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Not bewitched by Wikipedia

It was not yet 8:30 on a Saturday morning when a reader wrote in (Don’t people sleep in anymore?) to complain that an article in The Sun had cited Wikipedia as a source.

"You should never cite Wikipedia as a source for a factual article,” the reader complained. “Wikipedia is an unmediated lay collection of information, which is unsubstantiated for the large part. Wikipedia can be used as a general information gathering STARTING POINT, and often has useful links to expert sources, but Wikipedia itself is not credible."

No dissent here. The Sun’s copy desk has been discouraged for some time from relying on Wikipedia, for many good and sufficient reasons. There was the uproar in 2005 when a contributor to Wikipedia, as a joke, posted an entry on veteran journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. suggesting that he had been involved in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. This manifestly false and offensive entry remained on the site for months.

Here’s what Wikipedia itself has to say on the matter:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Seigenthaler_Sr._Wikipedia_biography_controversy

There has been more. Entries for members of the U.S. Congress have been manipulated by members of their staffs for partisan purposes.

A contributor known as “Essjay” who claimed to hold a doctorate in theology and who contributed to thousands of articles, turned out to be a fraud. Read more about Wikipedia in a New Yorker article:

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact

“Essjay,” by the way, was one of the volunteers enlisted by Wikipedia to do fact-checking and oversight of contributions by others.

And, in the Internet application of Gresham’s Law (that bad money drives out good money by devaluing it), Wikipedia entries turn up not only in Google searches, but also as the main entries at Answers.com and other electronic reference sites.

The impulse behind Wikipedia is of a piece with the naïve enthusiasm that has marked the development of the Internet. Wikipedia would be open to everyone, not just self-proclaimed authorities. Anyone and everyone would be able to contribute expertise, and the enterprise would be self-correcting. It  reflected a giddy Romantic/Rousseauist belief that people are good and that, once freed from the weight of Authority, would flourish in the sunlight.

Copy editors are Augustinian, not Rousseauist. We suspect, deep down, that people are no damn good, prone to error and malice, and we see little to disturb that settled conviction. Yes, the Internet has opened up worldwide communication and given multitudes a voice. It also carries some very ugly things, and the potential for anonymous malice is huge.

That being the case, we see little likelihood that the recent call for self-policing and civility in a New York Times article

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/technology/09blog.html?_r=2&hp&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

will change much.

Sweet as the vision behind Wikipedia may be, the democratic encyclopedia lacks adequate safeguards to prevent plagiarism, inaccuracy and libel. We on the copy desk are suspicious of many things, and Wikipedia is high on the list.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:12 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

Mmm, well, if you ever look up "Sneakbox" on wikipedia you're looking at some of my work. I'll vouch for myself. . One merit of a well-done Wikipedia entry is that it contains good links to primary sources or in some cases better information sources than the article itself is. Paradoxical but true. It's a question of how the user uses the resource that it is.

Some of us think that completely and utterly obscure items, like Sneakboxes, deserve their own spot on the Internet.

Will someone turn "Sneakbox" into gumbo? Maybe. But there's little percentage in it, and the curious can reference a vernacular boat type there.

On the other hand I've also put, in electronic text form, probably a dozen century-plus-old canoeing and boating books on the Web (not Wikipedia). These were pretty darn hard to find; often it was a question of paying $100 for a copy or xeroxing something at the Boston Public Library and then struggling with making it into a web page via an OCR program. You want editing? Oy! Try editing the output from an OCR program that's been fed a blurry xerox!

But seriously, fraud and inaccuracy have plagued every venture from government to (was it?) Life Magazine and the bogus bio of Howard Hughes, or the "Hitler Diaries" of the 70s. Not to mention Old Masters.

Interestingly enough, Oscar Wilde thought forgery was the highest form of art (for it to be successful, the forger must never reveal his or her act).

Do people use "real" encyclopedias as primary sources? I always thought of them as a way to get an overview of a topic so I'd know what primary sources to look for.

For that matter, relying on *any* single source sounds like living dangerously to me.

Wikipedia is a useful tool. But it's only one tool, not an entire toolbox full.

By Wikipedia's own definition, they are not a primary source:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Attribution

They don't aim to publish original research. As such, they should not be cited as an authoritative source. Which doesn't mean that they aren't a good source for finding out where a good source actually is. :-)

'“Essjay,” by the way, was one of the volunteers enlisted by Wikipedia to do fact-checking and oversight of contributions by others.'

Ahem. Except that Essjay was not enlisted by Wikipedia to do fact-checking and oversight of contributions of others.

Essjay was not an employee of Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation. His volunteer positions at Wikipedia ("administrator") encompassed non-editorial issues.

It is a common misunderstanding that so-called Wikipedia "administrators" are copyeditors or in charge of fact-checking. In fact, they are in charge of dealing with antisocial behavior from participants, in much the same way that a security guard at a university is not in charge of academic evaluation.

This misunderstanding is widespread in the press, despite the FAQs explaining the inner workings of Wikipedia. It is my understanding that journalists seldom seek to read actual documentation; instead, they rely on what other journalists wrote on the issue before.

This is how that kind of canard spreads...

(Consider the news story saying that Wikipedia was starting a search engine to compete with Google. False story, and it got a rebuttal from the Wikimedia Foundation. It still gets printed as fact in the press, because journalists copy from other journalists.)

Headline: Pot Accuses Kettle

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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