Wikipedia as an information resource

[My response to this article in the Syracuse Post-Standard: ]

As a contributor to the Wikipedia and a librarian, I disagree with the general tone of the article titled “Librarian: Don’t use Wikipedia as source” that appeared in the August 25 on-line Syracuse Post-Standard, and note that it left out some key information that one would need to have in order to understand and evaluate the resource.

1. It is true that “anyone can change the content of an article in the Wikipedia”, but not quite true that “there is no editorial review of the content”. The content is open to the review of any knowledgeable person who uses the source, and that person is allowed to correct errors and add additional context. I do it myself whenever I see something in the Wikipedia that can be improved. I can see why this model of editing, in theory, drives librarians up a wall; but, in practice, it works most of the time.

Also, there are people in the Wikipedia community who monitor the database for what’s called “vandalism”. These monitors are helped by a valuable feature of Wikipedia: That any change to an article can be rolled back, because each prior version of an article is saved along with the current version. If someone “vandalizes” a page by deleting everything on it, or adding biased information, or tossing in a few swear words, the monitor needs only roll back the article to its previous version, and the vandalism is gone.

How can the monitors determine whether someone is vandalizing a page? It’s not a perfect science, but the way it works is this:

There are two types of people who contribute to Wikipedia: anonymous contributors (who are denoted by their IP addresses) and registered contributors (who are denoted by their user names).

If an anonymous user makes a change to an article, that change usually gets monitored, and, if necessary, rolled back. This usually happens within a few minutes.

If a registered user (such as me) makes a change, then the monitoring is not automatic, but if there are validated complaints about that user, then all of that user’s contributions can be looked at (a record is kept for all of us) and corrected / rolled back as necessary.

Also, people who have written or heavily contributed to a page can put that page on a “watchlist”, which notifies them if the page has been edited. All of the pages I’ve put a lot of work into are on my watchlist, and I always check the edits that other people make.

2. The article states one librarian’s opinion that “Wikipedia…takes the idea of open source one step too far for most of us.” The article then goes on to note the disadvantages of open source, but not the advantages.

Advantage #1: Speed. When an article needs to be updated because of something that has been reported in the news, it can be updated instantly, and, in the Wikipedia, almost always is.

Advantage #2: Range. An editorial board does not decide what goes into the Wikipedia; the users do. There are guidelines which are enforced (for example, “the Wikipedia is not a dictionary”), but within those guidelines, any and every topic can be included. The English-language version of
Wikipedia (the largest and best-edited version) currently has 333,000 articles.

Advantage #3: Many eyes. Just because an article has been peer-reviewed doesn’t mean that is is free of slant; it just means that it doesn’t challenge the slant of the peer reviewers. In Wikipedia, everyone can edit, and the frequent result is an article that, through repeated iteration, ends
up being acceptable to everyone.

Advantage #4: Cost. The Wikipedia is free, and open to all users.

I would not claim that Wikipedia, in terms of information quality, is on par with the better peer-reviewed publications. I do believe, however, that it is on par with most newspapers.

The Wikipedia has flaws, and bad articles, and odd lacunae. For my own projects and interests, though, I use Wikipedia more than any other reference source, because, taken as a whole, it is a good and continually improving general resource. I contribute to Wikipedia for the same reason I became a librarian: To help people get the information they need.

I hope that library schools are starting to teach new librarians about Wikis, because they are becoming a widely used means of storing and presenting information, and librarians will want to be aware of a Wiki’s strengths and weaknesses as an information medium.

A couple of good Wiki-related readings:

The Wikipedia community’s response to its critics.

Why Wikis work.


One Response to “Wikipedia as an information resource”

  1. M1EK Says:

    I think you’re selling a bit short, even. The WikiPedia is superior to every newspaper most people ever pick up – only a few big-city papers can come close to competing on depth of information, and breadth is always a wiki win.

    (I’ve contributed to a couple, probably not as much as you though!)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: