Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Wikipedia and the Truth

A couple of years ago I had a very bad experience with Wikipedia. I was writing an essay and needed some interesting filler-fact to flesh out a discussion of a person I was mentioning in a fairly minor way. I ran to Wikipedia. This historical personage, it informed me, was the first to do something of fairly low importance in English history. Perfect, I thought, that will do! Oh how I erred... my supervisor at the time smiled at me when talking through the essay with me, and asked where I had discovered this wonderful fact. I hummed and hawed, and eventually mumbled "somewhere online I think". It turned out that this historical personage of minor importance was by no means the first to do what Wikipedia said he did. He wasn't even the second.

At the time I was outraged. How could the internet lie to me? A new slogan I decided, should be "Wikipedia: putting the con in context". I wondered how such untruths could find their way on to what seemed a fairly good-willed open encyclopedia. But the fault, I now see, was not with Wikipedia, but with myself.

I've read a few articles over the last months that all say roughly the same thing; Wikipedia is fine, but of course you muct always check that the information you use is correct. The common opinion seems to be that Wikipedia should be treated as you would treat facts given to you by a friend over coffee - a useful starting point, but then go and look in books. I think this hard to argue with; Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, and I suspect is the first point of call for many when they touch on some totally unfamiliar subject, but it has to be used carefully. Since that embarrassing mistake I've been careful to double check everything (something, let's face it, I really should have been doing anyway).

I wonder, however, whether this is in fact the case for all our factual resources, whether they appear online or in dusty old pages? Surely the advice given to those who dare use Wikipedia holds true for all scholarly endeavours? Who are we to believe? This must seem a fairly obvious point, but I suspect that Wikipedia is open to such criticism as much because of the number of readers as the number of contributors. As an open source encyclopedia there seems little doubt that much of what it contains is open to question. Were standard traditionally edited encyclopediae read as frequently as their open-source online cousin, however, I wonder whether they would find themselves being treated with the same caution? Furthermore, if the readers of a traditional encylopedia could correct errors at the touch of a button, perhaps their infallibility would seem more fragile. Wikipedia's weakness may be that it contains errors, but in comparison to traditional volumes a strength may be that, at least for Wikipedia, changes can be made visible to all.


Shane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ishmael said...

It seems there's a risk of double standards here. Academics condemn Wikipedia (and other Googled facts), whilst using them themselves all the time; just look at this admission from the THES.

It's not that Wikipedia is bad, or even worse than print sources; as you point out, were print sources read by as many people as visit Wikipedia, then the number of erroneous facts spotted would no doubt increase (something the book-believing luddites might well forget). Just that you have to be canny about when to rely on Wikipedia and when to double check - and you're definitely not alone in being caught out at some point.

Of course, the logical follow-up question is to ask if you went back to Wikipedia and edited in the correction? Or are you happy for the internet to sucker in others?!

Shane said...

Being honest, I left the big fat lie on the internet. Now I feel ashamed... perhaps it is time for me to get wiki-editing.

Anonymous said...

Is there an email where people can contact Shane?

Thank you!

Shane said...

Sorry for the delay - you can email me at - I look forward to hearing from you!

melissa donald said...

I definitely think that there is a discrepancy between the theoretical acceptability and practical use of Wikipedia at Universities; it is the same at my university in New Zealand. We are absolutely not allowed to use or reference Wikipedia in any way and yet it is often the first go-to point for many academics when starting to explore a topic.
But I think that maybe people just don't know how to regard Wikipedia and the information it holds yet; readers of wikipedia approach it in the same way they would approach a traditional encyclopaedia but it is far from the same thing.