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    How much do you trust Wikipedia?

    by Mark Glaser
    April 14, 2006

    My editor recently questioned whether I should source my blog posts with links to Wikipedia, the community-built online encyclopedia. It’s a good question, a fair question, and one that many newsrooms are grappling with to some extent. Wikipedia is an amazing resource, with more than 1 million entries in English on an array of topics — with versions in dozens of other languages. The mind-boggling aspect of Wikipedia is that it uses the collective knowledge of its public contributors and editors, none of whom is paid. And when vandals or other history-revisionists strike, those same editors are tasked with keeping things in the “neutral point of view.” But still, the quality of Wikipedia varies from entry to entry, so I told my editor I would link to it when the entry did a good job defining a technical term. The counter-argument is that no information source is totally trustworthy and unbiased.

    What do you think about Wikipedia? Do you trust it as a source for neutral information? Should journalists and bloggers link to it to back up their stories or opinions?

    Tagged:
    • just listen to jason scott’s presentation “the failure of wikipedia” at notacon 3 earlier this week. ought to spike a giant nail in the collaborative coffin.

    • The problem with Jason’s most notorious analogy – the building a car one is … it’s not your car!

      Not to mention his textfiles.com friends’ odious behaviour on Wikipedia, notably RadMan. I think I blocked forty RadMan sockpuppets just myself.

      As far as I can tell, Mr Scott really doesn’t get the idea of collaboration without ego as motivation. Fortunately, Wikipedia works in practice even if it can’t possibly work in theory. Note that the German Wikipedia is onto its third DVD edition so far – that’s real consumers paying 10 euros of real money for a DVD-ROM of text produced by wiki collaboration. Anyone claiming they’ve mathematically proved it can’t possibly work will need to come up with increasingly contrived redefinitions of ‘work’.

    • Ah, and to answer the reference point: link to a particular version. A given version in the article history will have a constant URL.

      I link to it in my blogging because it’s the consistently best source available on the web. That would be why it’s popular. You don’t have a Britannica on your desk and you can’t assume your readers will.

    • Jason Scott’s presentation was very interesting, and supports a lot of problems that I have with Wikipedia (I am a casual editor). In particular, I dislike how the length of time an editor has been editing tends to get them more power versus who is actually more knowledgeable. However, those problems do not inflict every article, and I have confidence that Wikipedia will be able to adapt itself in the future.

      I personally link to Wikipedia, but I do not use it as my sole source of information when I need to know something is correct (such as writing a post. I’m personally fine with getting false information from Wikipedia if I don’t pass it on to anyone else and don’t make decisions based upon it). I suggest that you link to higher quality articles, particularly ones that you can confirm are sufficiently good, and only as background information on a post.

    • A couple of thoughts here:

      (1) Whatever you think of it, Wikipedia is hugely influential. It is the 17th most visited site on the Inernet and is the number one search result for lots of obscure/technical terms. I actually spend time helping to edit entries when I think they are inaccurate/need clarification. Everyone who cares about the concept of a collaborative encyclopedia should as well. Contributing is more effective than complaining about it. Wikipedia isn’t going anywhere. And it matters even if you think it is flawed.

      (2) My policy for linking to it mirros yours. I consider my link to a term as an endoresement of the entry. I take that seriously as a blogger.

    • AndrovPet

      If people paying money is evidence that wikipedia “works” you might also find evidence that your local occult bookstore “works”. Contrary to core Wikipedia writers’ xenophobic campaign against anything not endorsed by what they call “the mainstream scienctific community” if people paying money is evidence that their project “works” then Scientology works. Astrology “works” if widespread interest and people paying money is evidence that it “works”.

      Wikipedia was spawned several years ago as a sort of “letters to the editor” of what would have been a peer-reviewed expert-written free encyclopedia. What it is today has not changed, except the expert editors have been discarded and now the letters are purported to be an encyclopedia.

      Letters to the editor are an important source of feedback journalists and editors should read and should share with their readers as resources allow. But Wikipedia isn’t a primary source any more than the citizen that calls the news organization to report a fire — the newspapers job then is to go out and verify the fire — not to report that a citizen reported a fire.

      Anything in Wikipedia that is not sourced shouldn’t be cited as a source. Any information from Wikipedia that is sourced should be verified with the original source and the original source cited.

    • Androvpet,
      Not sure what you’re reffering to about something that “works” because of money. My point was that I found it mind-boggling that Wikipedia had harnassed so much collective intelligence without paying people. While it’s true that some of the information is uneven, there is also a lot of expert opinion that rivals any “cited source” you are referring to — and which sources are you referring to as the “original source”? You can find plenty of mistakes in material no matter who sourced it, from the person calling in the fire to the fire department to journalists (yes, we’re imperfect).

      I think the Wikipedia entries are stronger than the average letters to the editor, but they are uneven. There’s also the aspect of political bias, which I’ll be delving into more soon on the blog.

    • Mandrake R. Menat

      The science articles are excellent on Wikipedia. They rival the science articles found anywhere else on the web or in a set of bound encyclopedia.

    • wikipedia is worth linking to. it’s a major accomplishment of humankind to have assembled the wikipedia. the wikipedia has taught us what is possible.

      people who look askance at the wikipedia are the same people who look askance at the possible.

      “informal knowledge” can sometimes even be stronger — more complete — than formal knowledge.

    • Wikipedia is only as good as those who contribute to, and edit it.

      Nature finds that Wikipedia users seem to be doing a pretty good job of it so far, and one can only expect this to improve as the community grows.

    • Androvpet

      Mark,

      The “original source” I refer to are the sources of information on which Wikipedia articles are ostensibly based.

    • One can visit, as an exmaple, the last debate at the Islamofascism discussion page and realize how stuff works. There are many issues involved; copyrights, neutrality (NPOV) and accuracy. I believe that w/ the launch of Version 1.0 (see also stable versions’ project) things will get much better.

    • Rifleavenger

      We are no longer allowed to use wikipedia at our high school because some guy went on and got some totally bogus information from it. I think that information should come from a certified valid source, otherwise it may be an opinion.

    • SarahE

      Nature didn’t find that “Wikipedia users seem to be doing a pretty good job of it”. Natures’ staff reporters designed a survey of experts that found among a sample of 42 science-related articles assessed only for accuracy and not for readability, their experts’ responses identified 42/1,000,000 of Wikipedia’s articles as 32 percent less accurate than similar articles culled from several of Encylopedia Britannica’s online products.

      It’s worth noting that Nature further aggregated identified errors as either countable or not, and didn’t measure the degree to which the included content was eronious.

    • MIKLO

      You may find some useful articles there regarding technical issues or things that do not have any social or political essence to them. But when it comes to anything slightly political, the encyclopedia is entirely worthless. It is basically a source for those with a certain viewpoint to rewrite history. The administrators are the ones who settle any disputes, and oddly enough, the administrators seem to share a similar point of view regarding many subjects.

      Take for instance their “censoring”. If one goes to an article on genitalia, they are likely to find multiple photographs of real human genitalia. Very informative? But if you go to the article on abortion, you will find no photographs of an aborted fetus, no sonogram, and not even the famous partial birth abortion diagram. The editors have decided that real pictures, or even diagrams, of abortion would certainly be shocking, offensive, and in no way educational. In a discussion page, it was decided that for that subject, a bunch of words were worth a thousand pictures.

      Most subjects that can be divided into what we now call liberal and conservative, are strongly tilted towards liberal in the Wikipedia. But they say that the same thing goes for most Media. I sure hope NPR isn’t biased, Mark! You’d better keep your eyes open!

    • Miklo,
      Good point on the abortion debate. I’m actually hoping to do an in-depth post on Wikipedia’s bias in the near future. I think it’s very difficult for a community wiki to create unbiased material on controversial and political subjects.

    • Ta bu shi da yu

      A few quick answers to Androvpet:

      You write:

      “If people paying money is evidence that wikipedia “works” you might also find evidence that your local occult bookstore “works”. Contrary to core Wikipedia writers’ xenophobic campaign against anything not endorsed by what they call “the mainstream scienctific community” if people paying money is evidence that their project “works” then Scientology works. Astrology “works” if widespread interest and people paying money is evidence that it “works”.”

      This is a very confused statement. You appear to be upset that Wikipedia only endorses mainstream scientific ideas, yet at the same time you rubbish alternative ideas like Scientology and the Occult. Which is it?

      As for Wikipedia only endorsing mainstream scientific ideas, I must disagree. I think we do an OK job of producing NPOV material.

      “Wikipedia was spawned several years ago as a sort of “letters to the editor” of what would have been a peer-reviewed expert-written free encyclopedia. What it is today has not changed, except the expert editors have been discarded and now the letters are purported to be an encyclopedia.”

      I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. This is not correct. We were never a “letters to the editor” site. That would imply that we published original material and allowed debate about topics. We don’t – only discussions on material that go into articles are allowed on talk pages and certainly no debating is allow in the main article namespace.

      “Anything in Wikipedia that is not sourced shouldn’t be cited as a source. Any information from Wikipedia that is sourced should be verified with the original source and the original source cited.”

      Agreed, and that is what we have always said.

      Regards,
      TBSDY

    • Doug Lockwood

      Wikipedia is a remarkable source of information. Do I trust it as a source for neutral information? Absolutely not. After all, how much can you trust any Web site? Everyone has an agenda, everyone has a viewpoint, and any source of information should be viewed with a critical eye. There is no such thing as a neutral information source.

      Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to determine the validity of the information being presented. That does not remove the moral obligation of the author to provide the most valid information possible, of course. Certainly a Web writter should only present links to sources they believe are worthwhile and support their stories or opinions. But the reader has to realize that anything they read was written from someone else’s viewpoint.

      Many people claim to be worried about “vandals” and “history-revisionists,” but I personally feel that this is where Wikipedia’s real strength lies. As long as readers understand that wikipedia is community-built and community-refereed site (there is some question about whether Wikipedia should make that more apparent to readers), they will read the information presented with skepticism. On the other hand, people tend to blindly trust most other “official” information sources, which are no less vulnerable to intentional or unintentional gross inaccuracies or skewed viewpoints. The only difference is the readers’ perceptions of that information. If it’s presented as a research report, newspaper article, or in a textbook, people are less likely to question the validity of what they read.

      Kudos to Wikipedia for bringing perspicuity (acuteness of discernment or perception) and responsibility back to reading and research!

    • Wendy

      Wikipedia rules! Keep up the flow of info and the revolution will continue to move forward! Long live Internet freedom!

    • Dr S Jones

      Use of Wikipedia is discouraged where I teach. The quality of the entries in Wikipedia has significantly deteriorated in the past couple of years. Students who use it have points deducted immediately for demonstrating gullibility and a lack of real curiosity.

      The quality of writing and research on Wikipedia is appalling.

      My experiences are very similar to that of columnist Warren Boroson:


      Every time I look up something I know a bit about, I find errors…

      It’s not just that Wikipedia makes lots of mistakes. The writing is awfully long-winded, clumsy and boring. Obvious questions aren’t answered. There are grammatical howlers galore.

      Clearly, people who can’t write and who can’t edit and who can’t do research are running things. What next? Barbers will do brain surgery?

      Mobius, thank you for the link. It explains a lot. It’s good to see the press finally covering Wikipedia intelligently. This Guardian piece is excellent.

      While PBS still has the words Public and Service in its name, it should be reporting the truth.

    • I found this blog post later. Your later blog post, about NPOV and George W. Bush, was genius, and answered your own question!

    • Alex

      If Wikipedia is not a valid source then doesn’t that put the rest of the internet into question? And what about the newspaper? What makes that any different from Wikipedia? At my school, Wikipedia is outlawed and blocked from the school servers. Students have petitioned and argued but the school refuses to allow Wikipedia for anything. I believe it is incorrect to stereotype Wiki. I also believe it is impossible to create a valid source. If you throw Wiki into a question, then you are saying, in basic, that all sources are subject to biase and, therefore, invalid.

    • K-man

      Articles relating to science and obscure minutiae that only an expert would now like quantum mechanics generally are written by people who know it – an expert and thus sometimes correct. However, you’re never sure if it was rewritten by someone who did not know the subject that well – and never are sure if it is totally accurate. I have a medical background and I can tell you this… most medical articles have some element of truth and some element of false information…controversial subjects like homeopathic medicine are entirely wrong and written by people selling products.

      However, if you go on wikipedia to any other article that relates to history (as my historian friend who is a professor will tell you…) most articles are terribly biased and wrong. Any article relating to history from the invention of the steam engine or invention of calculus to any single war (especially foreign wars between foreign countries) that the general public has an interest in will have an element of untruthfulness and bias to it. Articles relating to foreign countries (especially India and the Middle East) and cultures will have been massively edited by people in those countries in a biased and incorrect manner…. Articles relating to sports figures and sports history or any biography that you name will be riddled with bias and errors… And then you get obscure articles on random stuff written by one person on the web – do you trust it as a source? How do you know that the person wrote the correct information? I read an article on an african lake in the middle of africa that said that the lake (about 1 square mile) has sharks and alligators living in it … That’s impossible! I don’t even know if the lake existed as I can’t find it on any tourist information website.

      Thus, reading and trusting wikipedia is like having a stranger come up to you and randomly in NY city, tell you a factoid in a straight face…. and then run off. You never know if the stranger told you the truth or if he was a nut. And the only way you will ever know is if you knew about the subject… which would destroy the need to look up the subject.

    • BT

      Interesting discussion.

      I advise my students to look suspiciously on Wikipedia and consider each and every bit on info they find there to be untrue, unless they can find a good reason to believe.

      However, I do believe that whether much of Wikipedia is true or not is not important for the majority of people using the Internet.

      I teach 11-18 year olds in the UK, and most of them will believe whatever they find on the internet without hesitation. They take decisions, communicate and interact with others on the basis of false information all the time, and it seems to make no difference to them or their lives at all.

      Indeed, while in the virtual world in which most of them exist for much of the day (every day), true/false is not a relevant concept. When they step back into the real world they cannot tell the difference.

      As a male in my forties I am starting to realise that “truth” as a societal value means very little to many young people now.

      It therefore matters little whether Wikipedia is accurate or not.

      Visit “uncyclopedia” if you dont believe me.

      Be good.

    • Up to 9 months ago we financially contributed funds to Wikipedia but no more, for we thought that it was a good idea and where its thinking was in unison with our own at that time – using knowledge for the good of humankind. When we as novices tried to place our Swiss charity within Wikipedia we were absolutely savaged by the editors. They in fact blocked our right of reply, which is documented by themselves.
      Thereafter we even sent our registration documents via email to the then executive director of Wikimedia, the holding organization, to prove that our international group was registered as a Swiss charity. He did nothing at all. A few months later he resigned with another top Wikimedia executive, ‘Jimbo’s second in command. The greatest problem with Wikipedia that we now find is that they are highly selective in who should place information and where therefore they will never really have a web-based encyclopaedia that is unbiased and totally factual. It is ultimately at the whims of the few enlightened ones who control what should be a great reference. Unfortunately we now see that it is not.

      For anyone interested further on how Wikipedia editors work, the full account including all emails will be part of our next web newsletter ‘Scientific Discovery’. It will be on-line by the end of July 2007. Overall, it is time we feel that Wikipedia looked internally at itself and that they concluded that they have major problems with the way they treat new entrants. This analysis should especially be directed towards the attitude of their editors, who remove the right of reply and delete super-quick for reasons not based on evidence but only hearsay. By the way also, the Wikipedian Editor Zoe who first blocked us and the initial instigator of all the basic trouble, fell out with ‘Jimbo’ and where she as well left a few months later. Apparently she had made a vendetta against a certain professor according to ‘Jimbo’s’ opinion. Thereafter she took her bat and ball home and has never been seen since. I believe she also threatened the embattled professor at the time – the web link is http://72.14.209.104/search?q=cache:dUfUXyA24wwJ:www.encyclopediadramatica.com/Zoe+zoe+wikipedia+professor+change+wikipedia&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl=uk.

      Dr. David Hill
      Chief Executive
      World Innovation Foundation Charity (reg. no. CH-035.7.035.277-9 – 11th July 2005)
      Bern, Switzerland

    • I notice that Dr. Hill has spammed over 20 blogs with this comment, but I figured that I should respond anyway. :)

      For some reason, it appears that Dr. Hill believes that if he provides the Wikimedia Foundation with money, then his charity will be automatically guaranteed a spot on Wikipedia. I am happy to say that this is not the case. While I have nothing personally against World Innovation Foundation Charity, Wikipedia’s neutrality and impartiality is very important.

      I have reviewed the original article. There are absolutely no references in the final revision before it was deleted. The main reason that it was deleted was because we didn’t believe that the organisation was notable enough to be listed on Wikipedia. This was done through articles for deletion – I will let the reader judge whether this was a fair process. I should also note that if someone believes and can demonstrate that they are notable, then there is a deletion review process.

      Dr. Hill should also be aware of our suggested guidelines that deal with potential conflicts of interest Though it isn’t prohibited on Wikipedia, it is clearly a conflict of interest to write about your own organisation. It is thus frowned upon. I think that given the goals of Wikipedia, this is pretty reasonable.

      Personally, I don’t believe that Wikipedia editors or the Wikimedia Foundation has anything against this charity. In my dealings with Wikipedia and the WMF, I have always found that they welcome contructive dialogue with organisations and individuals.

      Chris Sherlock
      User:Ta bu shi da yu
      English Wikipedia Administrator (writing in personal capacity)

    • loulou

      I would just like to post a personal experience here : i tried to edit a wikipedia article about the A-50 aircraft (Russian AWACS aircraft); the article was telling someting about the “counter-terrorist” operations in Chechnya… It is pretty obvious that no “terrorists” are implied in the Chechnya thing, since they’re just people who want their country to be recognized and to be independent… Well this article was edited again each time i tried to present Chechen as “combattants” instead of terrorists: we are not talking about Al-Qaida, but about a people who was for too long denied some sort of sovereignty by USSR. Today that USSR has collapsed, Russia appears to be even more aggressive to this little piece of land in Caucasian mountains. And obviously they want the world to think they’re right about it!!!

    • Pat Johnson

      In my humble opinion, if you are using the internet to research a subject, then Wikipedia is as reliable as any other source out there. Wikipedia is one of the few mass-use sites out there with any sort of content oversight at all. I understand the necessity of using the internet to research, but if your sole source of information comes online, then your research is dubious to begin with. You might as well be using Wikipedia as it is often the most up to date source you can find.

    • Check out wikipedia’s trust index here

      http://www.trust-index.com/item.php?sel_item=26

      Vote for it to express how much you trust it!

    • Check out wikipedia’s trust index here

      http://www.trust-index.com/item.php?sel_item=26

      Vote for it to express how much you trust it!

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