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Friday, 1st December 2006 Please login top-right to be able to star items

By Caryn Wesner-Early

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Caryn Wesner-EarlyIn July 2006, the American comedian Stephen Colbert defined 'wikiality' (a combination of the words 'Wikipedia' and 'reality') as 'truth by consensus'. Colbert asserted that if enough people believe something, it must be true, and he cited the success of Wikipedia as a case in point. He called on viewers of his television programme 'The Colbert Report' to prove his point by editing Wikipedia themselves. He suggested they insert into the article on elephants <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephants> the 'fact' that the African elephant population had tripled in the previous six months. An un-truth that, of course, spurred a rash of joke edits.

Although Wikipedia's volunteer editors responded almost instantly, correcting the article and locking it against further change except by editors with an established Wikipedia track record, the stunt succeeded in demonstrating to the world the central weakness of Wikipedia.

Controversy magnet

Throughout its five-year history, Wikipedia, the online, user-edited encyclopaedia, has repeatedly been the subject of controversy. Pranksters, those with axes to grind and, most often, well-intentioned people armed with inaccurate information have combined to leave its entries riddled with errors. These problems have rendered Wikipedia irrelevant, if not dangerous, in the eyes of many information professionals. But despite its obvious flaws and some well-publicised incidents, if used correctly Wikipedia can be a useful resource for students and professional researchers.

The problem is that Wikipedia allows editing with very little accountability. If an 'edit war' breaks out, with competing versions of an article following each other in quick succession -- as with the elephant debacle -- the article may be temporarily locked against further change. But it is possible to add to an article inaccurate, biased or frivolous information, which may stay there for months before being corrected, especially if it's on a low-profile topic.

Moreover, US law protects such 'service providers' as Wikipedia from liability for anything published on their site. According to a CNET article, 'Thanks to section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which became law in 1996, Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel' (<http://news.com.com/2100-1025_3-5984880.html>, accessed 12 November 2006).

Cautionary tale

But this protection against liability lawsuits can be damaging. A particularly egregious example of Wikipedia inaccuracy concerned John Seigenthaler Sr., a former editorial page editor for USA Today. In late 2005, Seigenthaler discovered a biography of himself on Wikipedia. It contained many errors, including the following:

'John Seigenthaler Sr., was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven'.

Utterly untrue, of course, but by the time Seigenthaler discovered the entry, it had appeared on Wikipedia for 132 days. What's worse, the false information had spread to other Internet sources, including Answers.com and Reference.com, whose computers, according to Seigenthaler's subsequent research, are 'programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia, never checking' the accuracy of the copied information.

This was especially painful to Seigenthaler, a friend and colleague of Robert Kennedy who had served as one of the pallbearers at the politician's funeral. He corrected the entry, but as it had already been copied to other Web sites it may still appear in countless places. In an editorial in USA Today on 29 November 2005, Seigenthaler wrote, 'we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research -- but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them' (<http://digbig.com/4qcyf>, accessed 12 November 2006).

Besides the variable reliability of Wikipedia articles, the information found there often reflects political, religious or ideological biases of writers and editors. Wikipedia strives to provide unbiased information, but since one person's bias is another's obvious truth, if the topic is at all controversial there will always be room for disagreement with the current version of practically any entry. Also, since pages can change without notice, one can never be sure whether information cited from Wikipedia will still be there when the citation is checked.

Does this mean we should shun Wikipedia and never turn to it for any reason? Of course not, but we should be careful with how we use the information.

As Wikipedia itself points out, 'Caution: It is always a bad idea to cite an encyclopedia in academic research papers' (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Academic_use>, accessed 12 November 2006). No matter who writes or edits an encyclopaedia, it is never intended as the end of the research process, but as the beginning. And as the beginning of the process, Wikipedia has a number of strengths.

Jumping-off point

For one, Wikipedia is an excellent source for a quick outline of an unfamiliar topic. In almost all cases, the Wikipedia article gives as good an overview of a topic as most other sources, usually in approachable language. Even more valuable is its use as a pointer to indicate other, more reliable information sources. At the end of most articles is a list of related links to source material such as books and journals, organisations concerned with the topic at hand and other jumping-off points for the serious researcher.

Wikipedia articles can be very current, often covering topics not yet available in more traditional sources. Less than a week after the election which established it, there was an article on the makeup of the 110th United States Congress (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/110th_United_States_Congress>, accessed 12 November 2006). Although it is true that articles may be changed between the time they are cited and the time the citation is checked, an update history is provided for every article, and each separate iteration may be viewed even after it has changed. If a citation to a Wikipedia article includes the date it was accessed, that date's version can be retrieved later. The following is the update history of Wikipedia's article on itself: (<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia&action=history> accessed 12 November 2006).

If the information you are looking for is about popular culture, such as information on a celebrity, television programme, movie or the like, Wikipedia is often one of the best sources. For instance, The Simpsons Movie is not scheduled for release until July 2007, but you can read about it in Wikipedia, complete with information on the cast, producers, plot and other details (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simpsons_movie>, accessed 13 November 2006).

Additionally, Wikipedia is handy for discovering synonyms and older or related terms, as well as regionalisms. For example, the article on the word 'agenda' starts out:

'Originally agenda was a plural word, a Latin term for "actions to be taken". What is now known as an agenda is a list of individual items, each of which was originally referred to as an agendum. In modern English, however, it is equally acceptable, and more common, to refer to the list as a whole as the agenda for the meeting. This modern English word is singular, and has a plural of agendas' (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_%28meeting%29>, accessed 12 November 2006).

If a term has several meanings, a disambiguation page is offered which is sometimes helpful in itself to differentiate among the different usages.

Although one of the founding principles of Wikipedia is a kind of anti-expert-ism, many of its articles are actually contributed by recognised experts in their fields. However, it is not always possible to tell which articles these are, because articles are signed with user names, which may or may not be the same as the contributor's actual name. Wikipedia has no mechanism for tracing user names to real people.

Popularity contest

Whether or not the 'wiki' form is to be accepted as reliable, it is becoming very popular, although not all wikis are meant for public consumption. It is a useful form for groups of people working together over geographic distances, because it is easy to track additions and changes using wiki software. IBM, together with over 50 patent policy experts from around the world, recently released a document stating its new policy on patent applications. The document was written by the whole community of stakeholders as a wiki, and then polished into finished form and closed to comment. It is now posted at (<http://www.ibm.com/gio/ip/> accessed 12 November 2006).

The new, communal world of the Internet is making it more important than ever for individuals to exercise judgment when relying on information from any source. As our information environment gets richer, users must become ever more alert to bias, disinformation, malice and ignorance on the part of the providers. Serious researchers should include community-based sources like Wikipedia in their 'online toolbox' for uncovering valuable sources of information. But just be wary of using the actual information found in such sources. Ask yourself if it's reasonable for an endangered elephant population to triple in six months (hint: an elephant's gestation period is around two years).


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