A Fair Copse

A few miles to the north of us lies as the relic of a larger wood Borthwood Copse, which was generously left to the National Trust by Frank Morey, a local naturalist.

Four years ago, if you were to believe Wikipedia’s entry here, this was the sole ‘virgin forest’ left in the UK. Consult that page today (May 2015) and Wikipedia’s list has dropped Borthwood Copse and instead claims the Forest of Dean and Puzzlewood (a tourist attraction within the Forest of Dean) as the UK’s sole virgin forests.

However look at the category listing for ‘Old growth forests’ here, and you will still see Borthwood Copse listed, even though the New Forest is absent.

Unfortunately the sources of those preposterous claims are obscure, but Professor Oliver Rackham, who has probably published more words on ancient woodlands that any other human, seems not to share them. Given the proximity of the New Forest, which has several ancient woodlands with far stronger claims to be ‘old growth forests’, those were and still are strange errors.

Nevertheless this has propagated through the many pages that spawn from each entry in Wikipedia, even into online magazines, bringing it ever closer to being de facto truth.

This is no criticism of Wikipedia, whose value remains inestimable, but of the parlous state of verification and assurance of information spread all over the Web. There have been very public exposés of some of Wikipedia’s less glorious moments, such as the embarrassing Brown-Cameron spat over the age at which Titian died.

Publishers of magazines and books employ editors, including subject matter experts, to scrutinise content that they intend selling. Free or self-published content hardly ever passes through the same process, as editors cost, and experts cost still more.

Even editors and referees are no guarantee against error, as is manifest in the high-cost world of learned journals. It is depressingly common to hear of reputable journals having to publish retractions of articles that slipped their safety net, and contained plagiarised material, falsified results, or brazen lies.

But at least there is the onus of admitting to such errors, and of striving to prevent them. As with all quality management systems, failures occur, but a good system picks them up and reacts swiftly and appropriately; major product recalls are actually good news, as they demonstrate determination to rectify faults.

The problem of providing such verification and assurance for online information has vexed many fine minds, yet there appears to be no good solution. At least, there is no good solution that does not involve cost, rendering that solution unworkable.

As more and more of us purchase content for our iPads and kindred devices, we open up a new model that could provide quality management every bit as good as that in conventional publishing, and benefit everyone involved. Now that this content bears minimal overhead – no physical media, transport or distribution costs – a proportion of the purchase price can be invested in verification and assurance, maybe even calling on external auditors.

Currently we get this to an extent in the electronic publication of works that have already been in print. Established publishers with justified reputations for the quality and reliability of their content are making their mark. In some areas, they are competing against those without reputation, sometimes correspondingly lacking in quality, but an efficient market should sort this out.

So we should see Rackham’s work succeed, whilst that of the Wikipedia digestors should wither on the vine. As new media criticism develops, organs such as the BBC and periodicals (electronic or print) are paying more attention to what is good and bad in iBooks, informing us as prospective purchasers.

I have repeatedly stressed how important I think content is to iPads and their rivals. Part of that significance is the re-introduction of assurance, quality, and criticism, so that we can see the wood for the trees.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 09, 2011. There are still no signs of critical scrutiny of most online content.