Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The democracy of encyclopedias

One time when I worked as a college tutor, a student referenced Wikipedia in his paper on plants. I asked him if he knew what Wikipedia was. He said no. I explained that it was a user-created encyclopedia, that anyone can alter the contents at any time, and that I could take my laptop right there and change the article to say, "Plants are little green men secretly plotting to take over Earth." The student looked at me in surprise, but I assured him I was dead serious.

At this point you might be expecting me to launch into an anti-Wikipedia rant. I refuse to jump on that bandwagon, however. Wikipedia is the perfect example of a new development that traditional people just don't "get." Not that these critics are wrong exactly. Wikipedia does often provide inaccurate information and should not be cited in an academic paper. But the critics assume that once they make this observation, the issue is closed: Wikipedia is virtually worthless as a resource. I have had a very hard time talking to people who take this attitude. When I try to defend Wikipedia, I am frequently greeted by a dismissive snort, as if to imply that giving Wikipedia any credit would be to demonstrate massive gullibility. ("What, you actually trust Wikipedia?") This reaction, in my view, reveals a somewhat one-dimensional perspective on what makes something a valuable research tool.

What is Wikipedia? It's an online encyclopedia in which anyone with Internet access may write an article or modify existing ones. You can make grammatical corrections, contribute a sentence, provide a citation, or add a new section. Of course, you can also put in something ridiculous or offensive. Many users do just that, but the site keeps a back log of all previous versions of every article, and so as soon as anyone changes anything, people check. Outlandish changes usually get quickly reverted--but they still occur quite often. I once visited an article on John Ritter only to be informed that the late actor had risen from the grave. Editors may temporarily close off articles that get swamped by "vandals."

Wikipedia has many standards that users are expected to uphold. Articles must have citations, "no original research," and a "neutral point of view." Every article has a discussion page in which users can work out conflicts or disagreements. Articles that fail to meet these standards will receive a tag pointing out this fact.

Forget about the accuracy question for a moment. I want to make a point that often gets overlooked in these discussions: Wikipedia is quite possibly the most extensive enyclopedia ever compiled. It is for sure one of the largest. (See here for comparisons.) I'm not sure the term "encyclopedia" does the site justice. The sheer amount of topics covered is mind-boggling. To wit, you will find lengthy articles on all of the following:

1. Books, movies, TV shows (even individual episodes!), and music groups (even individual songs!). This includes not just classics, but also numerous obscure modern works. The selection is constantly expanding; I contributed the article on the novel Somewhere in Time just a couple of weeks ago.

2. In-depth information about small, specialized subjects that get only the most cursory treatment in standard encyclopedias. What are your hobbies? One of mine is juggling. On Wikipedia, not only are there articles on Enrico Rastelli, Francis Brunn, and other names not well-known outside the juggling community, there is also an extensive history of juggling, a thorough examination of each piece of equipment, and a detailed look at a wide range of techniques and tricks.

3. Obscure concepts from technical fields, like evolutionary biology's "population bottleneck" or computer science's "self-balancing binary search tree."

4. Almanac-like lists of the major events in any particular year.

5. Huge information about cities. Not only is there a lengthy article about Baltimore, there are individual articles devoted to all the local universities, libraries, cemeteries, and even major streets! (My brother contributed an article about the local bus routes, which some editors considered deleting for being "unencyclopedic.")

At this point, you might be asking, "What's the point of all this information if it isn't reliable?" Now hold on just one second. Is Wikipedia unreliable? A controversial and hotly contested 2005 study in the journal Nature compared Wikipedia's scientific articles with those in Encyclopedia Britannica and found that Wikipedia on average has four errors per article, whereas Britannica has on average three. This fact becomes especially astonishing when you consider that Wikipedia's articles are typically much longer than Britannica's.

How can that be? How can an encyclopedia in which any twelve-year-old may contribute even begin to approach the accuracy of one compiled by a panel of experts? There lies the paradox of Wikipedia: even though it has an endless capacity for error, it doesn't necessarily have a much greater tendency toward error than traditional encyclopedias. It's true that any idiot can write an article, but it will then be subject to what amounts to a gigantic peer-review process.

There are some advantages to this format. The information tends to stay very up to date. (I have found their pages on celebrities updated within hours of a celebrity's death.) And they seem to be very good at staying on top of urban legends. My 1993 edition of Compton's, in contrast, under the topic of "Language" repeats the old urban legend that Eskimos have many words for snow. That kind of nonsense would never last long in Wikipedia, where there may be a lot more ignoramuses, but there are also a lot more fact-checkers.

Still, the errors are there. They might be even worse in the foreign-language editions, which I've noticed are often simply amateur translations of the English edition. I corrected an Israeli-edition article that identified Connecticut as a city in Maryland. (I later figured out the cause of the error: the translator misunderstood a sentence in which the two states were listed one after the other, separated by a comma.)

Thus, Wikipedia should not be viewed as authoritative. Any information you get from it needs to be corroborated. That, however, is very different from saying Wikipedia lacks value as a resource. I will mention one example from my experience to illustrate my point.

When I was doing a school paper on Silence of the Lambs (the basis for this post), I looked up the term "psychopath" on Wikipedia, because a character in the film had applied the term to Hannibal Lecter. Wikipedia brought me to the page on "anti-social personality disorder," the clinical term, and listed the seven symptoms associated with the disorder, which I subsequently mentioned in my paper.

There was no problem of verification here: the article had a direct link to DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic manual from which this information came. You might now ask why I needed Wikipedia--why didn't I just go directly to the manual? But how would I, a layperson who hasn't studied psychiatry, know in advance to go there? That's the beauty of Wikipedia. It gathers together an enormous amount of resources that might otherwise be hard to locate.

As it stands, corroborating Wikipedia's information is not difficult, because the good articles provide links and citations. Some of the less developed articles do not, but so what? You are free to dismiss any unverified information you find. It's true that some folks, like the student I tutored, may fall prey to the misinformation. But that's their problem. If not for Wikipedia, these same people would be getting their information from "Bob's Webpage." Wikipedia is very open about its process and should not be blamed if some people misuse the site.

Not only can misinformation be found in respected encylopedias like Britannica, it can be found even in very scholarly texts. In other words, no resource should be viewed as 100% reliable. Corroboration is a standard procedure of research, and the proper use of Wikipedia is really no different than the way we approach any other source.

Certainly, Wikipedia is both imperfect and incomplete. That's a given that not even Wikipedia's staunchest defenders will deny. The site is a massive organic entity, constantly being tinkered, constantly being updated, and much work remains to be done. In a way, I feel bad for the critics. They're in a Catch-22 situation, since the more they complain about Wikipedia's faults, the better Wikipedia becomes.

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