In recent years, a new web-based, multilingual, free-content, collaborative encyclopedia project known as Wikipedia, in which anyone can contribute and edit content, has become one of the most wildly popular and heavily-used information resources in contemporary times. However, its credibility as a source has been continuously challenged throughout its six-year history, with heated controversy and a wide range of criticism directed at (what is perceived as) failings of its “anyone-can-edit” approach in accuracy, reliability, and quality of articles. Regardless, one must recognize the difficulty and complexity of making such “clear-cut” judgments about Wikipedia, due to the numerosity of influential, albeit not well understood, factors. Whether Wikipedia can become a success is not entirely certain, but, as one should consider the enormous gains the Wikipedian community has achieved in such a short time, no one can completely deny Wikipedia’s vast potential.
Wikipedia has been described as “an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language” (Wales). From its inception in 2001, it has since grown to include a vast total of approximately 6 million articles, across versions in 250 languages – thus becoming the largest encyclopedia ever assembled.
Its unprecedented growth has been paralleled by an equally impressive rise to prominence (or notoriety) among the public. Increasingly frequented as a major source for general information, Wikipedia consistently ranks within the top ten most popular of all internet sites, receiving as many as fourteen thousand hits per second and generating more web traffic daily than the combination of MSNBC.com and the online versions of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (Schiff). It has experienced a continual doubling of visitors every four months.
While critical perception might maintain that only naïve people too lazy to seek a better source would ever dare to use Wikipedia, its use has not been in the least limited. Media citations of Wikipedia are becoming common within reputable news organizations such as CNN. Even a simple search of published court decisions demonstrate frequent judicial use of Wikipedia across the U.S.; more than 100 court rulings have cited Wikipedia since 2004, of which 13 have come from the circuit courts of appeal – one level below the United States Supreme Court – although only as contextual support and never as a determining factor (Cohen, C3). In addition, one must not forget about the quite loyal and avid following among students, much to the dismay of teachers.
Wikipedia is perhaps most aptly thought of as a revolution, a divergence from traditional encyclopedic practices in a realm of knowledge long dominated by established giants such as the Encyclopædia Britannica. Wikipedia strives towards which every encyclopedia aims for – accuracy, reliability, credibility, etc. – but its means are radically different. Hence it embraces an “anyone-can-edit” philosophy, essentially opening up the editing process to anyone willing to help. Inspired by the open-source software movement and a desire to make knowledge as free as possible, such a system rests upon the belief that a collectivity of enthusiastic individuals could collaboratively contribute material and build upon one another’s contributions, with the intention that continuous revision and endless scrutiny by numerous contributors would effectively eliminate inaccuracies while continually perfecting content, eventually yielding a “deeply reviewed and credible consensus article” (Daniels). In reality this method may seem potentially unstable in contrast to Britannica, where articles are written by a small number of accredited contributors, but perhaps in the future Britannica’s own restricted editing process will seem strange: “People will say, ‘This was written by one person? Then looked at by two or three other people? How can I trust that process?’” predicts Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia.
Thus, by faith in its multitude of contributors, Wikipedia lacks most of the formal processes of traditional encyclopedias. It has neither a permanent official editorial/arts staff nor an advisory board. The project is instead driven wholly by volunteer effort and is funded generally by individual donations in the $10 to $100 range (Hafner A1) – for-profit revenue was never intended; the task of constructing an encyclopedia is undertaken by a committed group of ordinary volunteers that has since evolved from anarchy to become a highly-structured community. Ultimately, all controversy and issues engage a fundamental question – whether a dedicated volunteer community based upon open collaboration can produce an encyclopedia surpassing that of paid professionals.
The following analysis endeavors to consider the merits and failings of Wikipedia in four major areas: inclusiveness (breadth of coverage, depth of coverage), general article quality (accuracy/reliability, timeliness, readability, stability), systemic bias, and the nature of contributors. These four areas were chosen based on recommendations for evaluation listed in the “encyclopedia” article of the World Book.
Unlike print encyclopedias, Wikipedia is not subject to physical limitations and thus can aspire to be all-inclusive. Arguably, one of its strongest points lies in its extraordinarily comprehensive attention towards obscure topics often neglected in traditional reference works – for example, articles such as “Capgras delusion”, “Boston molasses disaster”, the “Rhinoceros Party of Canada”, “Islam in Iceland”, a survey of invented expletives in fiction, etc. (Schiff). To further demonstrate, consider the species of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba); in Wikipedia, coverage is given in an exceptional article equivalent to eight printed pages, whereas in Encyclopædia Britannica, it is not even given a separate article and only briefly mentioned. In this case Wikipedia is clearly more authoritative and complete – perhaps being the best source on the subject of Antarctic krill on the Internet – and this is generally true with odd topics. In the scope of traditional topics, however, Wikipedia does not yet contain a corresponding article for every subject in Encyclopædia Britannica.
The English edition of Wikipedia alone has 1.7 million articles, and thousands more are added each day. An illustrative analogy in given on Wikipedia’s statistics page: “At a rate of four hundred words a minute, twenty four hours a day, a person could read nearly twenty million words in a month. In the month of July 2006, Wikipedia grew by over thirty million words. In other words, a fast reader could never catch up with Wikipedia's new content.” (Wikipedia:Statistics) While Wikipedia is undoubtedly greater in breadth of coverage than nearly all traditional encyclopedias and will likely continue to be so, depth of coverage appears to be usually uneven and varies from article to article. On average Wikipedia has 435 words per article, compared to Britannica, which has 650 words per article in its print edition (Wikipedia:Size Comparisons). Actually, the preceding statistics might be misleading, as they are merely averages and not truly representative of every article in existence. The majority of Wikipedia is comprised of “stub” articles usually a few sentences to a paragraph, but, as demonstrated above, some articles may be surprisingly lengthy.
Wikipedia does not, however, seek to become merely a morass of trivia. It should be noted that material is governed by certain standards for worthiness of inclusion. This includes, but is not limited to, a guideline of “notability” of the topic, which defines notability as the “subject of at least one substantial or multiple non-trivial published works that are reliable and independent of the subject.” (Wikipedia:Notability) In addition, as Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia, policy forbids irrelevant purposes such as being a “directory” or a “repository of links, images, or media files” (Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not).
Despite striving to maintain a strict “neutral point of view” and universality, a systemic bias naturally arises from the demographics of Wikipedia’s contributors, manifesting as an imbalance in coverage and perspectives. Contributors to the English Wikipedia are likely to be speaking English natively and live in a Western industrialized nation; certain groups, such as those that do not speak English or lack access to internet-connected computers, remain underrepresented. Hence, “Western” subjects are usually more thoroughly developed than those that are non-Western.
Disparities in perspective are especially evident between Wikipedia’s multilingual versions – the Chinese Wikipedia, for example, tends to be more sympathetic towards Mao Zedong than the English Wikipedia, often omitting mentions of the massive death tolls caused by Mao’s policies (French A22).
Contributors’ editing preferences and interests are also significantly influential in Wikipedia’s coverage. Wikipedia tends to cover the sciences more strongly than the arts and humanities, and coverage of popular culture and current events is often disproportionate to their significance.
Accuracy and Reliability
A stated goal of Wikipedia has been to achieve “Britannica or better” quality. Due to its open nature, Wikipedia has been commonly perceived to be inaccurate and unreliable in comparison to traditional reference works that undergo formal editing.
Of the few peer reviews and studies that have been performed, the most well-known is perhaps one conducted by Nature in December 2005, in which 42 entries from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica reflecting a broad range of scientific disciplines were sent to a relevant expert for blind side-to-side comparison (Giles, 900). The results suggested, amid heated controversy, that the “difference in accuracy was not particularly great”, and Britannica might not have such an advantage, at least in the area of science. Wikipedia possessed four inaccuracies per average science article (162 total) and Britannica approximately three per average scientific article (123 total); while only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of major concepts, were detected – four from each encyclopedia – numerous “factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements” were uncovered in both (Giles, 901). The review concluded that, despite intense media attention toward incidents allegedly highlighting potential flaws of Wikipedia, “such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule.”
As there have been criticism over that the reader has no way of verifying the credibility of an article, Wikipedia itself enforces a central tenet of “attribution”, whereby the threshold for inclusion is placed at whether the material has been previously published in a “reliable source” and is verifiable (Wikipedia:Attribution). Insurance of accurate information is done so partly through a strict emphasis on citations, contrasting with other reference works such as Encyclopædia Britannica which rely more on established reputation.
Vandalism and Deliberate Errors
Given its open nature, Wikipedia remains susceptible to malicious edits, but these are more or less already effectively contained. As a complete disallowance of editing would be plainly unrealistic, a system of “soft” defenses has developed.
New edits are constantly patrolled by users in the Recent Changes page; upon detection of “vandalism” – jargon for malicious editing – the page can be easily “reverted”, or reversed, to the prior revision, as all revisions of a page are saved and accessible in its “History”. By this practice of constant scrutiny, blatant vandalism rarely persists for more than a minute. Since the user responsible for the edit is always recorded in the history, those habitually committing vandalism risk revocation of editing privileges by site administrators, enforced by an IP address block. Wales dismisses vandalism as “a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background.” (Hafner A1)
However, there is always the possibility of a more subtle edit eluding immediate detection. Often these cases, if left to persist for a prolonged duration, are the most damaging to Wikipedia’s reputation. A notorious example is the Seigenthaler controversy, in which a hoax falsely suggesting John Seigenthaler Sr.’s involvement with the assassination of U.S. senator Robert Kennedy was not discovered and corrected in his biographical article until four months later.
Articles have been commonly marked as being “poorly structured and confusing” (Giles 901), a frequent criticism among information scientists and reviewers from the Nature study. Prose is sometimes near what is expected of a “seventh grader: clarity and concision are lacking; the facts may be sturdy, but the connective tissue is either anemic or absent” (Schiff). Wattenberg and Viégas, of I.B.M., have observed that such troubles in readability may be attributed to a general lack of attention toward the reordering of paragraphs and shaping the article as a whole, as contributors are more preoccupied with additions and deletions (Schiff).
Credibility of Contributors
By Wikipedia’s openness, anyone willing to contribute is permitted to edit regardless of conventional credentials, as long as certain policies are adhered. Long-standing opinions of traditional academia, however, instill a deep mistrust in the legitimacy of an encyclopedia perceived to be largely written by uninformed non-experts.
Virtually all contributors to Wikipedia remain anonymous to some extent – but can an article be judged as credible without knowing its author? In the past, the Encyclopædia Britannica has strengthened its credibility by enlisting world-renowned experts, such as Einstein, Freud, Curie, Mencken, and Houndini, as contributors; critics of Wikipedia, conversely, assert that Wikipedia provides no equal substitute for accountability in place of the traditional practice of an expert authority placing “his or her professional reputation on the line with a signature attached to an article.” (Stross BU5) Wales, however, discounts undue exaggerations of the importance of individual contributors: “It’s not who wrote it, it’s the process.”
Experts and "Anti-Elitism"
Because contributors have relatively equal status in a collaborative environment, Wikipedia in some ways has developed an egalitarian system described as being purportedly “anti-elitist” (Sanger) – that is, the merit of a person’s contributions often precedes expert opinion. The Ph.D. is not always favored over the well-read adolescent, although Wales believes that “the key thing is getting it right. I don’t care if they’re a high-school kid or a Harvard professor.”
Yet, many academics and former contributors consider Wikipedia to be too “fundamentally suspicious of experts” and its members “unjustly confident in their own opinions” (Schiff) – “Nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will…be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by non-experts.” (Sanger) (On the other hand, several irritated experts on Wikipedia have also committed severe rules infractions, including incivility and bias – so one should note that everyone has their own flaws) Nevertheless, the steady arrivals of scientists in Wikipedia generally “describe the experience as rewarding, if occasionally frustrating.” (Giles 901)
Wikipedia does not label itself as “anti-elitist”; it strives to be welcoming towards all newcomers, experts and non-experts alike (“Do not bite the newcomers”). Currently, the majority of contributors are undergraduate students, but a rising number of accredited specialists are becoming actively involved. Wales considers greater involvement by experts positive – “Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way” – and the addition of knowledgeable contributors would enhance article quality in a “multiplier effect”.
It is true that Wikipedia has numerous flaws but also commendable merits; as with any other reference work, nothing is perfect and it does not claim to be so (detailed in its disclaimers). Simply, it presently remains a “work in progress”. One can argue for its eventual demise, and certainly at times Wikipedia may seem to drift too closely along the verge of failure: uneven quality, perceived lack of credibility, high-profile controversies, etc. There continues to be much difficult work in the future. But one must also remember to be open-minded – in any case, it has had only six years of existence. Already Wikipedia, part encyclopedia and part revolution, has outright defied expectations; who among both opponents and proponents alike can now say with any certainly what will occur after another six years of stubborn persistence? Can the “amateurs” outdo the professionals? That is a question still unanswered. But faith is still kept. Someday, the world could be awed.
- Kobasa, Paul A. "Encyclopedia." The World Book Encyclopedia. 2006 ed.
- Giles, Jim. "Internet encyclopedias go head to head." Nature 15 December 2005: 900-901 (PDF)
- Cohen, Noam. "A History Department Bans Citing Wikipedia As a Research Source." New York Times 21 February 2007, U.S. ed.: B8 (online version)
- Cohen, Noam "Courts Turn to Wikipedia, but Selectively." New York Times 29 January 2007, U.S. ed.: C3 (online version)
- French, Howard W. "Who Did What in China's Past? Look It Up, or Maybe Not." New York Times 1 December 2006, U.S. ed.: A22 (online version)
- Hafner, Katie. "Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy." New York Times 17 June 2006, U.S. ed.: A1 (online version)
- Stross, Randall. "Anonymous Source Is Not the Same as Open Source." New York Times 12 March 2006, U.S. ed.: BU5 (online version)
- Schiff, Stacy. "Annals of Information: Know It All." The New Yorker 13 July 2006 (online version)