve been involved in a long debate over Wikipedia with a friend who is a respected journalist. His contempt for the project stems from his distrust of anonymous writers and what he perceives as a lack of respect among Wikipedia’s contributors for journalistic standards. He’s not wrong — those who follow the controversy surrounding Wikipedia know about recent scandals. More importantly, however, his views are representative of a large number of influential people who distrust Wikipedia for serious research.

Wikipedia is a good idea. There is a need for a freely available, reliable encyclopedia on the Internet. Commercial alternatives like Britannica clearly have their place. But, if only because users expect information on the Internet to be free, we should be grateful that some people are willing to volunteer their time to make that information reliable.

Are we there yet? The report that Nature Magazine released last December contended that we may be closer than we thought. It is also a positive sign for Wikipedia that prestigious organizations are beginning to take the encyclopedia seriously enough to evaluate its claims. In a follow-up interview during Nature’s Dec. 15 podcast, Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikimedia Foundation and founder of Wikipedia, said his goal is to achieve “Britannica or better” accuracy. Yet he was also modest about the report’s findings, admitting that he neither expected such a positive review nor did he think the level of quality was consistent across all subjects.

There is no question: Wikipedia has a long way to go. In order to make it better, supporters need to shift focus away from isolated articles and genres and first address the system that produces the content. By doing so, contributors will have more tools to ensure the reliability of their articles.

I came up with a list of six easy steps that project leaders could take to make Wikipedia better. It’s not conclusive, but these suggestions arose from my own research and conversations with people who are concerned about the project.

1. Consistently enforce the existing standards

In addition to dozens of clearly written policy pages, Wikipedia has impressive tools for tracing the history of an article through its “recent changes” feature. There are extensive guides on the website that instruct contributors on how to cite sources, format entries, debate controversial passages, and argue effectively. Critics who only know about the wiki format may not understand the standards that the project leaders demand.

The problem? Wikipedia’s policies are not evenly enforced. The scandal over John Seigenthaler’s biography was likely only one manifestation of this problem. Participants in Wikipedia need to find ways to uniformly enforce existing standards on all content. If it’s too much work, then questionable content should be taken offline until it can be addressed. Otherwise, there is no way to claim that the site is reliable.

2. Force editors to take responsibility for their articles by telling us their names

Currently, contributors don’t need to provide any information beyond a user name in order to join the community. Until recently, there wasn’t even a requirement to have a user account in order to edit content.

This suggestion will meet with the most resistance, but it answers the biggest complaint about Wikipedia. The current policy is indefensible. If there is an honest reason to remain anonymous (like the fear of political retribution), then it’s easy to provide an editorial workaround either by having more reviews or clearly indicating that the article was anonymously created for political reasons.

3. Supply references and reasons for content change

Right now, in order to change an article on Wikipedia, after logging in, all somebody has to do is type. Their changes will be preserved along with the article’s history, but the only way to explain the reason for a change happens after the fact, in discussion forums.

What if there was an additional field on the edit screen that forced contributors to back up every new piece of content they added with references and reasons for doing so? It would be another tool that justified the added obtrusiveness with its usefulness.

4. Make citations clear

Like any good reference tool, Wikipedia provides endnotes for authors to cite references. But these aren’t used consistently. Some of the numbered links in the articles (which resemble endnotes) are merely links to other websites, with no bibliographical information at the end of the article.

5. Let users rate contributors

Trust is the key issue — and online it matters even more. Wikipedia could easily make use of a system similar to eBay’s user rating system. Every contributor should have their own page with a list of articles and feedback. Only users with an account should be able to create feedback for other users.

6. Settle copyright disputes before questionable material is published

There is a page on Wikipedia that lets leaders debate whether an image or text is under copyright protection. The problem is that many times, the resource is already on the website. If someone is reviewing possible copyright violations anyway, why not do it before the material is published?

These steps are easy to implement from a technology perspective, but the cultural challenges are significant. Despite recent scandals, Wales said that vandalism and malicious editing are not the biggest problems the community faces.

Far more difficult is getting contributors who are passionate about their content to agree on what gets published and the reasons for doing so. Experts who join in order to donate their time and knowledge to improving content will be forced to defend themselves — and their credentials — against less qualified opponents. It is conceivable that such an affront to their pride will drive many away. That would be unfortunate.

Perhaps even more challenging will be getting the current community to agree to abide by stricter rules. But those who most appreciate the remarkable qualities of the Wikipedia community should be the first to pressure the project leaders to take the simple steps necessary in order to ensure that its articles have been fact-checked, are clear of libel and copyright violations, and meet certain standards of composition and organization. Until these steps are taken, they may never be able to convince critics — who could otherwise be valuable allies — that Wikipedia is more than just a cute toy.