dissing Wikipedia

Just when we thought it was safe to dip back into Wikipedia waters without fear of academic retaliation, I spied this Computerworld column being thrown about the web. Professor Lichtenstein of Deakin University in Australia fears that

People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading,” she said. “Parents and teachers think it is [okay], but it is a light-weight model of knowledge and people don’t know about the underlying model of how it operates.

Wikipedia as a source is a light-weight model of knowledge: guilty as charged. Professor Lichtenstein asks this burning question:

Yet as I say to my students, ‘if you had to have brain surgery would you prefer someone who has been through medical school, trained and researched in the field or the student next to you who has read Wikipedia?

No-brainer there: only the medically-trained, field researched expert may clip off pieces of my brain. But, here’s my question: what medical student is going to use Wikipedia as a source for his or her training?

And, on a final point I am again in complete agreement with the professor:

As a result, Lichtenstein’s students are not allowed to cite Wikipedia in their coursework.

Well, no kidding. I’m from generations before generation X, Y, Z, yet I was not allowed to cite from encyclopedias once I got out of grade school.

Let’s put this in perspective. Wikipedia is not the end-all be-all of accurate information; it’s an encyclopedia. It’s a very special encyclopedia in that it can theoretically be added to and edited by anyone. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

First, I’d like to address accuracy. Back in 2005 when Wikipedia was being recognized as a phenomenon as well as a threat to paper-bound encyclopedias, Nature did a study to test Wikipedia’s accuracy against Encylopedia Britannica’s. You probably recall that Britannica was found to have a slight edge over Wikipedia–roughly, 3 errors per article vs. 4 Wikipedia errors–but you might not be aware of how Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, responded to that study.

He . . . . acknowledged that the error rate for each encyclopedia was not insignificant, and added that he thinks such numbers demonstrate that broad review of encyclopedia articles is needed.

Wikis are all about accessible change for improvement’s sake, and Jimmy learned the very lesson he popularized. Today’s wiki is not your big sister’s wiki; it’s improved. Stay tuned for an example of the fascinating and ongoing dialogue that wikis are in general, and Wikipedia has become in particular.

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1 Comment

  1. April 17, 2008 at 9:24 am

    […] Wikipedia, but we’re reluctant to admit it it because its reputation lacks credibility. In my previous post, I wrote that we need to keep in perspective that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and if we use it as […]


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