Thursday, December 15, 2005

Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica

The December 2005 issue of Communications of the ACM contains an "Inside Risks" column raising concerns about some of the risks of Wikipedia:
relying on Wikipedia presents numerous risks:

* Accuracy: You cannot be sure which information is accurate and which is not. Misinformation has a negative value; even if you get it for free, you've paid too much.

* Motives: You cannot know the motives of the contributors to an article. They may be altruists, political or commercial opportunists, practical jokers, or even vandals (WP: ``Wikipedia:Most_vandalized_pages'').

* Uncertain Expertise: Some contributors exceed their expertise and supply speculations, rumors, hearsay, or incorrect information. It is difficult to determine how qualified an article's contributors are; the revision histories often identify them by pseudonyms, making it hard to check credentials and sources.

* Volatility: Contributions and corrections may be negated by future contributors. One of the co-authors of this column found it disconcerting that he had the power to independently alter the Wikipedia article about himself and negate the others' opinions. Volatility creates a conundrum for citations: Should you cite the version of the article that you read (meaning that those who follow your link may miss corrections and other improvements), or the latest version (which may differ significantly from the article you saw)?

* Coverage: Voluntary contributions largely represent the interests and knowledge of a self-selected set of contributors. They are not part of a careful plan to organize human knowledge. Topics that interest the young and Internet-savvy are well-covered, while events that happened ``before the Web'' may be covered inadequately or inaccurately, if at all. More is written about current news than about historical knowledge.

* Sources: Many articles do not cite independent sources. Few articles contain citations to works not digitized and stored in the open Internet.

But the authors don't seem to recognize that most of these risks apply to all published sources, not just Wikipedia or online sources. The reliability of sources on the Internet needs to be examined, just as the reliability of conventionally published sources needs to be examined. They also don't mention that volatility can be a benefit, reflecting rapid change as more or better information becomes available.

A comparison by Nature found that the treatment of scientific subjects by Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica is of comparable accuracy. This CNN article, referencing Tom Panelas of Britannica, says "Britannica researchers plan to review the Nature study and correct any errors discovered."

I bet Wikipedia will have its errors corrected before the Encyclopedia Britannica will. I encourage writers to continue criticizing Wikipedia for inaccuracies they discover--their criticisms are beneficial, as they spur corrections. For example, if you read former Britannica editor Robert McHenry's critique of the Wikipedia entry on Alexander Hamilton and then read the entry as it stands today, you'll see that all the specific complaints he had have been corrected.

1 comment:

Heathen Dan said...

A criticism of Wikipedia that I find troubling is the fact that some entries by well-intentioned contributors familiar with the subject gets revised or edited out by those with just a passing familiarity of it, or even by those with axes to grind.