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Dubious heroes of Wikipedia

  • 23 July 2014

Comical, but also a warning to readers, were reports last week about the writing abilities of Sverker Johansson. He is a Swedish physicist with degrees in economics, particle physics, linguistics and civil engineering. There is no mention of whether he has degrees in Swedish, English, or Journalism.

The significant claim about Johansson is that he is, arguably, the most prolific writer of all time. It is as well the word 'arguably' is used, because we have to ask how many of the words in these articles tripped lightly from the keyboard of Sverker Johansson.

He has written over 2.7 million articles on Wikipedia since 2001, at an average of 10,000 articles a day. One report says: 'His contribution to Wikipedia's knowledge database of 30 million articles in 287 languages makes up 8.5 per cent of all the content on the site.'

Whether Johannson knows many of those 287 languages is open to question. If he did then he would be the Mezzofanti of the 21st century, his contributions to Wikipedia a mere sideshow. Cardinal Mezzofanti was a hyperpolyglot who spoke 39 languages fluently. I know this fact by reading his entry in Wikipedia, but not sure if that is due to Sverker's good guidance. It's just possible that he converted the Mezzofanti wiki into Swedish and other languages, at the press of a conversion button. Mezzofanti used his brains.

Without a need to make further enquiries, reports about the Swede continue, saying that 'his claims to authorship are contested however, as they were created by a computer generated software algorithm, otherwise known as a bot. Johansson has named his Lsjbot.'

The verb 'contested' was taken straight from the Woody Allen rulebook of droll misuses. (Allen hasn't actually written such a book, he's too busy writing.) When we read that parts of Shakespeare's plays are 'contested' we know we are entering the intense inner world of the Jacobean theatre, where scripts are going in all directions and everyone is shouting to be heard. Whereas what is contested in this case is the exact extent of Johansson's intellectual input. He might be a bright cookie but it would take the biscuit if he really had a grasp of all the knowledge in his articles. If he did then he's in the wrong job.

The real writer, of course, is the cryptically-named Lsjbot. Wikipedia's own definition goes like this: 'A bot (derived from the word 'robot') is an automated