I love Wikipedia. I rely on it almost daily for my research. The community-written encyclopedia is as comprehensive a resource as you can find on the Web these days, and it has become so popular that students and judges alike are relying on it. Which, of course, is generating some controversy.
I was a tad surprised to read in the New York Times yesterday that more than 100 judicial rulings have cited Wikipedia as a source. Judges quoted in the story say they use the online resource for “soft facts” that are not critical to the case (to which the Times reporter rightly wonders, then why bother? But that’s a topic for a judicial blog). But it could set an interesting precedent.
The eggheads at Middlebury College are concerned too – they recently voted to ban students’ use of Wikipedia as a source for papers or other academic work.
The problems stem from concerns over the accuracy of the information, the agendas of the people posting the information, and the policies and procedures for correcting inaccurate entries. As neutral as Wikipedia claims to be, it’s hard to believe that everyone who contributes to it has no agenda other than to spread the glorious truth. Just the fact that such a small slice of the population posts anything to it – consider Jakob Nielson’s 90-9-1 theory about the inequality of participation on the Web – raises unavoidable questions about the points of view driving some of the entries.
Marketonomy’s Christopher Kenton has an interesting observation:
The problem with Wikipedia is that eventually someone has to make up the rules that define how content is shaped into “fact”. And to paraphrase an old saw, the reality with Wikipedia is that “Fact is determined by the rulemaker.”
Of course, you can argue that the same point applies to any other textbook or edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica ever written: Some editor or group of editors determine the rules around the content being published.
Kenton also cited the poopstorm brewing after a Microsoft employee asked a respected source in the software development community to weigh in on what the Microsoftie perceived as inaccuracies for an entry on a technical specification known as OOXML. This is more about the animosity the open software geeks have toward Microsoft, but it also shines a light on how groups with competing agendas may try to manipulate Wikipedia toward their version of the “facts.”
Wikipedia’s founders have put in plenty of safeguards to ensure the accuracy of entries. Their Neutral Point of View is a fascinating if sometimes convoluted read, including this passage on how to present facts about opinions (as opposed to the opinions themselves):
But it is not enough, to express the Wikipedia non-bias policy, just to say that we should state facts and not opinions. When asserting a fact about an opinion, it is important also to assert facts about competing opinions, and to do so without implying that any one of the opinions is correct. It is also generally important to give the facts about the reasons behind the views, and to make it clear who holds them. It is often best to cite a prominent representative of the view.
Talk about an unenforceable policy! Considering the site’s growth – more than 1.6 million English-language entries and another 2.7 million combined in other languages – it will be increasingly difficult to keep bogus entries from falling through the cracks. That won’t keep me from using it, though. Thank God I don’t have to write any more term papers.