By Andreas Kolbe
A factoid regularly cited in the press to this day is that a 2005 study by Nature found Wikipedia to be almost as reliable as Britannica. While the study’s (if that is the right word – it wasn’t a peer-reviewed study, but a news story) methodology and conclusions were disputed by Britannica, the result of the Nature comparison has become part of received knowledge for much of the media. As the saying goes, a lie told often enough becomes the truth.
A meme is born
The problems really began as soon as the Nature piece was published. Many news outlets failed to mention that in its survey, Nature looked at hard science topics only – subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and paleontology – despite the fact that Nature clearly said so, in the very first line of its piece. The following headline and lead from c|net will serve as an example:
Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica.
Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica, the venerable standard-bearer of facts about the world around us, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature.
Few observers were astute enough to note, as The Register’s Andrew Orlowski did, that restricting the comparison to hard science articles was what “gave the free-for-all web site a fighting chance – as it excluded the rambling garbage and self-indulgence that constitute much of the wannabe encyclopedia’s social science and culture entries”. Another notable exception was Bill Thompson, writing for the BBC, who noted Wikipedia’s problems in “contentious areas such as politics, religion or biography”, and how easily Wikipedia can “be undermined through malice or ignorance thanks to its open architecture”.
Nicholas Carr put it this way: in limiting itself to topics like the “kinetic isotope effect” or “Meliaceae”, which no one without some specialized understanding of the subject matter would even be aware of, the Nature survey played to Wikipedia’s strengths. Carr also established that the Nature “study” was not actually an expert-written research article of the type that built the reputation of Nature, but a non-peer-reviewed piece of news journalism (a fact he confirmed with the piece’s author, Jim Giles).
Another fact that is largely forgotten today: the Nature survey found that many Wikipedia entries were “poorly structured and confusing” and gave undue prominence to controversial theories. Both of these failings are a result of Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing method – one editor adding a sentence here, another adding a sentence there. The study’s highly publicised count of “inaccuracies”, which led to the “Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica” meme, did not reflect that. While the count penalised Britannica for alleged omissions – which Britannica contested – it imposed no penalty on Wikipedia for meandering off topic.
In effect, it considered a sprawling, badly organised jumble of facts to be as valuable as a masterfully written and easy-to-understand introduction to a topic by a world-renowned scholar. The results are not the same. Even so, Nature found that Wikipedia contained about a third more inaccuracies than Britannica. (This doesn’t stop some writers going the whole hog and claiming that Nature found Wikipedia to be more reliable than Britannica. It’s stunning, really, how memes morph on the internet.)
The reality: a site riddled with hoaxes, vandalism, PR manipulation and anonymous defamation
Another point that was lost is that Wikipedia’s quality is very uneven. Wikipedia articles on more obscure topics are often lacking in basic literacy. In the worst case, the information they contain may be entirely made up, or so self-serving to the interests of some anonymous Wikipedia author as to make a mockery of Wikipedia’s vaunted concept of a “neutral point of view”.
Saying that Wikipedia is “as reliable as Britannica” implies that this is so for any article in Wikipedia. And that just ain’t so. Some of Wikipedia’s articles are indeed reliable. The problem is that you never know whether the article you are looking at is one of them.
Wikipedia contains hoaxes and vandalism. It contains malicious defamation and anonymous hatchet jobs authored by people who are in conflict with the person they are writing about, or simply jealous of their success. It contains barely disguised advertising – entries on people and companies written by their subjects, or their PR agents. It contains articles on politics and history that have been meddled with by political extremists. Wikipedia entries are protean edifices: they may say one thing today and a completely different thing tomorrow. Those are all problems conventional reference works like Britannica never had. Is this progress?
What reference works like Britannica do have are editors in the traditional sense of the word – experts in their fields, who ensure that what is published meets academic standards. Wikipedia has editors, too, but in Jimmy Wales’ online encyclopedia the word means something entirely different: it is applied to any anonymous person with an internet connection who clicks “Edit” on a Wikipedia page – whether it’s a schoolchild, a mentally disturbed person, a political activist, a knowledgeable amateur or an actual scholar. Wikipedia has all of them. But academics venturing into the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” (allegedly) often find it a very time-consuming and frustrating experience, punctuated by interminable arguments with young men who may only have a very superficial understanding of the academic’s area of expertise, but unlimited time to spend on Wikipedia, familiarity with the site’s arcane and self-contradictory policies and guidelines, and wiki-friends to back them up. Many a distinguished academic lacks the time and patience to engage with them, and has been blocked from further participation for “incivility”. It’s not the same as talking to your editor at a university press!
Horses for courses
Wikipedia is free. It’s understandable that people don’t like to look a gift horse in the mouth. But no one should fool themselves into thinking that the nag they got for free is an Arabian racehorse.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of links that illustrate some of Wikipedia’s shortcomings. Note the number of times Wikipedia made fools of journalists, even a judge. Are there stories like this about Britannica, or any other properly edited reference work? Peruse these links at your leisure, and decide for yourself whether Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica.
Student hoaxes world’s media on Wikipedia (NBC News)
After a half-decade, massive Wikipedia hoax finally exposed (The Daily Dot)
The greatest movie that never was (The Daily Dot)
Despite what Wikipedia told you, there’s no ‘Breast Touching Festival’ in China (The Daily Dot)
What you never knew about Robert Klotz, but Wikipedia told you for half a year (Wikipedia)
Shocker: Wikipedia Refers Congress MP L Rajagopal as ‘PepperSpray Rajagopal’ (International Business Times India)
Leveson’s Wikipedia moment: how internet ‘research’ on The Independent’s history left him red-faced (The Independent)
Wikipedia, the 25–year–old student and the prank that fooled Leveson (The Telegraph)
AFC apologizes to the UAE over ‘Sand Monkeys’ remark on its website [AFC copied racist slur from Wikipedia] (Al Arabiya)
Independent bigs up the ‘Wanky Balls festival’ (The Register)
Sepp Blatter given embarrassing nickname on World Cup award (The Telegraph)
Malicious editing and defamation:
Detractors are trying to distort my Wikipedia profile: Payal Rohatgi (The Times of India)
Revenge, ego and the corruption of Wikipedia (Salon)
Wikipedia’s shame (Salon)
Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty (Wikipediocracy)
The tale of Mr Hari and Dr Rose – A false and malicious identity is admitted. (The New Statesman)
Any political filth or personal libel can be hurled at the innocent (The Independent)
What is it with Wikipedia? (BBC)
Mayfair art dealer Mark Weiss in disgrace after admitting poison pen campaign against rival Philip Mould (The Telegraph)
Don’t trust anything on Wikipedia (New York Post)
Dear Julian Koenig, I’m glad you’re not dead (The Drum)
Elementary mathematics on Wikipedia (Wikipediocracy)
Duns Scotus and Jennifer Lopez: Why can’t Wikipedia make better sausages? (Wikipediocracy)
The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Don’t trust Wikipedia on Anselm (The Baltimore Sun)
How vandals are destroying Wikipedia from the inside (The Daily Dot)
The medical condition known as glucojasinogen (Beyond Necessity)
PR infiltration and manipulation of Wikipedia content:
The battle to destroy Wikipedia’s biggest sockpuppet army (The Daily Dot)
The not-so-free encyclopedia: Is Wikipedia for Sale? (Motherboard)
Are plastic surgeons nip/tucking ads into high-profile Wikipedia articles? (The Daily Dot)
Is Wikipedia’s front page for sale? (The Daily Dot)
Corruption in Wikiland? Paid PR scandal erupts at Wikipedia (c|net)
Wales: Let’s ban Gibraltar-crazy Wikipedians for 5 years. Too bad you’re not the boss, Jimbo (The Register)
Wikipedia – the new ministry of truth (Wikipediocracy)
How pro-fascist ideologues are rewriting Croatia’s history [on Wikipedia] (The Daily Dot)
Wikipedia’s balkanisation (Wikipediocracy)
Wikipedia’s odd relationship with the Kazakh dictatorship (The Daily Dot)
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales restricts discussion of Tony Blair friendship (The Telegraph)
Jimmy Wales in: The Dictator and I (Wikipediocracy)
(This blog post was originally published February 16, 2014)
Image credits: Flickr/hang_in_there, Wikipeda. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic