Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wikipedia Examined...

With 16,000,000 articles is the largest and most popular reference work on the Internet, being ranked the 7th largest website by Alexa.  It is a good thing?  It is worth reading?
"We've examined many pages on Wikipedia that treat controversial topics, and have discovered that most have, in fact, been vandalized at some point in their history. But we've also found that vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects. IBM Researcher, 2004.
Now we must be clear about one thing before this discussion begins.  None of us are advocating the use of any encyclopedia as a primary source in an academic paper.  You should never list it in your bibliography since it is a general reference work.  You may use it in your research as a starting point.  You may even cite references used in the article, but not the encyclopedia itself.  We hope this is clear.  But this point, has little to do with wikipedia explicitly.  It affects all encyclopedias.

Jimmy Wales
click to enlarge
Wikipedia, was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, in 2001.  Amazingly enough, the most thorough review of the critiques of wikipedia, are found in wikipedia itself.  Here is a chart of the demographic makeup of the editors on wikipedia.

There is, a now famous article, published in Nature magazine, concerning wikipedia's science articles, as compared to those of the Encyclopedia Britannica.   I cited the reference to the article, but you will not be able to read it, since you have to pay for that privilege (there will be a future post on Google Scholar).  Nevertheless, the article from Nature pointed out that the average Britannica science article contained 3 errors or omissions while the average wikipedia article contained 4.  Nature, concluded that they were both very close in accuracy.  Britannica attacked the Nature article and wrote extensively to its biased and inaccurate analysis.  After a back and forth debate, Nature, ultimately, disagreed with the criticisms Britannica attached to the article.

The 15th edition (1974) of the Britannica cost 32 million dollars to produce.  Here is an interesting quote about the Britannica in pre-1974 version:
...in 1964 Einbinder's The Myth of the Britannica debunked the encyclopedia and its reputation for being an unimpeachable source for accurate information on any subject.  Although predecessors of Willard Huntington Wright had criticized the EB in journals, Wright gave the criticism of the Britannica greater impact by publishing it in a book entitled Misinforming a Nation.  Kogan summarized Wright's attacks in the following terms, "...Williard Huntington Wright, a journalistic dilettante, a writer on art, philosphy , and aesthetics, and a confirmed iconoclast, made a rigorous attack upon the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for being bourgeois, evangelical, chauvanistic distorted and unfair (88).  In 1964, Harvey Einbinder criticized the EB as being, "...an inadequate reference work [that] has been elevated into a national legend" (89.)  Dr. Einbinder continued, "is slow to catch up with recent discoveries in the sciences, and perpetuates outworn attitudes in the humanities and social sciences.  While limited editorial budgets seriously hamper the eliminations of outmoded articles and bibliographies, and encourage the patchy and unsatisfactory revision of entries written three generations ago, money is poured into a flashy advertising and marketing setup" (90).***
That sounds similar to attacks being launched at wikipedia. To its credit, the Britannica did improve in the 1974 edition.  This example is just pointed out to bring some humility to the editors at Britannica, to remember the "old days."  Just in case you were wondering who Einbinder was, he was an Aerican physicist and amateur historian who spent 5 years working on a book entited, The Myth of the Britannica.  All encyclopedias have been attacked at some point or another because they have an almost impossible job to do.  This is why wikipedia is perfectly situated on the Internet to be instantly updated, corrected and improved.

This is  humorous approach to wikipedia.  Enjoy. At the end of the video there is some political propaganda. We take no position on this, merely advise you.


Here is a more serious explanation of wikipedia.


We would love it if all books were monitored to the extent that wikipedia is.  Any editor who has ever lived, knows that there is no such thing as a perfect book.  All editors struggle against publishing deadlines which force them to compromise on the book in order to make be able to make the publication date.  This is the old way of doing business.  In the Internet where everything is going, editing is an ongoing process.

In 2007, PC magazine conducted an analysis of 4 wikipedia articles in which the conclusion of these experts found "no serious errors were noted in Wikipedia articles, whereas serious errors were noted in one Encarta and one Britannica article."  Another study was conducted in 2007 by PC Magazine of Australia regarding the veracity of wikipedia articles.  You can read the article here to see the results of the samples in Geology, Chemistry, and History.

Correction of Errors
In this 2007, Australian PC Magazine test errors were deliberately entered into articles by the experts.  Here are the results:
To find out how quickly Wikipedia’s crack volunteers respond to errors or deliberate vandalism, two PC Authority operatives introduced deliberate errors into ten entries, ranging from composer Edward Elgar to the GeForce 8 Series to a popular footy team. The errors varied between bleeding obvious and deftly subtle, and we left basic edit summaries noting our “corrections” in the hope our entries would blend in.  Impressively, all but one of our efforts were thwarted within an hour. In fact, within 20 minutes an eagle-eyed editor had spotted one change, tracked it back to an IP address and eliminated the other four changes by that address with the note “identified as vandalism”. Only one amendment – to the atomic number of Xenon – stayed up longer than an hour. It seemed the Wikipedians’ tools and know-how were just too much for our team.
The test became more demanding.  Read this:
So we raised our game. We picked ten more articles for treatment and spread them between five different members of the PC Authority team, so that our IP addresses wouldn’t be so easily tracked. We also made our deliberate errors far more subtle than before – changing the launch date of a Centrino chip and the name of Jesse James’ mother’s first husband, for example. And to make our errors even harder to detect, we left the edit summaries blank, so there’d be no obvious clues for editors. Despite our stealth attempts, the vast majority of errors were discovered remarkably quickly. The ridiculously minor Jesse James error was corrected within a minute, and a very slight change to Queen Anne’s entry was put right within two. Eight out of the ten errors were corrected within 17 hours. Two errors slipped through the net: the Centrino date change and, more obviously, our claim that astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew had flown around the moon twice on the Apollo 13 mission. Both were left to stand for more than a week before we corrected them to ensure there was no long-term damage from our experiment.
In 2007 as well, a program named, wikiscanner, was written by Virgil Griffith, a graduate student from the California Institute of Technology.  He downloaded the entire wikipedia encyclopedia and used his program to analyze the changes made by anonymous IP addresses and compared them to a database of public net-addresses.  "Wikiscanner has analysed a database of 34.4 million edits performed by 2.6 million organisations or individuals since 2002."  The results were astounding.  All the way from Exxon Oil to the CIA changes were made anonymously to wikipedia.  The errors were corrected.  Here are relevant portions of the article:
[Wikipedia] was hailed as a breakthrough in the democratisation of knowledge. But the online encyclopedia has since been hijacked by forces who decided that certain things were best left unknown... Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. It has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spin doctors and corporate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed."
Wikipedia and Academia
An Onion Issue
Despite the generally acknowledged distaste for wikipedia among some academicians, not all are negative about it.  Wikipedia has received its share of parodies.  Some acknowledge the "dirty little secret" that many researchers, including college professors will begin looking at it, as a starting point.  At Harvard, some professors heartily recommend wikipedia as a starting point.***  This does not mean that they endorse it, it simply means that they realize its impact and have to take into account in their teaching and thinking.
Because of Wikipedia's extensive and constantly-updated coverage of coverage of current events and new technology, it can be an excellent source of information on these areas of study. It can also be interesting and informative to look at the changes made to Wikipedia's entries as new information has come to light. this can be done by clicking the entry's "history" tab at the top of the page. This can also provide valuable insight into the process of collaborative writing.  You may decide for your students that the best use of Wikipedia might be as a starting point at which to gain contextual information about a topic before moving on to more detailed or more reliable information sources. ***
There has been an increase in the citations in scientific journals of wikipedia articles.  In 2009, there were 614 citations, and as of June 5, 2010 there were 478 citations.**   In 2009, a survey of U.S. toxicologists conducted by the Statistical Assessment Service and the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University stated this:
In perhaps the most surprising finding in the entire study, all these national media outlets are easily eclipsed by two representatives of “new media” – WebMD and Wikipedia. WebMD is the only news source whose coverage of chemical risk is regarded as accurate by a majority (56 percent) of toxicologists, closely followed by Wikipedia’s 45 percent accuracy rating. By contrast, only 15 percent describe as accurate the portrayals of chemical risk found in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The preference for Wikipedia in particular seems like an indictment of professional journalism, since anyone can contribute to this site.
click image to enlarge; http://bit.ly/9pVYnw
There has been false biographical information recorded in wikipedia.  And this area, the site has been more careful, as of late.  Here is a listing of the major attacks on individuals through wikipedia.  This chart done as of 2008, indicates the general spread of wikipedia articles by disciplines:

Seeing the future of the Internet, the fact that it will increase in importance and not diminish in importance, it would be good that the academic community start to use it for both its good aspects, and its lesser qualities.  The distinction between elite experts of information and the populist tendencies of the Internet will have to be harmonized, lest the academic community become increasingly isolated and irrelevant to the world they live in.


Wikipedia as a Braking News Source
Wikipedia has proven itself to be an excellent breaking news source like Twitter.  The entire issue of its role is well discussed in an article by Mike Melanson here.  This was especially demonstrated during the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008.

Politics Implications of  Wikipedia
In a article titled, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, published in 2006, Jaron Lanier attacked wikipedia as a "hive mind."  He states:
The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.
Clay Shirky, responded to this article here.   There have been some problems within the wikipedia international community over politics.

Conclusion
We have only scratched the surface of wikipedia with this article.  There are many other problems and criticisms which we have omitted to mention.  You may read them here.  Nevertheless, does anyone really think wikipedia will disappear?  Does anyone think it will become less important in future digital generations or people who have always known the Internet?  Hardly.  Like all digital movements, we must embrace it and learn to use it for to achieve the world we wish, or, drown in its tsunami-like wave.

No comments: