Thursday, December 8, 2005

Wikipedia: With a Pinch of Salt?

Head over to Locana and read this succinct post by Anand that discusses what's increasingly becoming an issue with Wikipedia: the authenticity of its entries. A few months ago I had posted Is the Wiki Cracking? which mentioned how Wikipedia entries are easily vandalized: Following the Pope's election in April this year, a user substituted the Pope Benedict's photo with that of the evil emperor from the Star Wars film series.

Incidents and entries of the like I mentioned above and the one Anand talks about (John Seigenthaler, former editor of USA Today, being implicated in the Kennedy assassinations) should make it clear to anyone that while Wikipedia is a great (and free) encyclopedia, it is not credible enough to be used as a sole research tool. Please note the emphasis on "sole."

Let me elaborate. I like the concept of the wiki and I feel that the idea behind Wikipedia is brilliant.I have found that because it allows virtually anyone to add to and edit an entry, Wikipedia entries usually provide the most comprehensive information about a topic on a single page. Add to it the numerous External links, References available as a part of the entry. Because of its comprehensiveness I link to Wikipedia often and my colleagues and I use it to research a number of topics in the course of our work. However there's always a caveat. Whatever information we choose to use from Wikipedia has to be double-checked against and corroborated by other sources. Since, our organization creates customized e-learning content for others, we have to be doubly sure that the information we are using is authentic. Any mistakes and the organization can attract hefty penalties and lawsuits and a loss of face and credibility. We realize that Wikipedia is comprehensive but we also know that it is flawed and use it accordingly.

A Wikipedia entry thus is a great way to find all (or most of) the information on a topic on a single page. All that a researcher then needs to do is to use the Wikipedia entry as a base and rigorously check the information that it offers. It also helps if the researcher can recognize what part of the entry is factual and what's merely an opinion extrapolated from the facts. Anything even remotely controversial (eg.: John Seigenthaler being implicated in the Kennedy assassinations) is googled thoroughly.

Wikipedia, we've found, is usually very authentic when it comes to entries on technologies and standards, on scientific concepts or anything similar. Its when it is talking about personalities, recent history, war and related events, or current topics that the information might be slanted, sometimes made-up and needs more checking.

I feel, that as long as researchers are aware that Wikipedia is fallible, a Wikipedia entry is a great place to kick-off your research on any topic. The researchers should just be aware that any information on the Wikipedia needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Note: Anand in his post -- Wiki -- A flawed and irresponsible research tool? -- links to a few other blog posts about Wikipedia and its fallibility. Do check these out:


Supremus said...

Because anyone can edit wiki, it becomes too difficult to maintain a level of quality there.

I remember - a few months back my friend got into this huge controversy while editing history of "India". According to some people, mughals were given way too less importance, when clearly it was not the case. The result, too many ppl argued , corrected it, re corrected it and became a big mess. After that the article was locked and they reached a resolution that mughals had been represented just as they should have been.

But I guess that is how it works :).

Good post.

Keep inkin

anthony said...

Like I always say, unless in an Utopia, a little control is alway necessary... All men are not equal