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Last Updated: Friday, 16 December 2005, 12:24 GMT
What is it with Wikipedia?
Technology commentator Bill Thompson is a big fan of the open source encyclopaedia Wikipedia, despite its faults. But that does not mean he is not aware of them.

John Seigenthaler
John Seigenthaler wrote a scathing article about Wikipedia
Wikipedia, the open source encyclopaedia that is created entirely by its readers, with entries which can in the main be edited by anyone who feels they have something useful to contribute, has had an interesting few weeks.

Last month Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg found his Wikipedia biography had been vandalised and contained a number of libellous statements, a story which was widely covered in the national press.

Then former MTV VJ and podcaster Adam Curry admitted to anonymously editing the podcasting entry to remove credit from other people and make his own role in the early days seem more significant.

And at the end of the month, US journalist John Siegenthaler wrote a scathing article in USA Today about the libellous material in his Wikipedia biography. The material was later revealed to have been a prank by someone who thought that the encyclopaedia was a joke site.

Following Mr Siegenthaler's article, the site team changed its policy to require creators of new content to register, although since there is no verification of identities this is hardly likely to make a big difference to anyone intent on vandalism or character assassination.

It was also confirmed that you cannot sue the Wikimedia Foundation for libel in the US because it is a hosting company and not a publisher, and US laws protect online publishers from legal action.

Of course, now that a printed version of the German edition is to be made available this may not keep them out of the courts, at least over in Europe.

Testing time

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 Encyclopaedia Britannica which shows a different picture.

Bill Thompson
No information source is guaranteed to be accurate, and we should not place complete faith in something which can so easily be undermined through malice or ignorance thanks to its open architecture

They asked experts to review articles covering scientific topics, without telling the reviewers which source they were looking at; although since the writing styles of the two publications are rather different, it cannot be assumed that the reviewers did not realise.

Even so, the results were impressive. 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 encyclopaedia.

"But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively."

One response to this is to wonder at how we manage to live with such inaccurate reference materials. But as the partner of a writer of children's non-fiction work I see at first hand how much work goes into fact-checking for publication, and can sympathise with those writers and editors who occasionally slip up.

Most Wikipedia entries are written and submitted in good faith, and we should not let the contentious areas such as politics, religion or biography shape our view of the project as a whole.

Wikipedia certainly has its detractors. 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, and even suggests we look at Wikipedia as "a massively scalable, online role-playing game" where "players can assume fictional online identities and many 'editors' do just that".

The publishers of other encyclopaedias, especially the Encyclopaedia Britannica, have been similarly negative about the project, although they have a commercial interest in undermining the use of this free online resource so are not completely neutral.

Filtered information

The achievement of the Wikimedia Foundation should not be underestimated, but we should not be surprised if there are errors. No information source is guaranteed to be accurate, and 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.

Wikipedia is produced by volunteers, who add entries and edit any page
It is the same with search engine results. Just because something comes up in the top 10 on MSN Search or Google does not automatically give it credibility or vouch for its accuracy or importance.

It tells you something about how the page or site under consideration is viewed by the search engine, but that is really all.

One benefit that might come from the wider publicity that Wikipedia is currently receiving is a better sense of how to evaluate information sources.

Ofcom, the UK's media regulator, is also responsible for media literacy; although it sits oddly with its role investigating competition in the telecoms market or reporting on broadband uptake.

The days when everything you saw on a screen had been carefully filtered, vetted, edited and checked are long gone. Product placement, advertorials and sponsorship are all becoming more common.

An educated audience is the only realistic way to ensure that we are not duped, tricked, fleeced or offended by the media we consume, and learning that online information sources may not be as accurate as they pretend to be is an important part of that education.

I use the Wikipedia a lot. It is a good starting point for serious research, but I would never accept something that I read there without checking.

If the fuss over Siegenthaler, Stoltenberg and Curry means that other readers do the same then it will have been worthwhile. We should not dismiss Wikipedia, but we should not venerate it either.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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