Wikipedia Editors Have Been Fighting Over Corn for at Least a Decade

Maize or corn? The eternal debate over Wikipedia Article Titles continues.

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Dec 19 2017, 3:00pm

Image: Keith Weller, USDA/Wikimedia Commons

If you Google or search for “corn” on Wikipedia, you will be redirected to an article on maize, which the page describes as synonymous with corn. But should this redirection really happen? Most people probably gather the corn-related information they were looking for and move on, but as we first learned on a recent episode of the podcast Important If True, for some enthusiastic Wikipedia editors, this is a heated discussion.

The redirection of “corn” to the “maize” page has sparked a debate that has dragged on for at least a decade. The Talk page on Wikipedia discussing the Maize article lists four previous nominations for the article to be moved from Maize to Corn. Three of these nominations, taking place in 2007, 2011, and 2013, reached no consensus, and the most recent, which took place in June of 2015, resulted in no move for the page yet again.

The minutia of the intense debates can be found in the archives of the Talk page, where users can each make a series of points, then rebuttals with more and more indentations. This eventually leads to requests for changes to Wikipedia pages if a consensus is reached, but, even then, Wikipedia may not change the title if it is a contentious issue, as corn versus maize has become.

The argument on corn versus maize seems to come down to the question: should the title of an article on Wikipedia be ambiguous yet recognizable, or specific yet obscure?

Pro-maize Wikipedians argue that “corn” can has many meanings depending on locality. In Europe, “corn” is a general term that can refer to wheat in England and oats in Ireland, in addition to the “US maize” or “Indian corn” typically thought of in the United States. “Maize” is more specific, more scientific, and those who support using Maize as the article name cite Wikipedia’s guidelines for flora naming conventions, which indicate that the articles should “follow usage in reliable sources,” which is often the current scientific name.

Those who are pro-corn, on the other hand, argue that Maize is a “formal, obscure” word, and that, according to Wikipedia’s guidelines for Article Titles, the website “generally prefers the name that is most commonly used.” Team Corn writes that maize is inconsistent with other usage of “corn,” because no one says “popmaize,” or “maize on the cob.” Other Wikipedians also argue that corn is much more frequently searched than maize, and therefore it makes more sense as the article title. The rebuttal to this argument is that those who search corn are redirected to the maize page anyway, so it is a moot point.

Some Wikipedians argue that, as the use of “corn” is predominant in the US, labeling the article “Maize” shows “anti-American bias.” But certain objectors argue that the English Wikipedia Manual of Style “prefers no major national variety of the language over any other.”

In response to this, Peter Coxhead, one of the Wikipedians who has been debating the issue as recent as this year, told me in an email statement that “there are two Norwegian wikipedias... because of disputes over dialect differences.”

Coxhead, one of the 650 most active Wikipedians by total number of edits according to his user page, began editing as a result of a long-held interest in wildflowers. “I regularly looked up information in Wikipedia, and had noticed that often it was deficient or even wrong,” he wrote. He began seriously editing Wikipedia in 2009, and, as a retired academic, he wrote that “it feels like an academic activity. [But] My wife would say it’s just an addiction.”

Coxhead’s position on the debate comes from the criteria laid out for Wikipedia Article Titles, which include recognizability, naturalness, precision, conciseness, and consistency. “The problem with ‘corn’ as a title is that it doesn't meet all of these [criteria] *in an international context*, nor does ‘maize.’ So we have to compromise,” Coxhead said.

For Coxhead, Maize meets three of the criteria: recognizability, naturalness, and precision. “It's not as recognizable or natural in North America as ‘corn,’ but is precise everywhere,” meaning that maize can be used as a more scientific and therefore internationally recognized term. “‘Corn’ is too general worldwide to be precise,” wrote Coxhead. As for the other criteria, both are concise, and he feels that consistency, whether or not the title is consistent with similar entries, does not apply.

Ben Kovitz, a participant in the corn/maize debate took an even more active role in the Talk page, which he first discovered in 2012. He told me over the phone that, in order to understand the debate, he had to go through pages and pages of often-repetitive archives that stretched back years. “Someone says ‘hey, here’s the problem with what you’re saying,’ and the person repeats what they said.” Kovitz calls them “‘oblique disagreements,’” and regrets the gigantic amount of text a newcomer would have to go through to understand an argument. Kovitz also told me that, after enough iterations of arguments, “people start resorting to insults.”

So, in response, Kovitz created a summary page of the argument, which provided very concise details on which much of the above arguments are based. Kovitz said that this tactic was unusual, because though Wikipedia has some means of dispute resolution, he had not seen this type of argument summary on other pages. He believes the number of maize/corn debates greatly decreased after this intervention.

Kovitz believes that the debate dies down once the arguments are explained. “I think the law tends to be like this too,” Kovitz said. “It’s very often hard to appreciate why the law makes sense. It evolved out of many, many, many fights in the past, and if you don’t know anything about those fights, you come in and go, ‘Well, this is stupid.’” When the fights are explained, then we can begin to understand the outcome, said Kovitz.

Kovitz believes that the article title of “maize” is the right answer, because many of the opposing views come from a less academic and more emotional place.

Many motions have sought to dislodge the name of “maize,” but it has remained. At this point, “maize” therefore seems to be the winner of this long-running debate on Wikipedia. But if there's anything the history of this fraught Wikipedia page taught me, it's that the debate might begin again tomorrow.