Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wikipedia The untrustworthy reference book

Want to find out about something on the web? The chances are you'll end up at Wikipedia, either directly or because Google sees Wikipedia as important and ranks its results highly. Wikipedia is available in many languages and I really only know the English language version that is edited by talented people from all over the world, but largely by editors in English speaking countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom as well as it's home country the United States.

A lot of people trust the information they get from Wikipedia and generally the information there is pretty good, but unfortunately Wikipedia can't be relied on to provide accurate answers and the reason for this is also the same reason that it has been such a success. Wikipedia is a contraction of Wiki Encyclopedia and anyone can edit practically any page at Wikipedia. You can edit, I can edit, bored school children can edit. This means that at any moment the page you retrieve is probably good, but may contain anything from biased information or commercial spam to a puerile string of rude words.

The puerile strings of rude words are usually removed very quickly, sometimes automatically and sometimes by a small army of volunteer editors from all over the world. I know, I'm one of these volunteer editors. Every so often I look at the recent changes by anonymous users page and try to remove bad edits that the robots missed. Because spammers are pretty dumb, spam links are usually very easy to spot, but more subtle vandalism is something that only an expert in a field is likely to spot, and because very few people are experts in many fields, random Wikipedia editors looking at random pages are unlikely to spot the vandalism and it can stay there for a very long time.

The other problem with the vandalism is that talented and dedicated editors from all over the world who should be working on improving Wikipedia are spending a lot of time reverting this vandalism. Specialists should be editing articles on their area of expertise, other editors could be editing and improving articles on things they know, such as their country or home town. British editors could be improving articles on England, Scotland, Wales, etc. I could be improving articles on NZ.

How do you as a user of Wikipedia protect yourself? The official answer is that just like a paper encyclopedia, all information in Wikipedia is supposed to be referenced to source documents. Unfortunately a very large number of pages are not properly sourced and those that are sourced can have sources that general readers would have trouble understanding.

The next best way to protect yourself is to use common sense, if you see something that looks like arrant nonsense, wait a minute and refresh the page, if the nonsense goes away, you're probably safe. For extra safety every page has history and discussion pages and a quick look there will show if the page is frequently edited or has known problems.

If you spot something you know to be wrong, you can always fix it. Be careful, that's the start of the process that got me started as a regular Wikipedia editor.

The late Douglas Adams described the fictional Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe as being definitive as
"though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it was always reality that's got it wrong."
Sometimes I feel like this about Wikipedia. I'd hate to live without the wealth of information it provides, but I always treat it with caution.

Originally published on Qondio

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