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Magazines > Searcher > March 2006
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Vol. 14 No. 3 — March 2006
FEATURE
Wikipedia and Britannica
The Kid’s All Right (And So’s the Old Man)
by Paula Berinstein
| Consultant, Berinstein Research

Many Searcher readers, especially those of us who went to library school, remember the hushed reverence with which the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the last published in the U.K., was spoken. Here was a classic work of scholarship that was so definitive, so monumental, that it was still unmatched decades after its completion in 1911.

So it is perhaps with mixed feelings that we regard the upstart Wikipedia [http://www.wikipedia.org]. The bottom-up, dynamic, nonprofit, Web-based encyclopedia continues to mushroom in popularity (about 2.5 billion page views per month) and size (more than 873,000 articles and 43,000 contributors associated with the English-language version, and more than 89,000 total volunteers working on over 2,550,000 articles in more than 200 languages). And as it grows, a battle of sorts has emerged between it and the iconic Britannica (which now contains over 65,000 articles and 35 percent updated content in the 2005 print edition and more than 120,000 in the online edition). The Britannica also now appears online as well as in hard copy, DVD, and CD-ROM. The most blatant symbol of the battle is Wikipedia’s page devoted to correcting errors in Britannica.

The primary question for info pros is, of course, reliability. Can "the public" concoct and maintain a free, authoritative encyclopedia that’s unbiased, complete, and reliable? If not, then Britannica may rest on its laurels and its good name, although with the Web so free and accessible, it’s been taking licks for some years. But if the answer is "Yes," what happens to that shining beacon of scholarship, its publishers, and its academic contributors? Is encyclopedia publishing a "zero sum" game?

Contributors

To address the question, let’s first look at the contributors to each. Wikipedia’s are volunteers, including a core group of about 2,000, and you know what they say about volunteers. Managing them is like herding cats. But, like cats, these volunteers manage themselves pretty well, a feat that seems next to dumbfounding. An international nonprofit, the Wikimedia Foundation, manages the infrastructure and pays the bills, but it doesn’t run the endeavor in a top-down fashion.

What characterizes these volunteers? For sure they have online access. They’re skilled in using wikis, which implies a certain level of both intelligence and geekiness. And oh yes, Wikipedia’s contributors are people with time on their hands, for sustained participation takes time.

Why do they contribute? In today’s busy world with time at such a premium and most of us overworked, who would take the time from their busy schedule on a regular basis to do careful research and meticulous writing? Articles aren’t signed, so it can’t be for the glory, although Wikipedia leader Jimmy Wales says that recognition within the community, where you do get known, serves as a powerful motivator for some. Some contributors may harbor personal or organizational agendas, but with a bunch of picky people overseeing their contributions, expression of those agendas in articles is not likely to last long.

Surveys of open source project participants have found that some sort of public interest or community spirit is often part of the motive. These enterprises offer an opportunity to contribute to something that has lasting value and will continue to grow. Open source publishing allows writers and software developers to apply their skills outside a strictly business environment. Casual writers and editors sometimes participate as a hobby or learning experience.

Wikipedia leader Jimmy Wales confirms these results and describes Wikipedia volunteers in this way:

They’re mostly in their late twenties and thirties, professionals, some graduate students, some professors. Lots of geeks who are working in Wikipedia outside their field of expertise. The example I like to give would be of a math professor who works on Elizabethan history articles. Part of the motivation that people have for doing this is that in our modern world, people are strongly encouraged by the organization of society to specialize in some area, but they may be very well-rounded intellectually. So math professors really focus on a very, very narrow subset of mathematics and professional work, but they have broad intellectual interests and really enjoy having the opportunity to interact with people intellectually on other types of subjects.

So I’d say the main two motivations people have are the big picture charitable goal, the idea that we’re doing something to give a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet. And then also just the fun of doing it. It’s just like lots of geek fun to get on and start working with people.

Wales does not know if any "Wikipedians" write for other encyclopedias.

Britannica ’s contributors are chosen for their professional expertise. As the company’s literature says, they are "Nobel Prize winners, authors, curators, and other experts." Another blurb says, "Most are authors, university professors, commentators, museum curators, scientists, and other experts chosen for their field expertise." These writers get paid for their work on the encyclopedia and they get bylines.

Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications at Britannica, says:

… essentially we look for the best expert on every subject and try to commission an article from him or her. We’ve had good luck most of the time. Our contributors have included Einstein, Freud, Marie Curie, and more than 100 Nobel laureates, including many that write for us today, such as Milton Friedman. Top historians such as Joseph Ellis and Robert Dallek are among our contributors today.

We go about selecting these people through a number of means. Our editors are knowledgeable in the subjects they cover, and we also have many outside scholars and experts advising us, such as our editorial board, which itself has several Nobel Prize winners and university presidents.

These people oversee our staff editors, give them guidance, and suggest contributors and other advisors to us. We have about 4,800 contributors worldwide.

Asked whether any Britannica contributors write for Wikipedia, Panelas says:

Not that we know of. I think it’s unlikely. Our contributors tend to be busy and serious people who expect to be paid for their work. They also want their handiwork respected and taken seriously, and few would want to submit something that would be subject to the whims of someone who knows little or nothing about the subject.

Audiences

Wikipedia’s slogan is "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." As librarian K. G. Schneider points out in her blog, Free Range Librarian [http://freerangelibrarian.com/archives/052905/wikipedia.php], this description is aimed at Wikipedia’s content providers and maintainers, not its readers. In his first law, "Books are for use," library theoretician Ranganathan meant that "information does not exist to please and amuse its creators or curators," explains Schneider. "As a common good, information can only be assessed in context of the needs of its users."

Who exactly are the users of both Britannica and Wikipedia?

Britannica’s Panelas says, "Our customers tend to be knowledge and information seekers, a broad group consisting of students, professionals, and lifelong learners. They tend to be better educated than the population as a whole, or they aspire to be. Beyond that they share few demographic characteristics."

Wikipedia’s users are potentially everyone under the sun. Because it has versions in about 200 languages, its reach is potentially far greater than that of Britannica. Britannica offers only an English-language version, although the company does produce other works in other languages.

So not only do the characteristics of Wikipedia’s and Britannica’s contributors differ, so do their audiences. Wikipedia’s audience is far more general than that of Britannica, which implies that its mission and scope must be so as well.

Missions

When asked about Wikipedia’s mission, Wales says that the most important thing about Wikipedia is that:

… by free, we mean freely licensed. So free in the sense of GNU or in the sense of open source software so people can take our work, and they can copy it, modify it, redistribute it. They can do all this freely, commercially or non-commercially.… Then when people are working in Wikipedia, they can feel comfortable that their work won’t ever be made proprietary. It’s a gift from the Wikipedians to all of humanity, and that’s really a core value for us.

This statement makes it sound as though the mission is primarily related to intellectual property. But on Wikipedia’s e-mail list, Wales says," It is my intention that we be valued for completeness and coherency and ‘brilliant prose’ *as well as* for being freely licensed, with magnificent breadth and speed and usefulness, etc."

Wikipedia’s community pages assert that its goal is to create a free, democratic, reliable encyclopedia, the largest encyclopedia in history in terms of both breadth and depth. Wikipedia itself defines "encyclopedia" as a written compendium of knowledge.

Panelas describes Britannica’s mission:

To publish highly useful works of superior quality in the broad areas of reference, education, and learning in all media and for all ages. Reference, encyclopedias specifically, is what we’re known for and what we’ve concentrated on for most of the 237 years we’ve been in business, but for about 60 years we’ve published in related areas, including the school curriculum, educational film and video, and the classics (Great Books of the Western World), to name a few. 

According to Britannica’s Web site, it is "the most authoritative source of the information and ideas people need for work, school, and the sheer joy of discovery." Also "The definitive source of knowledge. Period." It also notes, "32 volumes are packed with 44 million words covering the breadth of human knowledge." More prose indicates that Britannica "continues to capture the staggering breadth and depth of human knowledge with unsurpassed accuracy and accessibility," and that it is "the most thorough, entertaining and up-to-date treatment of virtually every subject imaginable."

Wikipedia’s mission is more diffuse than Britannica’s. It is trying to be many things to almost all people. Britannica knows exactly what it is and doesn’t aspire to exceed that.

Scopes

Does it make sense to compare a work that tells you how to make coffee with one that employs Nobel Prize winners to expound on lofty subjects? Delving into the scope of each illustrates that the two differ enough to make doing so a vain exercise. Wikipedia is large and diffuse. Britannica is finite and well-defined.

When asked about the scope of Wikipedia, Wales says:

First of all, Wikipedia’s an encyclopedia, so that’s a very broad scope, and one of our sayings is, "Wiki is not paper," meaning we don’t have to restrict ourselves based on space considerations. There’s always more room available since it’s all electronic. But at the same time, of course, you can’t have an encyclopedia article about absolutely everything. We have rules like verifiability.… If somebody wants to write an article about their cat, for example, that would just get deleted because there’s no way for anyone else to verify the information. So those are the kinds of things that we balance to figure out the overall scope of our work.

Wikipedia’s guidelines also say that subjects of articles should be notable. The community pages explain that what constitutes notability is always under debate: "Few of us believe that there should be articles about every person on Earth, every company that sells anything, or each street in every town in the world." When asked about that criterion, Wales glosses over it and says that the information needs verifiability.

Notability is actually a very controversial requirement within the community simply because it’s so subjective. What’s notable enough? So what we prefer to do is more or less shy away from notability, just because it ends up being a pretty unproductive discussion, and focus a lot more on things like verifiability: whether or not the information can be verified. That’s a much easier thing to decide rather than "Is it important enough?" That’s a very tough argument to have.

He concedes that determining whether something is verifiable entails a complex process, but essentially, it means attribution to a reputable source:

Well, a simple example would be references to published books, academic papers, that sort of thing. That makes information verifiable. You can say, "I found it in this book." An example of something that might or might not be verifiable would be something like a Web site about a band. Lots of little garage bands have very puffy Web sites about themselves that they made themselves, but you can’t find any reference to the band anywhere else. Not in any newspaper, not in any music sites, and you realize, "Oh, this is just somebody who made up a Web site." So the information that’s contained within that Web site is something that you really can’t verify.

Wales continues:

There are definitely kooks and crackpots out there who have self-published books and you have to treat those with great caution. One of the rules that we have in Wikipedia is no original research. People are always coming out with their new theory of magnetism or something like this, and they want to put it into Wikipedia, and we just don’t allow that. And so in different areas the standards for what would count as a legitimate source will vary, just depending on the nature of the subject. For something in physics we’re going to want to have some reference to a mainstream physicist published in a mainstream journal or book. Whereas for other things, a lot of pop culture things, there are no academic references, and the only real sources are Web sites on the Internet. Things like that. So it just depends. There’s no simple formula to answer this kind of question, really.

When asked to compare Britannica’s scope with that of Wikipedia, Panelas says:

We can’t cover as may things as they do but we wouldn’t even try to. What they do is very different from what we do. We don’t have an article on extreme ironing, and we shouldn’t. Wikipedia does what it does, and their strengths come at a cost. The cost of piling up large numbers of articles is a high level of inaccuracy, sloppiness, and just plain poor articles. For some people it’s a price worth paying, and that’s fine. There’s room in the world for many sources of information with different virtues and shortcomings.

The Wikipedia Process

Wikipedia exemplifies a fascinating new paradigm. It is open to everyone, not only to read, but also to create and maintain, and governed primarily by community consensus. This model is so disruptive that it’s worth examining in some detail.

Anyone can edit a Wikipedia article. Until recently, when a brouhaha erupted over alleged character assassination in an article about John Seigenthaler, an associate of Robert F. Kennedy, anyone could initiate an article. (The Seigenthaler article’s author, who was identified shortly after the story broke, said he was only joking.) Now you must be a registered user to offer an article, but, of course, anyone can register. The logic behind the change is that forcing people to register will slow down the creation of new pages and allow quality checkers to keep up. According to Jimmy Wales, quoted in Business Week on Dec. 14, 2005, "… we’re preventing unregistered users from creating new pages because so often those have to be deleted."

Articles are not signed, but every change is linked to some kind of identifier, either a user name or an IP address. A history page for each article shows the text of every change and the identifier of the person who made the change. You can see all changes made by an individual, compare versions by hitting a button labeled "Compare Selected Versions," and see at a glance whether previous versions include major or minor edits. These abilities allow users and nonusers alike to spot trends and, potentially, agendas. Users who abuse the system are blocked.

All changes are tracked. As new changes come in, the changes go onto a list for easy spotting. This practice is supposed to help the community keep an eye on everything and exercise quality control. Sometimes it fails, largely due to the volume of edits. Sometimes the problem is that an article isn’t well-linked to anything else. That’s how the false Seigenthaler article managed to stay intact for 123 days before discovery.

Why not sign articles? Since no one "owns" any part of any article, if you create or edit an article, you should not sign it. On the other hand, when adding comments, questions, or votes to back-end (i.e., community) pages, it is good to "own" your text. So the best practice is to sign it.

The idea behind Wikipedia is that it’s self-cleaning. If someone posts an article or change that includes an error, the community will find the error and fix it. This approach resembles that of the open source software community, where code is open and available to all, and where thousands of eyes are more likely to spot problems than just a few. Wikipedia is a bit different from open source software, though, as Jimmy Wales points out. With open source software, a final version emerges as the official issue, at least for that release. Wikipedia is never locked for good; there is never an official version of an article.

Wikipedia requires that participants take neutral stances and write without bias, which isn’t always easy to do. As a Wired article, "The Book Stops Here," March 2005 [http://wired-vig.wired.com/wired/archive/13.03/wiki.html], says, "Wikipedia represents a belief in the supremacy of reason and the goodness of others." Yes, people will clash, but respectfully, and out of their conflict, something like the truth will emerge.

Whether the system works depends upon several things happening: 1) someone who knows what they’re doing actually finding the error; 2) noble, nonpartisan intentions; 3) members practicing the philosophy, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it"; and 4) the existence of a community familiar with the rules and respectful of its members, except for trolls and vandals.

Community is key in Wikipedia. Anyone can participate, but a relatively small core community does most of the work (see Table 1 below). There are written community standards, like intolerance for bad behavior (vandalism, trolling, personal attacks); encouragement of a friendly, helpful, thoughtful environment; and writing from a neutral point of view. As Wales puts it:

The wiki process, in and of itself, is something of a mutually assured destruction-type of process. In other words, if you write something that’s biased, it’ll just be deleted. And so everybody who participates has an incentive to try to write for the enemy, as we put it, or write for people who may not agree with you and try to phrase things in a way that’s as neutral as you possibly can because that’s the only way to write something that will survive the test of time.

In practice, these lofty goals can’t always be met. Some contributors have complained of cliquishness and left. Others have alleged an anti-elitist attitude in the committee that forces out "experts."

When asked about that, Wales says:

I’m not sure of any specific incident, but there are people who do come and go from time to time. Some people do leave because they are being attacked, but they are being attacked because they’re being completely preposterous in their behavior. So we don’t feel too bad about that, although I prefer not to attack people. But if they can’t write in a clear and neutral and intelligent manner, then yeah, they probably should leave the project. Sometimes good people leave the project because they end up dealing with idiots until they can’t stand it anymore. And so we always have to balance a lot of different competing concerns within the community. We hate losing good people because we’ve been too slow in blocking a troll or a vandal who was messing up their good work. But on the other hand, we don’t want to be too quick to ban people if it’s just some ordinary editing dispute. And so finding the middle ground is an ongoing process. It’s messy and human and will never be perfect.

Enforcement of Wikipedia Community Standards

Wales describes the enforcement of community standards:

Well, I think a lot of it is just the most important and active members of the community setting the right tone. We have a lot of internal rules having to do with behavior. No personal attacks. If somebody makes a personal attack on the Web site, it can just be removed. If somebody does it repeatedly or too often, they can actually be blocked from editing. So it’s a lot of little subtle things more than anything else. It’s basically an attitude of intolerance for bad behavior.

Anyone logged in can put an article on a watch list. When someone changes the article, a note pops up on the watch list, allowing the community to monitor and correct malicious and nonmalicious changes.

But when things do get out of hand:

Normally if somebody comes in and they start doing some vandalism, they’ll get one warning, but then they’ll just be blocked from editing. We block based on IP number, which is imperfect. People can get a different IP number. But it seems to do a reasonably good job of it. I guess the main thing is that there’s an escalation process. So once somebody is a community member, you’re not just a random person who shows up and starts vandalizing pages; you’re a community member doing things that are not socially acceptable — you’re making bad edits or you’re picking fights with people. Then in the English Wikipedia anyway, there’s the arbitration committee, which hears disputes among users and can ultimately block people from editing for short periods of time or longer periods, up to a year.

As far as the Seigenthaler article is concerned:

Well, the first thing to realize is that the number of articles isn’t really the right measure for how hard it is to patrol, because a lot of the articles just sit there. They’re not really edited; so it’s no problem to patrol them because nothing’s happening to them. What really matters is the flow of new edits and the ratio between the flow of new edits and the number of active, experienced contributors keeping an eye on things. That ratio seems to be just fine. Everything seems more or less normal in that regard. In this particular case, what happened was that there was a new article created by an anonymous user. It was not well-linked from elsewhere on the site and therefore it slipped by the new pages patrol, who are constantly looking at things and deleting things. From there, it never showed up in the view of editors who are very experienced in that area, the Kennedy era politics and things like that. So what we’re doing to try to fix that problem is basically turning off the ability for unregistered users to create new articles in an attempt to slow down the flow of new articles to a pace where the people who are monitoring new articles make sure to not let things like that slip through. There’s a cost of doing that though, because the vast majority of people who are doing work, even while not registered, do good work. We want to maintain the ability for people to edit without having to log in. It’s a tough trade-off to figure out exactly the right way to improve the situation.

Sometimes, the editors will end up locking pages for a while. Wales explains:

Basically, what happens sometimes is we’ll have a very high-profile page. The example I like to give is when the new pope was announced. That page was extremely high profile. It was linked to from major news sources, it got tons and tons of traffic, but it was tons of traffic from people outside the community. And, as a result, that page was getting vandalized. Our response to vandalism is to protect a page, to lock it so that no one can edit it. Well, it’s really not good to have such an important page locked. We don’t like it when we do that. So we’re looking for a softer tool to deal with that situation. The softer tool is, instead of protecting the page, which is our traditional method, to put the page into a state of time delay, so that when people come in and vandalize, we have 10 minutes to catch it before it goes live on the site. From looking at our statistics, we think that would stop 99 percent of the type of vandalism from ever being seen by the average user.

In the case of nonmalicious contributors who just make inaccurate entries:

Well, there are different kinds of cases. In one case somebody who’s normally a good user just makes a mistake. They are reading a source and working on an article and they’ve misread the source or misunderstood it and gotten something wrong. That’s no problem really. That’s part of the process of writing. The other case would be somebody who’s just persistently putting in bad information over a long period of time. That person would ultimately be invited to leave the project.

Wikipedia Critics

Co-founder Larry Sanger, who left the project and has just co-founded a $10 million venture-funded expert-reviewed free online encyclopedia called Digital Universe, wrote a controversial article published Dec. 31, 2004 [http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/12/30/142458/25], in which he says Wikipedia suffers from two problems: lack of public perception of credibility and the dominance of difficult people, such as trolls and their enablers. Sanger argues that despite Wikipedia’s popularity, even those who use it don’t necessarily trust it. For the public to truly embrace Wikipedia as an authoritative source, it needs the support of academia and of teachers, schools, and libraries.

In addition, Sanger argues, Wikipedia has a particular problem with very specialized subjects. Since you really need in-depth specialized knowledge to contribute authoritatively to these topics, knowledge few people have, these articles suffer from uneven quality.

And then there are the trolls. The community gives them far too much respect, says Sanger. These people, purposeful provocateurs, back more honorable members into corners. As in other Internet venues like discussion lists and Usenet groups:

… if you react strongly to trolling, that reflects poorly on you, not (necessarily) on the troll. If you attempt to take trolls to task or demand that something be done about constant disruption by trollish behavior, the other listmembers will cry "censorship," attack you, and even come to the defense of the troll.

Wikipedia has dealt with this problem through its arbitration committee, which can oust the worst offenders. Nevertheless, Sanger says that the community tolerates some pretty bad behavior, which ends up driving away some good people. In fact, Sanger says, this is the reason for his departure.

As Sanger sees it, the root problem is anti-elitism, a lack of respect for expertise. Not only does the Wikipedia community as a whole not respect expertise, but it actively disrespects it and tolerates that disrespect. Sanger sees this sorry turn of events as a personal failure. During the first year, he tried to institute a policy of respecting and politely deferring to experts. He accuses fellow founder Jimmy Wales, who hired him and now manages both Wikipedia and Wikimedia (the parent foundation), of being anti-elitist himself.

What happens to experts, Sanger says, is that they not only have to defend themselves against non-experts, but if they complain, they get shouted down or "politely asked to ‘work with’ persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best)." And this is a primary reason for lack of support and participation among experts, he says.

Lots of people argue Sanger’s points pro and con. Here is a sampling of their remarks:

  • The community doesn’t respect experts because the title of "expert" means nothing. He/she judges people by their actions, not their titles.
  • It is more important to participants to be a member of the Wikipedia community than to be an expert, so "outsiders" are treated with suspicion. It is kids, students, the unemployed, etc., who have the time to participate, so what do you expect?
  • There is room for many different encyclopedias. One of Wikipedia’s assets is that it allows many points of view to be expressed (as opposed to academia, where ideas go in and out of fashion).
  • Academics are just as prone to troll behavior as everyone else.
  • Wikipedia isn’t supposed to be the same thing as an encyclopedia: it’s an experiment to see if accuracy can be arrived at through consensus. If there were an editing or oversight process, the experiment would be pointless.
  • So what if you can’t trust Wikipedia? What can you trust? And anyway, Wikipedia has disclaimers about the content.
  • You don’t need experts; you need footnotes and references. There is such a project at Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Fact_and_Reference_Check, WikiProject Fact and Reference Check.
  • Experts are "hoity-toity."
  • Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, featured a peer-review process and produced almost nothing.
  • The experts-only encyclopedia has been tried and didn’t work.

Many observers have suggested that instituting quality control through ranking contributors, but others say that knowledge is fundamentally elitist and most people don’t have enough expertise to rate the contributor.

Other cited problems include plaigiarism (including cases in which correct attribution has been deleted), self-promotion and advertising that goes unrecognized and uncorrected, and poor readability.

In his article "The Great Failure of Wikipedia," dated Nov. 19, 2004 [http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html], Jason Scott states "a low barrier to entry and an easy access to an audience tends to lead to problems." Later in the article he says that the failure of Wikipedia is "that there’s a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of proceduralwhackjobs. And the mass of twiddlers and procedural whackjobs means that the content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders. The difference between this and the open source software model, he says, is that there is a small number of people who maintain the code based on suggestions from the community. "Maintainers make incremental improvements, not radical changes."

But the good/better/best argument that some people make is worth considering. For many subjects, Wikipedia is good enough. One commenter explains that it helped him learn to make better coffee with his new equipment.

The Britannica Process

Britannica adheres to a traditional publishing process. It has about 4,800 contributors and advisors and about 100 editors in-house as compared with Wikipedia’s couple of thousand core community members. These people are selected in the classic manner: They are carefully vetted and chosen based on their qualifications for the job. Articles are developed for publication and put through editorial review. Lead times vary, but can amount to a number of months for large articles.

Britannica has always issued yearbooks to make corrections and bring new findings to light. Now that its encyclopedia is online, changes and additions can be posted more quickly.

Panelas says of the revision process:

It varies by subject. High technology articles have to be revised more often than, say, medieval history, though the latter subject will need revising as new scholarship is produced. I should say, though, that this business about how often things are revised, which everyone asks all the time, tends to miss important things about the craft of encyclopedia making. Encyclopedias are not newspapers and should not be newspapers. To the extent that they try to be they become derelict in their main purpose, which is to produce a useful, reliable, and well-integrated summary of human knowledge. Part of being reliable means that you don’t go chasing every intellectual fad, every passing thought and idea that anyone has. Encyclopedia articles should reflect considered scholarship, which sometimes means we do a disservice to a subject if you revise too quickly.

There are people who will tell you otherwise, but many of them, frankly, don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re new to this enterprise, they haven’t bothered to learn much about it and don’t see much reason to learn about it because they believe they are in the midst of "reinventing" it. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether one can reinvent an endeavor about which one knows nothing.

Authority

As it is difficult to hit a moving target, so is evaluating Wikipedia’s authority. One minute an article may be flawed; another, it may be capable of satisfying most experts. Users who rely on Wikipedia as a sole source are playing roulette, even if they check and recheck entries.

In November 2005, the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg, South Africa, published an article called "Can You Trust Wikipedia?" The article offered expert assessments of seven South African topics appearing in Wikipedia. On a scale of 1 to 10, only one article got a 10. One got a 2. The others fell roughly into the 6 to 8 range.

In December of the same year, Nature published a study using peer review to compare the treatment of science by the two sources. The conclusion: Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica.

Nancy O’Neill, principal librarian for Reference Services at the Santa Monica Public Library System, says that there is a good deal of skepticism about Wikipedia in the library community. She also admits cheerfully that Wikipedia makes a good starting place for a search. You get terminology, names, and a feel for the subject.

Wales agrees. He says:

I guess the main thing is people need to understand that Wikipedia is very much a work in progress. That it is in many places very high quality, but because it is an open-ended work in progress, there can be mistakes and errors that haven’t been caught yet. I would treat it as an excellent starting point to get some basic background information before doing further research.

But as information architecture expert Peter Morville reminds us in his Oct. 17, 2005, piece "How Findability Determines Authority Online: The Wikipedia Phenomenon" [http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2005/10/17/
how_findability_determines_authority_online.htm
], "Authority derives from the information architecture, visual design, governance, and brand of the Wikipedia, and from widespread faith in intellectual honesty and the power of collective intelligence." He feels that Wikipedia does a great job in these areas and that it beats Britannica because, in the spirit of Google, it’s "more findable"; that its "multi-algorithmic," Google-derived approach, which includes full-text searching, internal link structures, metadata, and free tagging, is the point.

This is interesting stuff. Today’s developers and avid Web users are thinking in ways that are as different to some of us as Western and Eastern cultures are to each other. Morville indicts the authority of traditional sources as much as that of Wikipedia. "… even the revered Encyclopaedia Britannica is riddled with errors, not to mention the subtle yet pervasive biases of individual subjectivity and corporate correctness." And therein lies the rub: There is no one perfect way. Britannica seems to claim that there is. Wikipedia acknowledges there’s no such thing.

Librarians and information professionals have always known this. That’s why we always consult multiple sources and counsel our users to do the same. If we adhere to that practice, what are we worrying about?

Panelas describes Britannica’s attitude toward objectivity and authority this way:

Well, I’ll simply say that we try very hard to be as balanced as we can, and we work very hard at it. There’s no other way to do it, and there’s no formula. You have to know a great deal about a subject, the major controversies in it, and the weasel words and rhetorical devices someone might use to mask an agenda. You have to discuss an article with a number of advisors to get different opinions and a complete picture. You have to select contributors in part on the basis of what you judge to be their ability and willingness to provide a complete picture of a topic, and you have to be prepared to edit and revise a draft of an article if some aspect of it is missing. You have to do all of these things, and frankly you have to do them with a kind of dogged seriousness that few people can imagine. Some subjects are of course harder to cover in a balanced way than others, and for the harder ones you have to work even harder to get it right.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Part of it is having good editors and training them well. A good editor has strong habits of mind, such as skepticism and curiosity that at times border on obsessiveness. These habits of mind do not occur naturally in the population, even among well-educated people. It takes years of training to acquire them, which is why there’s a rigorous laying on of hands between our senior editors and the junior ones. By the time you get any serious responsibility at Britannica, you have typically worked at this under experienced people for years.

Apples and Oranges

Wikipedia embodies a collaboration frenzy as hot as tech startups in 1999, but let’s not forget that there are two schools of thought on collaboration. One says the more minds, the more refinement, nuance, and innovation achievable. The other quotes the old "a camel is a horse designed by a committee" saw. The problem with both approaches is that the search for truth is an ongoing process. An encyclopedia entry can be accurate as far as it goes, but rarely complete. It may represent a temporary consensus, where "temporary" could mean a few minutes or a few decades.

The inconvenient reality is that people and their products are messy, whether produced in a top-down or bottom-up manner. Almost every source includes errors, probably including this article. Many nonfiction books are produced via an appallingly sloppy process. Budgets for mainstream and smaller publishers alike rarely allow for careful-enough quality control.

In this author’s opinion, the flap over Wikipedia was significantly overblown, but contained a silver lining: People are becoming more aware of the perils of accepting information at face value. They have learned not to consult just one source. They know that authors and editors may be biased and/or harbor hidden agendas. And, because of Wikipedia’s known methodology and vulnerabilities, it provides opportunities to teach (and learn) critical thinking.

I believe Wikpedia is self-cleaning and evolving and that Wales and his community will sort out their problems. Look how fast the Adam Curry changes came to light, for example. (Former MTV Veejay Adam Curry, who has been instrumental in the founding of podcasting, allegedly altered Wikipedia’s podcasting entry to maximize his contribution and minimize those of others.) After I interviewed Wales, he announced that eventually, Wikipedia will consist of a "stable" version of pages vetted for accuracy before being seen by the public. Can the same self-healing qualities be attributed to other reference sources?

As far as accountability is concerned, let’s set some consistent standards and stop worrying about ridiculous lawsuits like the class action suit some nut job is attempting to put together [http://www.wikipediaclassaction.org/]. Every source has errors that propagate every time someone reads, hears, or watches them.

Let’s act like careful, reasonable people. Wikipedia is a great starting point. It’s a lesson in research methodology, a fun way to share expertise, and a groundbreaking new way of working. Its consensus model represents a shift in management styles and away from hierarchical organization. You might say that Wikipedia is Zen-like. Its ever-changing nature means that when you read it, you are completely in the moment. And its collective brain is like a conscious universe in which we are all one.

Britannica is a different animal. Flawed, yes. Behind the times with regard to non-Western and minority leadership, sure. Indispensable? You betcha.

Table 1

Edits >=WikipediansEdits total
1136051 100.0%13694681 100.0%
372254 53.1% 3589776 99.2%
1043531 32.0% 13421625 98.0%
3221752 16.0% 13044284 95.3%
10010761 7.9% 12432973 90.8%
3165182 3.8% 11453192 83.6%
10002375 1.7% 9873711 72.1%
3162831 0.6%7180106 52.4%
10000 188 0.1%3733822 27.3%
31623 24 0.0%1164670 8.5%
10000010.0% 131513 1.0%

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wikistats/EN/TablesWikipediaEN.htm


Paula Berinstein’s original interview with Jimmy Wales can be heard on her podcast, The Writing Show, at http://www.writingshow.com. The author can be reached at paula@compulsivecreative.com.
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