R685 – Week Eight – Collaborative Editing

I was planning to use this blog entry to expand upon my positions vis a vis Wikipedia’s suitability as a scholarly resource. But, there’s already a shorter version of what I call The Wikipedia Rant in an earlier weekly reflection post, so I thought instead I’d do some reading outside of the class-assigned readings and see instead if I could find anything that changed my mind.

First, I checked the Wikipedia page on accuracy disputes. I didn’t find anything I wasn’t expecting to see here – Wikipedia tries to push a Neutral Point of View (NPOV) and had several mechanisms for disputing the accuracy of a corpus of text depending on how severe the inaccuracies are.

Next, I found an editorial piece by John F. Kennedy’s former assistant, who experienced what incorrect information on Wikipedia can do to a person. This particular piece presents a chilling picture of the kind of far-reaching effect factual inaccuracies on Wiki can have. This may be a little bit of my bias, but while I’m willing to believe that there are a number of sites who simply scrape data from Wikipedia for content, I have to take this one with a grain of salt. That’s not to say that I do not sympathize with Seigenthaler, who obviously had a lot of problems stem from the inaccurate information being posted to Wikipedia, but I wonder what he would have done had such information been printed in a paper encyclopedia. Which brings me to the next reading…

Wikipedia vs. Britannica – a comparison of the two encyclopedias which describes a recent Nature study of a number of articles in the sciences which found that the average Britannica article had about three factual errors, whereas the average Wikipedia article has about four. That’s pretty impressive, considering the relative sizes of the two encyclopedias – 1.5 million happened in 2006 for Wikipedia (and over 2,000,000 by 2007 according to the next article), whereas Britannica boasts about 100,000 topics. In addition, many of Wikipedia’s “featured articles” are at LEAST on par with Britannica’s standards, though a number of articles still do not meet Wiki’s established conventions, and thus not all Wikipedia articles can be considered as good a source as Britannica.

Comparison of Wikipedia and other encyclopedias for accuracy, breadth, and depth in historical articles. This is the one that really stopped me. I’ll quote directly from the abstract:

Findings – The study did reveal inaccuracies in eight of the nine entries and exposed major flaws in at least two of the nine Wikipedia articles. Overall, Wikipedia’s accuracy rate was 80 percent compared with 95-96 percent accuracy within the other sources. This study does support the claim that Wikipedia is less reliable than other reference resources. Furthermore, the research found at least five unattributed direct quotations and verbatim text from other sources with no citations. (Emphasis mine.)

I have definite plans to go back and read the last item on this list more closely. I’m not entirely convinced of Wikipedia’s unsuitableness as an academic resource just yet, but I’m pretty well convinced now that it is fairly unsuitable as a direct resource as of yet. I still have no plans to change my “check the citations” strategy, since it has built me a number of fairly good bibliographies. I wonder if, as a student, one or more instructors had had me engage in fact-checking a Wikipedia article, how would that have affected my impressions of it?