Vast Active Library and Information Science blog. From a recent library science graduate in Wellington, New Zealand. A focus on reference and current awareness tools and issues, especially free, web-based resources.

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Monday, August 30, 2004
More Wikipedia (and evaluating online resources)  
Haven't written for a while, but there's been some interesting discussion around the Wikipedia issue (basically: can we trust it? should we trust it?).

1. In my comments, Violet discusses her experience as a collection developer for weblinks:
my argument for not including this one... is that just anyone can contribute to it.
2. Seen on the ever-interesting Boing Boing, a link to a Techdirt story about a newspaper article criticising Wikipedia, and Mike@Techdirt's attempts to correct some of the reporter's more obvious mistakes. The comments section is very interesting, and basically comes down on the side of Wikipedia, as far as I can see.

3. Portals and KM discusses my original post, having seen Steven's response

The wikipedia is great but I think the level of fact checking needs to be acknowledged. I often see the source for a wikipedia entry when I search on a topic, especially when I have been looking at people like musicians. The wikipedia entry is simply pasted from another source but you do not know this source. For this reason, the wikipedia information should be seen as clues that need to be verified.

I discovered this in doing family history research where hundreds of family web sites would repeat the same unsubstantiated information until it became an accepted “fact.” I challenged some people on “facts” that had no primary source and they had become true believers because these “facts” were “well known.”
These are good points, of course. Generally accepted "facts" often aren't as correct as everyone had thought. Clearly, "the wikipedia information should be seen as clues that need to be verified" is good advice.

However, I still feel that there's validity in the Wiki model, and that this validity arises out of a consensual approach to decision-making. For example, taking a subject that might reasonably be expected to excite controversy and bias in Wikipedia contributors, politics - specifically George W. Bush. Let's look at how Wikipedia handles differences of opinion over content: through discussion and rules. Sure, it's not perfect (the Bush debate still looks heated, as one might expect) but it provides a consensual approach that allows for a balanced, objective encyclopaedia.

There's further support for the idea that multiple contributors may make the encyclopaedia stronger, not weaker. Look at open source software, as I mentioned previously. Look at the Oxford English Dictionary, which was originally built by volunteer contributors (and indeed still is).

On the other hand, there are plenty of supposedly authoritative sources online that are just plain wrong. Take for example some postings on MedHelp Q&A, by a doctor no less. This one, while generally accurate, contains two basic errors: MDMA is not a hallucinogen, nor is it a "designer drug" (designer drug has a very specific meaning, and MDMA is not one). This one is just plain dangerous - developing acne after MDMA use can be a sign of liver damage. It's worrying that doctors can give such generalised advice ("drugs are bad") and yet miss out on an actual sign that something may be seriously wrong. On the other hand, Erowid would appear on the surface to lack any credibility, at least according to standard library-school-taught evaluation criteria, yet it is actually incredible accurate and respected, even by government agencies. Point being, "official" sources aren't necessarily the most accurate, either. [Background: I'm a health librarian with a degree in psychology, I've read the original research on these topics and I know what I'm talking about].

Going way out into left field here, I have a gut feeling that, as the size of a group involved in such a project increases, the accuracy of the information contained will increase also, as good information drives out bad. I have no idea why I believe this, and I don't have any evidence for it either - but it would make an excellent research subject, wouldn't it?


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