Wikipedia: Cool, But Not for Primary Research

This got a mention in this week’s ResourceShelf Newsletter:

"Wikipedia, an Internet encyclopedia written entirely by volunteers,
claimed that a prominent journalist might have been involved in the
assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, a false charge that has highlighted the
Achilles’ heel of such do-it-yourself Web sites.

The journalist, John Seigenthaler Sr., 78  —  who was an administrative
assistant to Robert Kennedy as well as one of his pallbearers  —  wrote an
op-ed piece in USA Today last week protesting the "false, malicious" story. 

"Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool," Seigenthaler
wrote. 

Wikipedia removed the allegation in early October, more than four months
after it was first posted."

Read the entire article here, but I think the point has been effectively made.

A bit of disclosure here: I have a Wikipedia account, and I think it’s one of the niftiest online collaborative efforts ever. (Another one is here. Yet another is here. And one more is here. And yes, I have accounts with all these, too.) Having said this, let me say here and now that Wikipedia is not a primary research tool.

I’ll say that again for you folks in the back: Wikipedia is not a primary research tool! Peer review by accident is not a reliable quality assurance mechanism, IMNSHO. So condemning it outright is missing  the point. It it not "flawed and irresponsible". But it’s not for primary research either.

This will likely get me in trouble with at least a few folks who swear by all thinks wiki, but here’s the way I see it: it’s true that by making this resource essentially open for literally anybody with an account (which really means anybody who can be bothered to sign up for one) can make any changes they want more or less at will. Granted, there is a quality assurance system in place, but like any kind of decentralized resource, it’s not very good at catching mistakes as they happen. Someone needs to alert the upper echelons of editors that something drastic has happened and they’ll get to it when they get to it. That’s one problem. And I think it’s an inevitable one, too: when breadth of authorship increases, the average level of quality decreases. That’s just how it works; it’s a law every bit as immutable as "Time equals Money" or "E=MC^2". As people who are dedicated to providing our clients with consistently reliable information, we can’t ignore this.

The flip side of this is obvious: nowhere will you find a more interesting research tool. When you put a few million sufficiently motivated individuals together and tell them (beg them) to write as much as they want on any topic of interest they may have, you get an amazing variety of ideas, experience, opinion, and the methods of thought that goes with them. That cannot be denied, either. That variety is responsible for making Wikipedia as nifty a resource tool to work with as it is.

I’m not bashing Wikipedia or  wiki type projects. Distributed Proofreaders is a wiki type project as well, but their level of quality control is much higher because they’re dealing with primary manuscripts and so on. There’s room for interpretation, but there’s no room for interpreting a passage’s meaning into something that does not appear on the page. There’s a real requirement that the proofed text conform to the original as closely as possible. Not to mention there’s a higher average level of scholarship practiced by the folks who contribute to it (that’s merely an opinion but that’s how it seems to me.)

If I were advising a student who wanted to use an article he found on Wikipedia as his primary source, I’d tell him not to. I’d let him know that Wikipedia is a great source of leads for additional research, but I wouldn’t accept it as a primary source on anything. (Which doesn’t change the fact that I consult the site on a regular basis for all kinds of things.)

But boy, is it fun to read.

Update: The journal Nature has produced a study that says that Wikipedia is only a bit less accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica. And Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talks to BusinessWeek about the steps being taken to prevent fraudulent entries in the future.

Another Update: What the Media Can’t Get Right About Wikipedia .

About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer's Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He's currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan's first full-length novel.

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