01 May 2008

Is Wikipedia Really That Bad?

In the professional writing world, Wikipedia is slowly earning respect.

Not too long ago, magazines like Writers Digest would tell all its readers not to use the user-created/edited encyclopedia at all. Now, Wikipedia is hailed as a terrific launching point for writers. Start there, but don't ever cite it as a credible source... or so the thinking goes.

Most major publishers still refuse to allow Wikipedia to be cited in its books' sources. They contend that because just anyone can write and edit the content that the information presented is not reliable. If you read between the lines, the publisher is really saying that unless the contributor has a doctorate in the subject, their contributions are not to be trusted.

This form of thinking is thoroughly antiquated. Remember, this policy is set by companies that are increasingly losing profits because more and more people refuse to play their pathetic games. Self-publishing is increasingly becoming the standard mode of publication. Why?

Publishing houses can't keep up. On top of that, they keep the majority of the profits of a book for doing nothing more than laying it out and coordinating with the printers. When it comes to selling the book, well, that's pretty much all on you. Rare is the book that gets heavily marketed by a publisher. But that's a completely different argument.

Back to the Wikipedia credibility issue...
Let's face it: information is only as reliable as its source. More and more, the "experts" are being discredited. They are caught making stuff up, cutting corners, or just standing on their authority alone.

I once edited a book by a well-known doctor. When I pointed out that his book had absolutely no sources and that they were needed to make his book hold up to scrutiny, he scoffed and said he's written extensively on the subject. He was an authority so he didn't need to prove his sources. Well, the publisher stood up for me. He told the author/doctor that while he was justified in his belief, the fact was that he needed to provide his sources just like any other author. Begrudgingly, the doc complied. What we discovered was a whole slough of misquotes and misinterpretations.

This is a case in point. You can have all the experts in the world saying that their knowledge is the correct knowledge. Ultimately, it is up to you, the writer/editor, to probe the sources. This is Essay Composition 101, people!

Wikipedia will notify you if an article contains factual errors or unverified information. Sounds a lot like a scholarly journal, wouldn't you say? Check the entry for superscript in the running text, then scroll down and check the sources. If the source URLs contain .edu, .gov, or even (but tread lightly) .org, odds are it's a reliable source, no less credible than something you'll find in a refereed journal.

Sure, Wikipedia is rife with errors, but so is the Encyclopedia Britannica. Why do you think they print an annual "Additions and Corrections" edition?


Wikipedia Review said...

Is Wikipedia Really That Bad?

Yes, unfortunately it is. Casual browsers often aren't aware of the major problems caused by Wikipedia.

On closer inspection, these become horribly apparent. Please click the link and take a look yourself.

Kyle Stich said...

Ah, I'm going to have to tread lightly in regards to Wikipedia Review's comment here. Don't know if I can do it, but I'll try...

First off, I checked out the site and it's well designed. The content is aggregated nicely, too. Kudos for creating a space for the criticism.

As for the content itself, well, I don't disagree with all of it. There are many pearls of truth in there. When it comes down to it, though, the content itself would NOT meet scholarly/academic scrutiny. Why not?

Put it this way: If they presented their criticisms as a case in a court of law they would lose because they offer no evidence of their allegations.

I won't argue that people have been defamed via unscrupulous edits. George Bush and Bill Gates are probably the most highly targeted individuals for what Wikipedia Review would most likely label "vandalism."

Ultimately, Wikipedia Review makes many allegations without providing substantial, and in most cases no examples to back up their claims. Link to news stories or documented court cases, for crying out loud.

They also point out that Wikipedia focuses more on Pop culture than on science or scholarly subjects. Well, yeah! Pop culture is happening now! Wikipedia, as a work in progress, is a living document - not a stuffy, overworked, washed-out book. Just because you don't care about Lennon Murphy or Justin Timberlake, doesn't mean the information is worthless. Those people are shaping our world, probably more so than much of the obscure scientists are. (for better or for worse)

Okay, I could go on and on, but I won't. I strongly believe that Wikipedia Review is actually less credible than Wikipedia, because at least Wikipedia attempts to present sources. Wikipedia Review, in my quick look-over, does not.

The operator who posted the comment missed my point about "experts/authorities" as thinking that they need not cite sources because they are the authorities.

They also complain about how Wikipedia undervalues the power and importance of the scholars. Absolutely they do! That's the point, isn't it?

Think of it this way: How much misinformation were we presented with throughout our K-12 education - misinformation handed to us by our "trusted" scholars? Until the late 1960s in the U.S., students were still being taught that the "injuns" were nothing but a bunch of savages who brutally slaughtered settlers and raped their women. The settlers were the victims, according to the established scholars at the time.

In addition, Wikipedia Review offers no real suggestions for ameliorating the situation, fixes that could allow Wikipedia to live up to its full potential. Don't like the supposed defamation? You could suggest that Wikipedia locks certain profiles, like George Bush and Bill Gates.

It's interesting to note that in all my times of using Wikipedia, I have never once come across a defamatory comment, and I hit it up at least 3 times a day.

One last note to the person from Wikipedia Review who left the comment:

It's obvious that you didn't read my post that you commented on. If you had, you would have seen that I indicated that much of what you present as fact on your site is indeed a fallacy.

Also, your leaving the comment on my blog with a link to your site, and having obviously not read my post in the first place borders on trolling. I say "borders" because at least it's relevant to the discussion.

I'm leaving your comment because I think your site can be of value to some, but I highly recommend that you start providing examples on your site. It will only add credibility to your case. Convince us with evidence, not allegations.