A Closer Look at the Neutral Point of View (NPOV)

Wikipedia and the quest for neutrality on controversial entries like "Abortion" and "George W. Bush."
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"The Hive" (September 2006)
Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history's biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge. By Marshall Poe

The mainspring of Wikipedia is the NPOV, or “neutral point of view,” for it encourages cooperation among the encyclopedia’s contributors. Neutrality is rarely an issue in most Wikipedia entries—only lutenists, for instance, have the expertise to divine partiality in the “Lute” article, and they are not known to be a very argumentative bunch. For the most controversial issues, however, NPOV is constantly invoked as contributors parse sentences, clauses, and words in search of bias.

Take the “Abortion” entry. The original version, created in December 2001, opened in seemingly neutral terms:

Abortion, in its most commonly used sense, refers to the intentional early termination of pregnancy, resulting in the death of the embryo or fetus. The term can also refer to the early termination of a pregnancy by natural causes (spontaneous abortion), or to the cessation of normal growth of a body part or organ.

“Commonly used” indeed, but not commonly enough for the partisans in the abortion debate. Since the entry was created, more than a thousand contributors have created 5,963 distinct versions of the article. The opening definition has been altered hundreds of times, and every significant term in it has been analyzed.

In May 2005, for example, Wikipedians agreed that abortion “generally refers to the use of surgical procedures or drugs,” but they couldn’t find the right NPOV terms to describe what the “procedures and drugs” were used for. A struggle broke out on May 10 when a new unregistered user—identified only by the IP address, “214.13.4.151”—replaced “[to terminate] a pregnancy” with “to destroy a living human fetus.” The next day another user, “Proto,” eliminated the word living, citing POV concerns. The anonymous pro-lifer countered that living should stand because fetuses—like tumors, which are also removed in medical procedures—are clearly alive. Proto responded that living is inherently POV because it implies a stance on when “life” begins, and this is something that serious people disagree about. Proto’s argument seems to have carried the day, because living was dropped from the definition.

The debate moved on. Over the next week, nine users suggested no fewer than twenty-nine different options, including (in chronological order):

* “to kill a human fetus, thereby terminating pregnancy”;

* “to eliminate a human fetus or embryo, thereby terminating pregnancy”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by killing a human fetus or embryo”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by removing a human fetus or embryo”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by removing an embryo or a fetus”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by destroying and removing a human embryo or a fetus”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by removing an embryo or a fetus”;

* “to remove an embryo or fetus, and thus terminating a pregnancy”;

* “to destroy and then remove an embryo or fetus, thereby terminating a pregnancy”;

* “to destroy and then remove a human embryo or fetus, thereby terminating a pregnancy”;

* “to terminate a pregnancy accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus”;

* “to end a pregnancy, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the human embryo or fetus”;

* “to end a pregnancy by removal of a embryo or fetus”;

* “to remove an embryo or fetus thus terminating the pregnancy”;

* “to end a pregnancy by removal of a embryo or fetus”;

* “to remove an embryo or fetus, thus ending a pregnancy”;

* “to end a pregnancy, associated with the death of the human embryo or fetus.”

Such negotiations never really end. As new participants enter the fray, the struggle always begins anew. In this instance, the “to end a pregnancy, associated with” formulation—introduced by the same 214.13.4.151 who started the struggle—survived untouched for five days until a new user (“69.109.180.162”) preferred a phrase without the word death.

What followed demonstrates what usually transpires on Wikipedia when things fall apart. User 214.13.4.151 got upset and began to behave badly, initiating an edit war and refusing to take part in the discussions. Other users pleaded with him to play by the rules and, exasperated, accused him of being a “vandal” and a “troll.” Beyond that, however, there wasn’t a lot they could do. Only Wikipedia “administrators”—community-elected users with special authority—have the power to lock an article or ban vandals. This power, however, is very rarely exercised. Of the more than 1.2 million articles in the English-language Wikipedia, currently fewer than a hundred were locked on June 20, and of the more than 200,000 English-language Wikipedians, only forty-four were banned. And edit locks and user bans are never permanent. In the case of last year’s “Abortion” edit war, the administrators showed typical restraint: in June, the entry was temporarily locked, and 214.13.4.151 was briefly banned (for forty-eight hours) while the ongoing disputes were resolved. Things settled down, and, in October, 214.13.4.151 left Wikipedia altogether.

Though a contentious subject, “Abortion” hardly tops the list of most-edited entries on Wikipedia. “George W. Bush” holds the No. 1 spot, with 30,418 versions, followed by “Wikipedia” (18,049), “Jesus” (14,209), “United States” (14,067), and “Adolf Hitler” (8,538). By and large, the top fifty is dominated by exactly what you’d expect: controversial people, places, issues, and events. Pop stars (“Britney Spears”) and computer games (“Runescape”) also figure prominently, reflecting the fact that Wikipedians are mostly young and tech savvy. Such entries are constantly monitored and receive substantive changes virtually every day. In the case of a current-events entry like “George W. Bush” or “Hurricane Katrina,” changes accumulate as events unfold and new information is added. With an entry like “Abortion,” though, the changes reflect a never-ending negotiation of meanings within the participating community. In their dogged hunt for NPOV in the “Abortion” entry, Wikipedians have finely parsed all the key terms of the debate and created seventy-two related articles, from the obvious (“Planned Parenthood”) to the obscure (“Ensoulment”). Wikipedia’s treatment of controversial issues is nothing if not broad.

So does all this fuss actually produce better articles? The current version (August 2006) of “Abortion” begins:

An abortion is the removal or expulsion from the uterus of an embryo or fetus, resulting in or caused by its death. This can occur spontaneously as a miscarriage, or be artificially induced through chemical, surgical or other means. Commonly, "abortion" refers to an induced procedure at any point in the pregnancy; medically, it is defined as a miscarriage or induced termination before twenty weeks gestation, which is considered nonviable.

If that’s not NPOV enough for you, feel free to weigh in.

—Marshall Poe
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 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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