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Wikipedia: it's far from perfect ... and that's OK

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Luke Vilelle, Virginina Tech, USA

The Wikipedia phenomenon

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales will likely not soon forget the winter of 2005/06. In a span of two weeks, the free online collaborative encyclopedia was first demonized, then placed on a pedestal next to the hallowed Encyclopaedia Britannica. And in the process, librarians were left to wonder exactly what to make of the Wikipedia phenomenon.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, a summary is necessary before continuing. Wikipedia defines itself as the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" and has been in existence since 2001. As of November 2007 it featured more than 2 million articles in English alone.

On November 30 2005, John Siegenthaler, a former journalist, wrote a highly critical story about Wikipedia in USA Today. He detailed how the Wikipedia biography about him had been vandalized (it included erroneous information about his possible involvement in the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy), and had existed in that state for more than four months.

On December 14 2005, the journal Nature released a comparison study of Wikipedia and Britannica, using peer reviewers to judge the articles. The sample of Wikipedia scientific articles averaged four errors per article, only one more than Britannica's three errors per article average.

Truth exists only in shades of grey

Does the truth lie closer to the viewpoint of Siegenthaler, who suffered what he called "Internet character assassination" in his Wikipedia biography entry? Or is the truth closer to the perspective of the Nature study, which judged Wikipedia nearly as good as Britannica?

As with many things Wikipedia related, truth exists only in shades of grey.

First, let's look at what we know. People use Wikipedia. In November 2007 Alexa, a web ranking service, ranked Wikipedia the eighth most popular site on the Web worldwide, as judged by the amount of traffic to the site.

In the interests of full disclosure: I've even referred college students to Wikipedia.

I explain the Wikipedia concept to the student, how to make use of the references at the bottom for more information, and hope like heck that they truly use the Wikipedia article as a starting point for their research, not their entire research effort. As Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane has found, that is often not the case: "For students in my writing class at the Johns Hopkins University last semester, Wikipedia seemed to be the source of first, last and only resort, no matter the topic".

Obviously, Kane's students either have never heard, or have ignored, Wikipedia founder Wales: "People definitely should not be using Wikipedia as a primary source. The real story there is, why were they ever?".

That's easy enough to answer: Because Wikipedia – and Wales is mostly to blame for this – calls itself an encyclopedia, and students have been told for decades that they can trust encyclopedias.

A different beast

In reality, Wikipedia is a different beast. To think of it as an encyclopedia, in the traditional sense, is to both minimize its strengths (instant updates, flexibility, inclusion of multiple viewpoints in a given entry) and maximize its weaknesses (anybody can edit or create an entry, reviews only happen on a haphazard basis).

Wikipedia and Britannica may both be called encyclopedias, but they are not siblings, and they might not even be first cousins. They both aim to distribute information on a wide variety of topics to a wide variety of users, but their methods – and strengths and weaknesses – are vastly different.

Wikipedia, for instance, does terrific work in compiling extensive articles on breaking news events. Wikipedia can also cover multitudes of topics that the Britannica, because of its painstaking article development process, simply cannot reach.

On the other hand, every Britannica article is written by a hand-picked expert and goes through a peer review process to ensure quality. Wikipedia articles can be written by anybody, including some with malicious intent, and there is no review process before a change is made (to be fair, volunteer Wikipedia editors often catch errors fairly quickly).


A discussion in the blogosphere between Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, and Nicholas Carr, noted business writer and speaker and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, helps to illuminate the difference in the fundamental nature of the two publications.

Anderson, in a post on his blog "The Long Tail", noted that Wikipedia operates on the logic of probabilistic statistics, meaning it is "designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale". In other words, a few errors in the details are the necessary evil of an encyclopedia that will contain much more information on many, many more subjects than a traditional encyclopedia.

But is this a good thing? Carr, in a post on his blog "Rough Type", isn't so sure. "By providing a free, easily and universally accessible information source at an average quality level of 5, will Wikipedia slowly erode the economic incentives to produce an alternative source with a quality level of 9 or 8 or 7?".

Or the economic incentive to buy one? The Virtual Library of Virginia's (VIVA) Resources for Users Committee has established a group to examine Wikipedia and Britannica and to make sure Britannica provides enough value to justify its price.

It is unlikely that a wave of Britannica cancellations is around the next corner, because few would assign the same level of credibility to Wikipedia that Britannica receives. However, many devoted Wikipedians argue that Wikipedia will reach that higher credibility level, the Britannica gold standard or better, if you just give it time.

A guarantee of information reliability?

Wikipedia's cause will be helped by such editorials as Nature's "Wiki's wild world", which asks its readers to "read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically". But no matter how many experts become involved, no matter whether they ask authors and editors to identify themselves (possibly leading to more problems, if people give false identifications), Wikipedia as currently constituted will never be able to offer a guarantee of information reliability similar to that of Britannica.

And that's OK.

Wikipedia is not the problem. The problem that has been exposed is the lack of critical thinking in those that would willingly cite Seigenthaler's errant biography. When anybody unconditionally trusts what they see or read, whether it's online in Wikipedia, in a hefty Britannica volume (remember, Nature found it averaged 3 errors per article), or on CNN, then there is a problem.

Wales was quoted in the St Petersburg Times telling this anecdote: "One of the most prolific [Wikipedia] editors once told me, 'This might be the only encyclopedia there is in ten years. So we should probably focus on making it a good one'.

I too truly hope Wikipedia continues to get better. But I even more fervently hope that neither Wikipedia – nor Britannica – is our only encyclopedia in ten years' time.

Further reading on Wikipedia

Deggans, E. (2005), "When Wikipedians run amok on orderly online encyclopedia", St Petersburg Times, December 27.

Editorial (2005), "Wiki's wild world", Nature, Vol. 438 No.15, p. 890.

Giles, J. (2005), "Internet encyclopedias go head to head", Nature, Vol. 438 No. 15, pp. 900-901.

Kane, G. (2006), "Wikipedia shows good, bad sides of information access", Baltimore Sun, January 4.

Lipczynska, S. (2005), "Power to the people: the case for Wikipedia", Reference Reviews, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 6-7.

McKiernan, G. (2005), "WikimediaWorlds", Library High Tech News, Vol. 22 No. 8, pp. 46-54.

Johnson, G. (2006), "The nitpicking of the masses vs. the authority of the experts", New York Times, January 3.

Johnson, S. (2005), "Wikipedia: raising perhaps more questions than answers", Chicago Tribune, December 15.

Seigenthaler, J. (2005), "A false Wikipedia 'biography'", USA Today, November 30.