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A few thoughts on Wikipedia

March 3rd, 2009 by Chris Strauber

Wikipedia is a delightfully controversial topic in academia. What’s fascinating about it from my perspective as an information professional is how unlike anything else it is. Originally designed to be something like Encyclopedia Britannica or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the way it is structured and works has a profound influence on how useful it is for any given topic.

The link to the Hitchhiker’s Guide is, of course, to Wikipedia. This is to illustrate two strengths of Wikipedia: its coverage of popular culture, particularly geek culture (the Hitchhiker’s Guide is from a series of science fiction novels by Douglas Adams); and, more importantly, the extent to which it is addressable–that is, the extent to which it is easy for me to link to it so you can see what I’m talking about. It’s possible to link to all manner of library resources, but usually only possible for certain communities of users to have access to them. I could link to the Tufts subscription version of Britannica below, but because I have readers who aren’t members of Tufts I am not, out of courtesy to them and because I can make my point another way.

Comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica

Wikipedia on Iraq War

Encyclopedia Britannica on Iraq War

I find it really hard to argue that the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War isn’t comprehensively superior to the article on Britannica or, in fact, to the coverage in most any specialized scholarly encyclopedia I could name. Here’s why:

1) It cites its sources. Because the topic is so controversial and attracts so much attention, any statement which is not supported by a reference to a reliable external source is almost immediately thrown out. The result is that there are over four hundred footnotes, most to major media outlets and respectable think tank publications. Britannica doesn’t cite its sources explicitly.

2) It’s more detailed. Because a normal encyclopedia is a consensus document you tend to get very bland discussions of controversial topics, which means Britannica tends to take the view that time will tell what the important details to include are. The practical effect of this is that if you want a discussion of the issues related to the US surge policy, still controversial, Britannica is no help at all.

3) All of the versions of the article are available for review. Revisions are signed and at least internally traceable.

4) Its editorial decision-making is available for public viewing. Just click on “Discussion” at the top of the page. The lack of this kind of openness in scholarly publishing leads to Facebook groups like “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped“, a complaint about the problems with anonymous peer review.

5) It has more contributors, and more editors, and more reviewers, than any print source could hope to have. This is not true for all articles, but it is for high-traffic articles like this one.

6) It will be constantly updated, often within minutes of a new development. Even the online version of Britannica can’t manage that. Try checking Wikipedia for the next fast-developing piece of news, or look at the page history of the article on the Mumbai attacks…which was created within hours of the attack and evolved as more became known.

Wikipedia has its problems, but I find its greater detail and openness about its sources and its process to mostly make up for them. Obscure facts in Wikipedia might or might not attract the same level of attention. Look for part two of this essay, Wikipedia’s problems, right here soon.

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