Monday, January 02, 2006

There has been a lot in the news about Wikipedia recently. As the BBC reported, "Wikipedia has tightened its submission rules following a complaint from journalist John Seigenthaler described as 'false and malicious'," when an entry implicated him in the Kennedy assassinations. Seigenthaler phoned to complain to Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales (pictured), but he was informed that there was no way of finding out who wrote the entry. Wikipedia has since removed the entry and now requires users to register before they can create articles.

This seems like a good opportunity to discuss the trustworthiness and or tardiness of this online resources especially for scholars seeking short-cuts in their research. Of course being my ideal reader, your are already aware that Wikipedia works on an open source model. this means that anyone can edit its content. This alone can give conservative minded scholars the willies. As Bill Thompson writes, "Andrew Orlowski, writing in The Register, a UK-based technology website, is scathing in his dismissal of the site as a cult-like organisation where faith triumphs rationality" On the other hand as the Guardian in its leader on the subject remarked

In theory it was a recipe for disaster, but for most of the time it worked remarkably well, reflecting the essential goodness of human nature in a supposedly cynical world and fulfilling a latent desire for people all over the world to cooperate with each other without payment.

But the debate is not just a choice between academic condescension and utopian gloss. The guardian also published a useful article because it actually tried to address the issue by asking experts in the field to comment on the encyclopedia's accuracy. However this only underscored the fact in some cases that if one is going to be prejudiced against something no end of evidence is going to overturn that opinion. For example the "Encyclopedia" entry reviewed by the former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Robert McHenry:

A cynic might conclude that the whole article exists chiefly as a context for this paragraph: "Traditional encyclopedias are written by a number of employed text writers, usually people with an academic degree. This is not the case with Wikipedia, a project started in 2001 with the goal to create a free encyclopedia. Anyone can add or improve text, images, and sounds ... By 2004 the project has managed to produce over a million articles in over 80 languages."

And the BBC Online's technology correspondent Bill Thompson reported on a study by Nature:

In the midst of all this controversy, Nature published the results of an analysis of a broad range of entries from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica which shows a different picture… After looking at 42 articles, according to Nature, "only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia…. "But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively."

I broadly concur with Thompson's conclusion:

that we should not place complete faith in something which can so easily be undermined through malice or ignorance thanks to its open architecture… That does not devalue the project entirely, it just means that we should be sceptical about Wikipedia entries as a primary source of information, and not accept the claims that it marks some form of emergent collective intelligence, a new era in human consciousness or the rebuilding of the Library of Alexandria.

But I would add that the same 'cautiousness' should be extended to all sources, be they internet based or book based. What is really useful about internet-based research however is that you can cover a huge amount of ground and bounce from one idea to another very quickly, almost as if google or Wikipedia are an extension of the thinking process itself (I know that this statement is in need of some unpacking for its techno-determinist assumptions alone, but just go with it OK). What this means is that online research becomes something like brainstorming. It is true that whole pathways and areas are opened up. This is a different approach to research than the "looking for authoratative justification model" that is critiqued in the reports cited in this post. And in this context one consideration should always been at the front of the reasearcher's mind, namely that the opening up of knowledge is never a justification nor an end in itself, it is only the beginning of the sometimes wearisome but necessarily fastidious exploration of the territory that academic research demands. This is an endeavour of not just shoring up but actually substantiating or indeed refuting claims that are generated in the brainstorming phase. The fact that wikipedia is a free and widely available resources opens up access to knowledge for everyone. This is I think the reason that it is disparaged in some quarters.



Good article on why the media can't or just doesn't get Wikipedia

1 comment:

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