Earlier this year, the digital information powerhouse, Wikipedia, celebrated its tenth anniversary. Over the last decade, founder Jimmy Wales’s free encyclopedia project has grown in both popularity and notoriety. Often the first stop on the Internet for information seekers, Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website in the world, only falling behind sites owned by billion dollar corporations like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.
There are currently more than 91,000 active contributors working on more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages; 3.5 million in English. In fact, according to a survey done by the Pew Research Center, over fifty percent of Internet users in the United States consult Wikipedia. These Wiki-users aren’t limited to high school students writing their term papers: a quick search of court records shows that even judges sometimes cite Wikipedia as a source for information on their rulings.
Even with the inherent weaknesses in its editing process, Wikipedia has some strengths when compared to traditional print encyclopedias. Due to its digital structure, editors of Wikipedia can fix any errors brought to their attention, while errors missed by Encyclopedia Britannica experts are printed in leather-bound issues where they remain until the next volume is released. Plus, due to the high cost of traditional encyclopedias -- a printed set of Britannica can cost over $1,000 -- most libraries and school systems keep outdated versions of the printed encyclopedias, meaning that the misinformation can stay in circulation for years. Even though the digital versions of the encyclopedias cost significantly less, at around $50 per DVD, they also lack the constant updatability that is one of Wikipedia’s greatest assets.
The academic community has not ignored the raging credibility debate. In 2005, the Nature news team conducted a study comparing the quality of information found on Wikipedia with the quality of corresponding articles inEncyclopedia Britannica. They sent 50 pairs of articles from both Wikipedia and Britannica to leading experts without telling them which article came from which source. The experts found an average of just under three errors per article in the Encyclopedia Britannica content and just under four errors per article in Wikipedia’s content. A similar study in Germany came up with the same results. This is not quite the huge gap in information quality that Britannica boasts about.
So what ensures quality of information in an encyclopedia? People always assumed that you needed very tight controls for editing in order to ensure quality, but Wikipedia and similar sites have proved them wrong said Andrew Lih, Wikipedia expert, and author of The Wikipedia Revolution. Lih, who has been a Wikipedia administrator for more than six years, added that what makes Wikipedia such a phenomenon is the fact that its entire foundation contradicts traditional lines of thought. “It shouldn’t work, but it does, and that’s what makes it so phenomenal.” Lih said that Wikipedia is by no means the first to try this idea. The now respected Oxford English Dictionaryactually had similar open-source beginnings to Wikipedia. In the book The Professor and the Mad Man, author Simon Winchester describes how, in the 1880’s, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary used quotations submitted by thousands of lay people in order to define words in its first volume. “The thing that we consider the most reputable tome of the English language started off as this really bizarre, quirky experiment,” said Lih.
Wikipedia doesn’t just collect information from the general public, it also lets them organize and manipulate it. Wikipedia famously markets itself as “the encyclopedia anyone can edit,” using a system it refers to as the “socialization of expertise” to ensure that any errors or omissions in their articles are promptly fixed. The premise is this: if tens of thousands of people read, critique, and edit Wikipedia’s articles daily, any mistakes will be caught and immediately changed. Wikipedia has its own system of revered volunteers, like Lih, who oversee major edits; in fact 85 percent of the work done on Wikipedia is done by only 5 percent of users. Still, every single person who contributes to Wikipedia essentially takes on the role of an editor.
Even though hot-button topics, like religion and governmental policy remain the source of controversy on Wikipedia, the system of checks and balances used by editors ensure evenness within the articles. A good example is the Wiki-article on global warming, which has undergone more than 10,000 changes by more than 4,000 users since its creation in 2001. In order to limit vandalism, anyone who wants to edit the global warming article must have an account that has existed for more than four days and have at least ten approved Wikipedia edits. Although a controversial topic, the current Wiki-article is a well-cited and seemingly unbiased account of the phenomenon.
Despite the studies on accuracy, people still have a hard time trusting Wikipedia. “The same things that have led to Wikipedia’s success are also leading to its biggest challenges,” said Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Aniket Kittur, author of Can you ever trust a Wiki? a study presented at the 2008 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Although he found people more trusting of the information in an article about quantum dynamics than one about Britney Spears, the people he interviewed were still dubious of anything in the online encyclopedia. “When there are thousands of collaborators, how do we know that the stuff is credible?” asked Kittur.
While Wikipedia has no intention of “firing” its collaborators in favor of a few select editors, it is making strides to improve its publicly perceived credibility. The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, is working with professional and academic organizations to help improve Wikipedia’s integrity. Kittur’s group is working with the Wikimedia Foundation to build and evaluate an interface that shows a clear history of the articles to improve the public’s trust of Wikipedia’s content. Institutions like the American Psychiatric Society are working with the Foundation to improve whole subjects on Wikipedia by having their experts review and edit the Wikipedia articles about their field of study.
Wikipedia works because “people feel like they own it.” Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, told a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter in a recent interview, “People have a deep and abiding affection for it. They were asked to bring their crumbs of knowledge to the table and those crumbs became a banquet.” But like any banquet, there are different portions. The 3.5 million English Wikipedia articles range from the broad, like the American Civil War, to the specific and potentially less useful, like an extended guide for every single episode ofBuffy the Vampire Slayer. “The entries in Wikipedia are certainly better in some areas than in others,” said University of Arizona epistemologist Dan Fallis. Lih agreed that one the greatest challenges to Wikipedia’s quality is the varying attention the articles get.
Because Wikipedia readers are responsible for editing, the less popular an article is, the less editing it receives. Wikipedia’s feature articles can receive tens of thousands of edits in their lifespan but the smaller, less popular articles receive barely any. The Wikipedia page on President George W. Bush has undergone over 44,000 major revisions since 2001 whereas the article on the Rufous-collared Sparrow, a small bird primarily found in South America, has only undergone 72 edits. Kittur argued that Wikipedia’s editorial dichotomy wasn’t necessarily bad. “The nice thing is that, in some ways, the effort that is extended adds up to the collective attention.” Topics that are more important to people, like the American Civil War, are edited more thoroughly than an article on a specific breed of Ecuadorian super-termite.
Wikipedia has never claimed to be perfect. In fact, the goal on the website is simply for “every single human being to freely share the sum of all knowledge.” And with a mission so inherently collaborative, the ever-changing open-source encyclopedia will always have some nagging inaccuracies. “Nothing is ever going to be perfectly accurate,” said Lih laughing as he added some advice from his programming days, “Any computer program with more than one line is going to have bugs.”
He’s right, I read it on Wikipedia.