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:
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:
“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
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.