The tough position of Wikipedia
Published: Friday, April 14, 2006
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 20:07
Ever since Wikipedia began to gain popularity, the questions of what it is, and what to do with it, has been batted around. Given that almost every article can be edited anonymously by any fool with an Internet connection, can the information be considered reliable? Can I use it for my research papers? Can I quote it in an article? Many would say yes to all of the above.
And this sentiment seems to have been bolstered by the recent media reaction to a study in the scientific journal Nature, which concluded that "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries."
But all the subsequent bickering between Nature and Britannica aside, this study isn't nearly as convincing as it may initially seem.
The average science-related article may be comparable in accuracy to Britannica, but that doesn't contribute much to proving whether or not the rest of Wikipedia is reliable, particularly in those areas where strong bias is likely to be a factor.
Even Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales recognizes the shortcomings in his project. According to the Wall Street Journal: "[Wales] says he was glad Nature chose to compare science-related themes 'because on history and the social sciences, we're much weaker.' In other areas - including computer science and the history of 'Star Trek,' he says - Wikipedia is 'way better.'"
Furthermore, pure vandalism is not an uncommon occurrence within Wikipedia's pages. After Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, the image on his profile was replaced with that of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. Likewise, the top of the page on George W. Bush is adorned with a tag that notes "As a result of recent vandalism, or to stop blocked editors from editing, editing of this page by new or unregistered users is temporarily disabled."
Now, Wikipedia is a fun and interesting site to browse through and admittedly, it's not a bad starting point for research on an unfamiliar topic. But the question is - why do we care whether Wikipedia is like Britannica?
The validity of Wikipedia appears to bear some significance on a university campus. My own first encounter with the word "Wikipedia" was in the bibliography of a fellow undergraduate's paper; since then, I have encountered a large number of students and a few professors who accept Wikipedia, to varying degrees, as a credible source for college work. Even The Daily Barometer, back in January, ran an article citing Wikipedia as a source of information.
To an extent, I think we want Wikipedia to work because it seems like such a very nice idea. There are a lot of warm fuzzy concepts behind Wikipedia, like collaboration, free and accessible expertise, and openness.
Wikipedia's more organic construction seems friendlier than the corporate model of Britannica and the like. Furthermore, it removes that nasty elitist feel associated with knowledge, equalizing users in a small way.
But these ideas, as friendly and open as they may seem, present a natural limit on Wikipedia's ability to accomplish its goals. An open-editing policy means that the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the altruistic and the impish, will all contribute. This also means that even if Wikipedia ever achieved the accuracy of a peer-reviewed journal, it would be fleeting; a number of anonymous users could and probably would make short work of it between pranks and honest mistakes.
Granted, Wikipedia has the advantage of being fluid enough to provide more up-to-date and obscure knowledge than its corporate counterparts, but it is also so cumbersome that one cannot guarantee that "Wikipedia saints" of sorts will always protect the quality of every article created. This presents a rather awkward situation for those attempting to cite a Wikipedia article for a paper. At least with Britannica, one knows that the article under perusal will most likely remain intact from one week to the next; with Wikipedia, a particular line may disappear and reappear on a day-to-day basis as authors contend over its validity.
The only means of creating a sufficiently reliable information source is to create incentive for accuracy; this is why, in an academic setting, we tend to rely on peer-reviewed journals. And this is why an Encyclopedia Britannica comes out more trustworthy in the end - Britannica's sales depend on the level of consumer trust in its accuracy. It may not be perfect, but at least it's stable.
In contrast, Wikipedia began on the assumption of general goodwill and altruism on the part of humanity. But Mr. Wales himself has been forced to temper that belief, after a public complaint by John Seigenthaler Sr., who discovered that for several months his Wikipedia biography had him linked with the assassination of JFK. Anonymous users were stripped of the right to author new articles, for the sake of reducing this sort of vandalism. On top of this there are individual pages, such as that of President Bush, which lock out certain users from editing at all.
And therein lies the rub. The only way for Wikipedia to become more reliable is to impose more restrictions on user contributions - in short, to become less like Wikipedia.
Angie Bergh is a senior in English. The opinions expressed in her columns, which appear every other Friday, do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Barometer staff. Bergh can be reached at email@example.com