Toward a trustworthy Wikipedia

As a freelance journalist, I don't have the luxury of turning down too many assignment offers. I was sorely tempted a few months back, though, when the potential client kept suggesting I use Wikipedia as the primary source for a series of articles.

The problem was the client wasn't willing to pay a decent rate for my time, and he figured that I wouldn't demand more if all I had to do was browse Wiki. I ended up accepting the contract -- like I said, I can't afford to be too picky -- but I didn't use Wiki. And I still don't trust a source that anyone can anonymously edit, especially if "anyone" includes Stephen Colbert. I mean, let's face it: we journalists have few unique skills, but sorting out the trustworthy sources from the propaganda mills should be one of them. Still, with 1.3 million articles only a click or two away, it remains a tempting shortcut, and I've seen younger, less-discriminating reporters succumb to its allure.

So it is that I welcome the impending arrival of Wiki 2.0.

The founder of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, has conceded the weakness of an encyclopedia open to any and all editors. Now he's assembling something better. Citizendium will start out as a mirror of the original Wikipedia, but the editing will be overseen by people with some degree of legitimate authority. It will be, according to Sanger's vision, "a place to work under the direction of experts, and in which personal accountability--including the use of real names--is expected."

The idea is to marry the speed and enormous knowledge base of the Internet community with the trustworthiness that comes with recognized expertise. Of course, there will continue to be endless debates over things like how many Armenians died at Turkish hands in 1915 (a rather serious issue) whether string theory is actually a scientific theory (serious but more abstract), or the value of post-structural literary analysis (an entirely abstract argument) but we've got that now, so why not give it a shot?

Sanger wants potential partners, funders and editors to get involved now by joining one or more mailing lists and thrashing out the details before Citizendium goes live. It occurs to me that many of my fellow ScienceBloggers, as professional scientists who seem to enjoy a good deal of respect and who appear to have lots of time on their hands, would make excellent contributors and editors.

By the way, I'd like to make clear that I'm a big fan of the Colbert Report. Indeed, Colbert's recent wiki-editing stunt only proves my point that a professional journalist should think very hard before citing Wikipedia:

Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" provided an elephantine example of Wikipedia's flaws. Host Steven Colbert exhorted viewers to "find the page on elephants on Wikipedia, create an entry that says the number of elephants has tripled in the last six months." "It's the least we can do to save this noble beast," said Colbert.

There are also numerous other examples of mischievous, politically motivated and downright dastardly wiki edits, but I think Colbert's sums it up even better than the notorious case of the newspaper editor who found himself implicated in a Wikipedia article in JFK's assassination.

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Of course, you're right not to trust Wikipedia as a journalistic source.

But that doesn't mean it's not awesome!

Now, as for Citizendium, don't we already have encyclopedias that are written and edited by people with "some degree of legitimate authority?"

Wikipedia's value lies in its wiki-ness.

I mean real, rabble-ready wiki.

Take that away, and you've got Britannica 2.0, not Wikipedia 2.0.

Valuable, but not so ground-breaking.

Wikipedia is certainly not an appropriate source for journalists or researchers.

But it's still perfect.

Gee, Wikipedia itself says that it is not a primary source indeed posting original research is a violation of its many rules. Good Wikipedia article have citations for that very purpose.

If one has a little common sense and knowledge of how Wikipedia works one can usually detect that what you are looking at is questionable. Examine the history of the page and see what the page used to look like. Examine the talk page. Those steps will reveal most vandalism as well as revealing edit wars.

Given that the person who put in links and references might be the author of those link and references, use common sense when using those citation provided by Wikipedia. Doing a web search might be a good idea.

This sort of common-sense advice will cure most of the problems. Of course, as you will agree with, Wikipedia does not substitute for more traditional primary sources when deep understanding is needed or when strong verification is a must.

By Michael Hopkins (not verified) on 21 Sep 2006 #permalink

Michael's advice is good. But the problem is not that Wikipedia claims to be something it's not. As I noted in the main post, people aren't using Wikipedia as the should. I've seen undergraduates and professional journalist fail to distinguish between Wiki and proper primary sources. I worry about an entire generation or two unable to tell the difference.