Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wikipedia warning

Wikipedia is an internet phenomenon, and deservedly so. In the past, encyclopedias took decades to write, they were limited in the number of subjects they could cover, and any given entry could go out of date immediately after the encyclopedia was published.

Wikipedia's unique approach is to allow anyone to publish or edit an entry. Thus Wikipedia has covered a vast range of topics in a hurry. Many of the articles are written by experts in the field, and the articles needn't go out of date since they can be revised as necessary.

Bloggers cite Wikipedia information all the time. But how trustworthy is it?

Let's just say that the Wikipedia approach can create problems. From today's Globe and Mail:
Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that allows anyone to contribute articles, is tightening its rules for submitting entries following the disclosure that it ran a piece falsely implicating a man in the Kennedy assassinations.

Wikipedia will now require users to register before they can create articles, Jimmy Wales, founder of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based website, said Monday.
Wikipedia contains a biography of John Seigenthaler Sr., who was the administrative assistant of Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. The biography falsely claimed, "for a brief time, [Seigenthaler] was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both [President John F.], and his brother, Bobby." That information was available on the Web site for 132 days.

As mentioned above, Wikipedia will now require users to register before they can create articles. The founder hopes this will limit the number of entries being created:
"What we're hopeful to see is that by slowing that down to 1,500 a day from several thousand, the people who are monitoring this will have more ability to improve the quality," Wales said Monday. "In many cases the types of things we see going on are impulse vandalism."

Wikipedia visitors will still be able to edit content already posted without registering. It takes 15 to 20 seconds to create an account on the website, and an e-mail address is not required.

Seigenthaler, a former newspaper editor at the Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn., and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said that following his op-ed piece in USA Today the biography of him was changed to remove the false accusations.

But Seigenthaler said the current entry on Monday still got some facts wrong, apparently because volunteers are confusing him with his son, John Seigenthaler Jr., a journalist with NBC News.

Also disturbing is a section of his biography that tracks changes made to the article, Seigenthaler, Sr. said. Entries in that history section label him a "Nazi" and say other "really vicious, venomous, salacious homophobic things about me," he said.

Wales said those comments would be removed.
It's good to bear this example in mind. We ought to be aware by now that it's a mistake to assume something is true just because it's in print.

That said, I still think Wikipedia is an excellent resource:  more trustworthy than many other internet sources.

9 Comments:

At 5:11 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

I posted on this very topic yesterday. :)

 
At 6:50 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Heather said...

This is interesting. When I am teaching students about doing research (about religion), the first place they always begin is the internet. I have to teach them first to BE suspicious of what they read, and then HOW to be suspicious - what to look for, what gives one website more authority over another etc. I find myself using Wikipedia even to ground some facts. I can't know everything anyway!

I also find that Wikipedia offers more detail, more history, more context, more information than the online encyclopedias that are available exclusively to registered students.(Through their library's website)

Here comes the dilemma - the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion, could by some academics, be more authoritative and reliable, but Wikipedia, in the end is more useable. I think Oxford needs to examine this!

 
At 12:20 PM, December 07, 2005, Blogger Wasp Jerky said...

I certainly think it's good to be suspicious of what you read on the Internet. But I live in the States, where journalism is, to put it kindly, piss poor. I trust Wikipedia far more than I trust many of the news outlets here.

 
At 12:57 PM, December 07, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Sadie Lou:
You did a better job of writing it up than I did.

Now that I've read your post, I understand why the founder of Wikipedia thinks that getting people to register is any kind of a solution. It could enable them to identify who edited an entry, and trace anyone who deliberately adds falsehoods or slanderous information.

• Heather:
As you know, an encyclopedia is OK as an entry point for research. Any good one will provide bibliographical data — or links, in the case of a Web-based encyclopedia.

An encyclopedia is thus a kind of secondary resource, even if it's written by someone with expertise in the field. To really explore the subject you have to go to the sources behind the encyclopedia article. If you could get your students to understand that, they'd be all set.

• Wasp Jerky:
Wikipedia's information in the area of biblical criticism goes way beyond the expertise of any newspaper, in the USA or elsewhere. It really is quite an achievement.
Q

 
At 1:03 PM, December 07, 2005, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

q--
*blushing* Thanks for the compliment.
I've had problems with anonymous commenting on my blog. I had a falling out with some cousins and then they would show up on my blog to harrass me and say really disgusting, hateful things about me and my family. Of course I didn't know FOR SURE it was them because they didn't put their names on the comments but I was pretty sure. Since then, I have made it a law for my blog that if you're just out to be disruptive to the conversation and you don't put your name on the comment, it gets deleted--with relish.
:)

 
At 1:09 PM, December 07, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

It's true, Wikipedia isn't the only internet site that has problems with anonymous writers!

I allow anonymous comments on my blog, because I sometimes talk about sensitive issues, and I understand why people might want to preserve their anonymity. But, like you, I don't hesitate to delete a comment if someone is deliberately being creepy.
Q

 
At 4:14 PM, December 07, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

There are lots of people out there with an axe to grind. I'm all infavour of moderating posts - on wikipeadia & on the web as a whole. The logistics are beyond me, but all freedoms need some discretion.

 
At 8:57 AM, December 08, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Mrs. Aginoth:
All freedoms need some discretion.

I think that's right.
Q

 
At 4:54 PM, December 08, 2005, Anonymous J said...

I think taking a little more control over their entries would definitely be a good think for Wikipedia to do. Their model is very useful as it is now, but it seems pretty vulnerable too.

As a side note, one of my history professors assigned a Wikipedia entry as part of the required reading for my class last week--thought that was kind of an interesting phenomenon, given how wary professors usually are about internet sources.

 

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