Monday, December 1, 2008

So how bad is Wikipedia really?

I was listening to the radio the other morning while I was getting ready for work, and the radio host had a professor from one of the local universities as his guest. I wasn't really paying attention to the interview until the professor haughtily stated that he "automatically fails papers that cite Wikipedia as a source." My first thought was, "Hmm - pretty draconian, don't you think?" However, it made me think - is Wikipedia really that bad?

Since 2001, Wikipedia's purpose was to become an encyclopedia that can be read and edited by anyone. Although it was intended to be a supplement to Nupedia (the on-line encyclopedia written by experts), it eventually replaced Nupedia, and it has become a phenomenon.

The openness of Wikipedia is a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is information can easily change virtually in real time, whereas with printed media, it would take time to rewrite or add an entry and republish the media. For example, if a major political figure passes away or if someone recently gets elected to office, the information is readily available on Wikipedia within seconds of the announcement, while one would have to wait for a new edition of the printed media. I also think the ability to openly share ideas and thoughts is a blessing as well. Sometimes the academic press overlook people who are extremely knowledgeable in a subject because they don't have an advanced degree.

The curse is any yahoo with a computer can write anything he or she pleases in the article. There are numerous incidents of pranksters gone wild on Wikipedia, including:

  • In 2005, Brian Chase anonymously posted that John Seigenthaler, a well-known writer and journalist, had a hand in the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy. This article remained on the site for four months.

  • In 2007, Turkish historian Taner Akcam was briefly detained in Montreal because of false information on his Wikipedia page about being a terrorist.

  • Numerous reports on false information being added to celebrities' or well-known figures' Wikipedia pages, including most recently reports on false information on former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's and golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's Wikipedia pages.

Another problem that I see with Wikipedia is they are slow to monitor information posted on a page. To prove this, I did an experiment with Wikipedia. I anonymously posted false (but not libelous) information about a well-known figure on the Wikipedia page - I won't say which figure ;). It took them about 4 weeks to remove the false information on the page.

So, is Wikipedia really as bad as they say? Depends on what you are researching. Based on my experience, I found that the majority of the technology articles were accurate and I could safely cite a number of them as sources. I also found that a number of pages on tangible objects (like cats and chicken soup) were also accurate. However, I have found that posts on controversial figures or events were not always accurate and were frequently "victims" of Wikipedia vandals.

I also think that despite some of its problems, Wikipedia gets too much of a "bad rap" from academia. For example, in this story in the New York Times, a history department at Middlebury College banned citing Wikipedia as a source because there was an obscure error in a post on the Shimabara Rebellion. If this obscure error was printed in an academic history book, I don't think that it would have caused as much of a kerfuffle.

P.S. On a lighter note, here's some humor about Wikipedia (and the Terms and Conditions) from one of the funniest stand-up comedians ever - Eddie Izzard (WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE):

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