Dead tree book kills copyright lawyer; he blames "the internet"

rubin-penguin.jpg Zick Rubin is a copyright/trademark lawyer who used to teach psychology. His work was notable enough to be cited in the The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology . Unfortunately, that book listed him as having died in 1997, as shown above. Wikia, the for-profit wiki farm, has a Psychology Wiki entry for Rubin which included his death date, citing the Penguin book. Rubin, still very much alive, was doing a little vanity Googling when he learned of his death. He sent a note to Wikia's Angela Beesley, who corrected the article, only to have it reverted. Rubin then wrote a New York Times piece blaming "the internet" for trying to kill him, currently one of their most e-mailed stories.

The New York Times loves stories claiming the internet is full of dopes who generate misinformation when they aren't stealing from others (see the epic Bill Keller/Arianna Huffington beef this week). Psychology Wiki, like the unrelated Wikipedia project, requires a reliable source for any disputed fact, but that is one of those things that's very hard for people outside of wiki-world to understand. Wikipedia's policy is verifiability, not truth. This simple rule is a cornerstone policy, one of the five pillars.

The editor who reverted Angela's change was following policy, though it would have been better to go the extra step and find one of the many reliable sources stating that Rubin has been above ground since 1997. The good thing about the internet is that these changes can be made quickly and easily. So I wrote him a nice proper Wikipedia article today, citing his Times Op-Ed and putting that content into the Creative Commons. So Psychology Wiki is corrected, he has a new Wikipedia entry, and the Penguin dictionary is... still floating around with its misinformation. Can't blame "the internet" any more.



  1. It’s weird how his dates are presented in the book – it’s like they knew he wasn’t dead (since they put the b. in front of 1944), but put the 1997 anyways. I’m guessing they weren’t sure, and meant to come back to it later?!?

  2. From the NYT article…

    “Being quite incapacitated by now, I started to put my affairs in order. But just as I was about to take down my shingle, I got up the courage to check Google one more time. This time the item was in the No. 5 position, and it had — magically — been changed: “Zick Rubin (born 1944) is an American social psychologist.””

    Oooh, “magical”!

    1. Fucking wiki, how does that work?
      And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
      Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

  3. The Wikipedia article has been marked for deletion, which, it seems to me, speaks well for their policies.

    1. I call 1984 on this. They were found out with their pants down, now Wikipedia wants to delete the entry. Typical!

  4. Seems to me that Rubin and/or Beesley should count as “authors who are regarded as authoritative in relation to the subject”.

  5. I notice that being cited in Boing Boing is a criteria for deletion in Wikipedia. There’s something wonderfully anti-iterative there.

  6. He “blam[ed] ‘the internet’ for trying to kill him”? You must have been reading a different NYT opinion piece than the one you linked to if you reached that conclusion. Also a lovely little touch to describe his search of his own name as “vanity Googling”—are there no non-narcissistic reasons for Googling one’s name that are possible or even highly plausible?

      1. Whether the commenter is Rubin or not, the article does not seem to place blame on the internet. It reads, to me, as just a recounting of events. Perhaps the title seems to place blame, but it could just as easily have been intended to be whimsical.

    1. @lmnop: He “blam[ed] ‘the internet’ for trying to kill him”?

      Yes, that’s what I (and most people) took away from his article titled “How the Internet Tried to Kill Me.” I thought his article was quite funny, but I’d say “How Penguin Tried to Kill Me” would have laid blame where blame is due. That isn’t buzzword-laden enough, so the NYT used a more attention-grabbing headline. Just as I did.

      1. So, you took a tongue-firmly-in-cheek op-ed with what is a headline likely written by someone else (which you recognize), and your take-home message was that he was honestly “blaming” the internet for trying to kill him? I mean, the way your copy reads it sounds like the guy is crotchety little narcissist and something of a crackpot with a touch of Ted Stevens, when the reality is that simply wrote a whimsical piece you yourself found “quite funny.”

        1. @lmnop, it’s remarkable that you recognize his tongue-in-cheek tone and not mine. Rubin seems pretty funny and cool to me (for an IP lawyer), which is why I wrote him a nice clean WP bio. My point was to show how the NYT’s audience often sees an old media problem as a problem with crowdsourcing, mainly so I could bring up the hilarious Keller/Huffington kerfuffle. I also thought it could be a teaching moment for why many wikis have a policy that seems so odd on its face. Based on the comments above, many people seemed to have that as their take-home message. Many also seem to realize that his funny anecdote was lighthearted in its style, and my post followed suit. Sorry it gave you the RAEG.

          1. Actually, Andrea, my take-home message from the above comment thread is this: I won’t be wasting my time with wikipedia as a reference again.

          2. So, it was tongue-in-cheek to say he was “vanity Googling” himself? You don’t think that suggesting his story was part of “stories claiming the internet is full of dopes who generate misinformation when they aren’t stealing from others” didn’t create an unfair perception of the guy? You don’t think BB comments mocking him for saying that the entry was “magically” changed, or
            “Fucking wiki, how does that work?
            And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
            Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed”
            don’t reflect readers being influenced by your tone (these seem to be the only posts that actually focus on the man, as opposed to the wiki process)? If you did mean your piece to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to him, I’m also sorry you weren’t as successful in creating this tone as he was.

          3. Relax, and welcome to BB, where many things, particularly commenter’s comments, are tongue-in-cheek. The “Fucking wiki, how does that work?”-comment, for example, refers to an “Insane Clown Posse” song, which became something of a meme, particularly here on BB.

            I think most people recognized Andrea’s post as being tongue in cheek, particularly about “the internet” trying to kill this person. Nobody believed that. It’s certainly true, though, that many news organizations like to print stories about Wikipedia getting things wrong, so it’s not unreasonable to see this as another example of that. Why else would the Time’s article be titled “How the Internet Tried to Kill Me” instead of “How a Published Book Tried to Kill Me?”

            And “vanity Googling” is a very common term to refer to Googling yourself, which is what the author said he was doing. The term is not particularly demeaning and isn’t something to get worked up over.

  7. I love Wikipedia and all, but it’s not as easily-correctable as its boosters claim. For one thing, they give bigger weight to more frequent correctors. Right now their site on Niagara Falls falsely claims that Horseshoe Falls has shifted so that it lies entirely within the Canadian border. The person who wrote that, a more frequent contributor, attributed a book written about Niagara’s social history, which was available on Google Books, but not the pages making the claim in question. I referred to official Canadian and U.S. government atlases, and the other contributor even cited the International Boundary Commission’s materials in my favor. And yet, he still went with his book as a more authoritative source. The Wikipedia editor then went and decided to close the edit request because the book supposedly trumped my analysis of the maps, which are as clear as day.

    Sorry for bitching here, but to me that incident just pointed up how editing Wikipedia is nowhere near as simple as they make it sound, and you can have an authoritative source still get trumped by someone else’s weak source. I suppose I could corral a local geographer or something, but what’s the point?

    Bizarrely, the entry specifically for Horseshoe Falls has the correct info, that it straddles the U.S./Canadian border.

    1. @adamnvillani: Your reading of maps constitutes original research using a primary source. Wikipedia values secondary sources over primary sources and does not allow original research. So a book or article has greater weight than a map. In the cases of disputed data, it’s best to include all sources. If you can find a quotation in a book or article that backs up the statement about the status of Horseshoe Falls, that can be included. It’s a source of frustration for many, but it’s there for many good reasons. Someone has to be able to look up any assertion of fact in order to confirm it. That’s why secondary sources are preferred.

      1. How is checking the map any harder than checking the book? Original research would be claiming that you’ve been to the fall in person and verified the position of the border.

      2. Andrea, apart from the fact that that policy is kind of insane, isn’t a map by its nature a secondary source? The primary source is the actual geography. If he’d gone out with surveyors’ tools and concluded that Horseshoe Falls wasn’t where Wikipedia said it was, then you could ding him for original research.

        1. jere7my: A map is a primary source, just as a scientific study is a primary source. A book or article that discusses the primary source is a secondary source and is preferable for a citation, because you can cite it, and others can confirm the citation independently. The extra layer has key benefits: it means someone thought the information was significant, and it is appearing in an analytical or synthesized context. It removes the possibility of original research, thus helping with neutrality. As durfsmurf points out, the Rubin article is mostly a riff on how weird and bureaucratic this policy seems to uninvolved people. It actually reduces the number of arguments because it eliminates differences of opinion arising from different interpretations of a primary source.

          1. That’s interesting. I don’t think I ever understood that about Wikipedia. It doesn’t seem to be very evenly applied, though. I just looked at the article for Cicero, and there’s a lot of original research — many of the citations point to works written by Cicero himself (e.g., “44. ^ Cicero, Second Philippic Against Antony”). Is that a flaw in the article that should be corrected, or am I missing something still?

          2. Never mind — I answered my own question by looking at Wikipedia’s actual policy. It says “…primary sources may also be used to report factual material provided the contributing editor states the fact in a manner that does not present an interpretation of the fact (original research) which is not itself explicitly contained in the primary source…anyone without specialist knowledge who reads the primary source should be able to verify that the Wikipedia passage agrees with the primary source.” That seems to permit statements like “Omaha is in Nebraska, according to the USGS.”

          3. So basically what Andrea is saying is that Wikipedia is just as bad of a resource as the old World Book used to be: always several years out of date on everything happening that’s really important, and stubbornly uncorrectable.

            The new; just as bad as the old, but it’s NEW!

          4. Well, the point is that it’s *no worse* than the old in certain respects, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, it’s better in some respects. Net benefit.

          5. What are you talking about? You think cartographers just let any random moron in the maps office start doodling all over the map, putting Horseshoe Falls in the middle of Toronto, and moving Luton between Munich and Berlin? When changes are made to a published map, it’s precisely because “someone thought the information was significant, and it is appearing in an analytical or synthesized context”.

      3. It seems to me that in this case one should be able to show by pointing to the map that the book was wrong – thus, the citations from that book should be removed. If another secondary source can’t be found, then the section regarding where the border passes through the Horseshoe Falls should be entirely removed if we’re strictly following their policy.

        By the way, I live about fifteen miles from Niagara Falls, and I’m not surprised that the book was wrong. There’s loads of crap written and published about the area, most of it made up, from sketchy interviews of people from the area who half-remember things.

        And if you just look at the layout, it doesn’t even make any sense – there’s no physical way for the Horseshoe Falls to recede in such a way that it only exists on the Canadian side. If you go by the USGS border, the east side of the horseshoe is just to the east of the border, meaning if you go back in time the falls started entirely on the Canadian side and are currently receding into the American side.

        That’s “original research”, but the fact that the book is wrong is irrefutable, meaning it should never be able to trump anything else as a proper source in an edit war on Wikipedia.

  8. Wikipedia’s policy is verifiability, not truth.

    That should be drilled into the head of every person using Wikipedia for research.

    Every good liar knows that to make a lie stick, you have to get it out before the truth, and say it louder, and say it more often. What better venue for that, then, than Wikipedia?

  9. has he given up trying to prove his living status and instead tried collecting on his life insurance policy and citing these as proof of death?

  10. The op-ed squarely puts the blame on the print book; the misleading bit blaming the Internet specifically is limited to the title of the piece. Newspapers famously have separate people write the titles to the various pieces that they run; I’m willing to believe that Rubin was more accurate and charitable than whoever stuck that headline on it.

  11. I don’t know whether or not the Times has a history of denigrating wikis, but this article doesn’t seem to be, it’s just a humorous look at how wikis choose to verify things.
    The Internet abounds with articles trashing Wikipedia for all sorts of reasons. I think it’s good that people are reminded of the fallabilities of various media that we take for granted, a lot of us assume that something on Wikipedia is probably correct.

  12. So reading and interpreting a map is “original research,” but reading and interpreting a book is the golden standard of verifiability…?

    IANAW, but I would think an argument could be made that most if not all regional maps are not primary sources, but are rather a secondary composite of cartographic data from a variety of sources. It’s not like a survey team undertakes a grand journey to survey all points within the Empire State every time a new map of New York State is produced. Rather, geographic data is brought together from a number of sources – primary sources that are trusted by the mapmakers in the same way that authors of a secondary source relies on their primary sources. Is the fact that mapmakers rely on coordinates and authors rely on words really such a definitive distinction?

  13. Given the difficulty of editing Wikipedia teh internets will simply need to route around Zick Rubin w/ extreme prejudice…

  14. “It seems to me that in this case one should be able to show by pointing to the map that the book was wrong”

    Yeah, if they hadn’t shut down discussion of the issue, I would have linked to the specific maps in question and showed them; it’s really not a matter of interpretation; it’s very plain to see when looking at a topo map. But they shut down discussion of the issue because:

    1. The other contributor had more edits to his name and thus was more trusted as an “expert” source,
    2. He went into more detail and legwork in documenting his claim than I had,
    3. The secondary vs. primary issue. I think this may have been an issue perhaps with a lack of familiarity with the subject by the editor, and I think he thought the other guy was presenting the standard claim and I was presenting something novel. I visited the Falls once a few years back (I live in California) and I remember it being well established that the border goes through the middle of Horseshoe Falls. Nobody was presenting it as some odd interpretation or anything in dispute, and my sources confirmed this.

    But on the Wikipedia page, the other guy was there first. And his citation of the International Boundary Commission muddied the waters, I think, because he went into some detail about noting the locations of boundary markers and coordinates within the river and comparing them to satellite photos, which did constitute primary research. So I think that made it look like the issue of where the border was was the sort of thing one could only discern with maps by doing a substantial amount of interpretation and analysis.

    And I couldn’t refute his source because the pages were missing on Google Books and I didn’t feel like going through the effort of tracking the book down in a library.

    So yeah, it did miff me, but really it was more of an object lesson in learning how resolving disputes on Wikipedia was more a matter of going through the effort of following their rules and creating a chain of documentation than in just pointing out something I considered to be authoritative. So I’ll occasionally correct things here and there, but I’m not going to bother tweaking anything that has some sort of an advocate to the contrary, because that’s the sort of exercise only worth it to those more willing than me to be Wikipedia Guys instead of just Concerned Members of the Public.

    1. adamnvillani, FYI, I added a map at Horseshoe Falls, from the 1819 Boundary Commission that drew it up. It appears in several books (hence a secondary source citing a primary). Bulletproof!

      Also added a Toronto Star article:

      “…Horseshoe Falls, the only one of Niagara’s three waterfalls to lie almost entirely on the Canadian side of the border…”

      If you have other problems, send me a note on Wikipedia or an email.

      1. adamnvillani, FYI, I added a map at Horseshoe Falls, from the 1819 Boundary Commission that drew it up. It appears in several books (hence a secondary source citing a primary). Bulletproof!

        What? You must recognize that that is absurd.

        The original map was not a good reference for a Wikipedia article, but the fact that the map was later copied in a book suddenly means that it’s a good reference? That’s trying to follow rules for the sake of rules, not actually using one’s head.

        It’s possible that the problem is that no one has bothered to sit down and write a WP:MAPS page as a guideline. But really, this should fall under exactly the same rule as that for primary source, which are allowed so long as “anyone without specialist knowledge who reads the primary source should be able to verify that the Wikipedia passage agrees with the primary source.”

        So long as an editor is able to link to the map in question, or add the image to Wikipedia with a source, it should be valid as a reference.

  15. When does inaccurate information on a wiki become a libel/slander/whatever issue?

    It seems that every so often inaccurate information gets on to a wiki about someone, and that person then finds themselves struggling to get the inaccuracies corrected.

    In the case of Zick Rubin, could he argue that the he has potentially lost consultancy work since people looking for his services may have believed he was dead? Unlikely yes, but it is possible.

    I can’t help but feel that all the various wikis out there are treading a dangerous line with their reliance on verifiability over truth. If I were famous and they had inaccurate information about me, I don’t care where they got that information from – I would expect them to change it immediately. I wouldn’t be too happy with them saying edit it yourself or provide references to back up your story. If a newspaper publishes false information about someone, they have to correct it and apologise or face a court hearing. Does the same not apply to the wiki format too?

    Long story short – one day a wiki is going to get sued in to oblivion.

    1. @grundie: In this case, Zick Rubin would need to seek legal remedy from Penguin if he felt there were libel, since that is where the misinformation originated. The person on the Psychology Wiki was simply citing what Penguin published. But Rubin would have a hard time against Penguin as well, unless he could prove the error was an instance of “actual malice.” That’s the legal standard for a public figure like him, and it is a very high threshold. Individual users are responsible for what they add on Wikipedia, or any other interactive site. Psychology Wiki revised the information they got from Penguin once someone took the time to find a corroborating source.

      @Michael Smith: It is very easy to look on Google Maps or other maps, as I explained above. As I also explained, that is not a reliable source and constitutes original research.

      1. “@Michael Smith: It is very easy to look on Google Maps or other maps, as I explained above. As I also explained, that is not a reliable source and constitutes original research.”

        I don’t really think you’ve explained quite why looking at maps counts as “original research”. What’s the difference between paraphrasing a textbook and saying what side of a border a dot is placed on a map? I could see why you shouldn’t use your own map that you drew yourself (that’s definitely original research) but why not published ones?

        To me the obvious authoritative source when talking about where something is in the world is a map (I think that’s reasonably uncontroversial) and my instinct is that a reference policy that actively excludes otherwise obvious authoritative sources needs a bit of justification.

  16. This is just the latest in a long-line of examples where the wiki approach is a double-edged sword. Since no one can tell you’re a dog on the Internet, everyone is unreliable. This is just like the ‘Old Man Murray’ incident, which is leading us to a new phenomenon, I guess: the web-page put together solely for the purpose of being a secondary cite source for Wikipedia.

    Frederik Pohl can’t make an edit and cite his personal firsthand knowledge. But if he writes a blog entry, then it IS valid. I understand the motivation for this approach, but it is still kind of silly, sometimes.

  17. I think it’s disingenuous to call Wikia “unrelated” to Wikipedia. It’s a for profit group founded by two Wikipedia big wigs. It’s at least a half-sibling (One father the same – Jimbo).

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