© Wikimedia, GNU Free Documentation License
online encyclopedia written and edited by the masses: a recipe
for factual disaster, or a potentially
more collaborative, up-to-the-minute and valuable tool than
its mainstream competitors? By Miriam Axel-Lute
Wikipedia has been big news lately. An ambitious collective
online encyclopedia written and edited by its users (a wiki
is a Web page that any visitor can edit), Wikipedia has no
top-down hierarchy of gatekeepers or editors. It has also
become a widely used resource: According to the Web-usage
ranking site Alexa, since early 2005, use of Wikipedia has
dramatically outstripped all other Web reference sites—including
Britannica.com, about.com and reference.com—and it is also
ahead of most search engines (other than Google, MSN and Yahoo!).
And it’s growing rapidly. The more popular it gets, the louder
the debates over it have become.
Retired journalist John Siegenthaler has come out strongly
against Wikipedia after material that falsely linked him to
the assassinations of JFK and RFK lasted on the reference
site for about four months. John Yarmuth, Congressional candidate
and founder of the alternative newsweekly LEO (Louisville
Eccentric Observer) in Louisville, Ky., also has joined the
disgruntled ranks when someone, falsely, linked him to Chandra
Levy’s disappearances. (But then, someone Yarmuth doesn’t
know removed the reference in days and noted that it was a
Wikipedia is a new beast. It is uncharted territory. But many
Wikipedia critics seem to assume that the one and only question
to be asked of Wikipedia is “Is it ever wrong?” (I dare you
to name a source that isn’t.) Here’s just a handful of the
more interesting questions that can and should be asked about
Wikipedia: How accurate is it on average? How accurate is
it compared to [x] other research tool? How useful is it?
What is it useful for? How is it best used? What should it
not be used for? How accountable is it? How transparent is
it? How can its failings be improved? I don’t have answers
to most of these, but the discussions are happening, and they
are far more interesting than the general hysteria about letting
the unwashed masses take a crack at knowledge production.
No one can really answer how accurate Wikipedia is on average.
It can easily be proven that there are articles that contain
falsehoods. Let no one say that is not the case. And, frankly,
no one does. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, has been careful
to tell people not to cite it as authoritative (nor to cite
encyclopedias in general for that matter), and to always check
When compared to other sources, things get interesting. The
journal Nature published a widely cited study last
December in which articles on scientific topics from Wikipedia
and Encyclopedia Britannica were sent blind to knowledgeable
peer reviewers for comparison. The study found that the two
sources were tied in the number of gross errors (four each),
and Wikipedia had on average four smaller errors per entry
to Britannica’s three. Apparently having expected Wikipedia
to fall drastically short, Nature itself, and virtually
all the media coverage thereafter, exaggerated the results
as “Wikipedia as good as Britannica.” Wikipedia itself,
on the other hand, presented the study in a scrupulously neutral
and accurate light.
As with any tool, users have to know what Wikipedia is good
for. Ethan Zuckerman, a cofounder of Geekcorps and fellow
with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, notes
that on broad topics of general interest, say “Ghana” or “Alexander
Hamilton,” Wikipedia’s articles are often poorly written,
scattered, inaccurate. But on a vastly larger pool of specialized
topics, Wikipedia excels, with articles generally written
and hashed out and watched over by experts and enthusiasts.
Technical and obscure information and information that needs
frequent updating are the Wikipedia gold mines—not just tech
stuff, but also things from the nitty-gritty details of the
characteristics of minor Hindu deities to current advances
in contraception and social movements too edgy or new for
the establishment to deign to research them. Wikipedia’s breadth
outpaces EB’s dramatically.
And yet it has more humility about what it doesn’t cover.
I looked up several specialized topics on both Wikipedia and
EB online. When Wikipedia didn’t have an entry, it
told me so and invited me to create an entry. EB, however,
returned a list of search results that were utterly unrelated
to what I had searched for. For “menstrual cup,” for example
(go to Wikipedia if you want to know; EB has nothing),
it gave me a list of trophies ending in cup: “World Cup,”
“Stanley Cup,” etc.
The kicker? Google’s ad words on its results page included
links to exactly what I was looking for.
Coming from a different perspective, author and Internet commentator
Cory Doctorow wrote a fascinating account on BoingBoing.net
comparing Wikipedia to the mainstream media—not on
the basis of accuracy, but on the basis of which one it is
better to be smeared in.
Doctorow comes down heavily in Wikipedia’s favor. It took
him months to get a correction out of a newspaper, and when
the correction was finally made it was done with no acknowledgement
to him and no trace online that any falsehoods had ever appeared.
When he was smeared on Wikipedia, he was able to change the
factual errors immediately, and then hash out a version that
was acceptable to everyone with the original poster on the
entry’s discussion page. The history of the changes and the
full discussion page is available for any reader who wants
the background, as with every Wikipedia entry. (Can you imagine
having access to the internal debates that led to the final
version of a Britannica article on a controversial topic like
Israel and Palestine? Wow.)
Even the furor caused by the revelation that Congressional
staffers were editing the Wikipedia entries for their bosses
and bosses’ foes was seen by many as a triumph of transparency.
After all, they’ve been feeding such lies to the mainstream
media and other information sources with impunity from time
immemorial. But on Wikipedia people could, and did, trace
all the offending IP addresses, detail their sins, and have
a public discussion of whether to ban the entire range of
IP addresses belonging to Congress from editing the site.
For me, such a public expose of the absence of ethics at the
federal level seems worth some short-lived (and they were)
mistakes in someone’s bio.
So use Wikipedia with the caution with which you ought to
treat every reference source, but use it. And correct it.
And argue about it. It’s a collaborative new world out there.