«

»

Jan 05 2015

The ghost of Stephen “Roy” Sherlock

An unsubstantiated addition to a little-watched Wikipedia article can quickly become accepted as ‘fact’.

The Sennar Dam and Blue Nile, photo by crew of Discovery, STS-29, March 15, 1989.

Having neglected Wikipedia for a while, I got down to some serious editing yesterday, starting an article on a firm of consulting engineers, Sir M MacDonald & Partners (since 1989 part of the Mott MacDonald international multidisciplinary consultancy). While searching for details of the background of the firm’s founders (Sir Murdoch MacDonald, of course, plus Archibald (or possibly Alexander) MacCorquodale, P H East and the splendidly named Oswald Longstaff Prowde), I found myself reading a short Wikipedia article on the Sennar Dam, a project constructed on the Blue Nile in Sudan in the 1920s. The narrative asserted:

It was built in 1925 by the British engineer, desert explorer and adventurer, Stephen “Roy” Sherlock, under the direction of Weetman Pearson. … Once completed, the dam was managed by Roy Sherlock until the 1970s.

However, reading some of the original 1920s descriptions of the project, there was no mention of anyone connected with the project being called Sherlock (the project was designed by Sir Murdoch and managed by Prowde, while the contractor was the UK-based S Pearson & Sons Ltd – today the publishing conglomerate Pearson plc – whose site agent was John Gibson).

Googling the Sherlock name only produced a large number of links based on the Wikipedia text, and I began to think this was a mischievous addition. A look at the edit history showed that the text – without references – had been added on 28 November 2009 by an anonymous contributor (only an IP address was recorded; only one other edit, a near-identical addition to an article on the town of Sennar, was associated with that IP address – a BT hosted address possibly in eastern England). It looked like a simple case of vandalism.

I edited the article to fit with the facts as presented from the contemporary sources, and, after making a note about the change on the article’s Talk page, I deleted the sentences about Sherlock (the claims were just a bit too ‘comic book hero’, I thought, and knowing such a major civil engineering project would likely be managed by someone in their 40s or 50s, I doubted anyone would then manage the scheme into their 90s or beyond). I also amended the Sennar town article.

But it seems the claims were believable to others – or, more likely, it was just cheap and easy “research”. During my web searches, I found the shifty Sherlock text had been cut-and-pasted into a 2010 report for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Numerous other sites have also used the same text, demonstrating how dubious information can quickly become accepted “facts”. Small wonder, therefore, that Wikipedia today places such importance on supporting assertions with citations from reputable independent sources.

3 comments

  1. Tim Fitch

    Paul,
    An important article. A similar problem has occurred in traditional academic publishing. I remember a case which came up when I was honorary editor of Geotechnical Engineering about 8/9 years ago. Prof Eddie Bromhead spotted an error in a diagram in a major text book written by the father of modern soil mechanics – Karl Terzaghi which had first been published over 60 years ago. He found over 20 examples of where this error had been copied into more modern text books. In this case there was no suggestion of malicious intent. The lesson was really anyone can make a mistake and primary sources can be wrong.

  2. Crispian Emberson

    Hello

    Stephen Roy Sherlock was my grandfather. Her certainly did run the Sennar Dam and also the Sudan Railway. During his free time he explored the region in his converted morris car. When he died there was a lovely obituary supplied by the Sudanese Govt which revealed much of what was stated in the Wiki note.

    I am conducting research so I will add more as I find it

    Crispian Emberson

    1. Paul Wilkinson

      I look forward to seeing some reliable sources.

      Kind regards
      Paul

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>