Please create an account to participate in the Slashdot moderation system


Forgot your password?

Wikipedia != Authoritative? 783

Frozen North writes "Recently, this article in the Syracuse Post-Standard caused a stir by dismissing Wikipedia as an authoritative source, and even suggesting that it was a little deceptive by looking too much like a "real" encyclopedia. Techdirt suggested an experiment: insert bogus information into Wikipedia, and see how long it takes for the mistake to be removed. Well, I did that experiment, and the results weren't good: five errors inserted over five days, all of which lasted until I removed them myself at the end of the experiment."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Wikipedia != Authoritative?

Comments Filter:
  • surprising? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:04AM (#10162057) Homepage Journal
    why would you keep it surprising? it's a website everyone can submit to, you should treat it like websites you don't trust.

    that doesn't mean they're not good for finding information however, you just have to check it from somewhere else as well(which is easier if you know what you should check too).

    (real encyclopedias have errors in them too sometimes, encarta as one)
    • Re:surprising? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by a3217055 ( 768293 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:09AM (#10162086)
      yes I agree, there are always going to be errors, but when there is an error in an encuclopedia it is usually fixed the next year or through a set of books that have additional information. All the information in the world is not always correct. Some of it is correct some of the time. And also it is good that people can add and remove. It is like sharing a document online, so people can read from it. So if you ever make changes and somebody used your wikki entry as a source then they can check back and see what the changes have taken place.
      • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Directrix1 ( 157787 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:20AM (#10162146)
        So give them a year and not 5 days.
        • The Horror (Score:5, Insightful)

          by PingPongBoy ( 303994 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:53PM (#10162971)
          Think of all the damage done by the millions of people reacting to false information.

          Then again, if Wikipedia did not exist, think of all the damage done by millions of people lacking information.
          • Re:The Horror (Score:3, Insightful)

            by pVoid ( 607584 )
            You could say the same thing about the 'millions' of people reading the printed version of Encarta's mistake. Imagine also the millions upon millions of people who will continue reading that because nobody buys a new encarta every year.

            More than the timespan of a mistake, IMO the bigger problem is the sheer number of mistakes there can be at any one given moment. Making the whole thing lose credibility.

          • Re:The Horror (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Futurepower(R) ( 558542 ) <> on Sunday September 05, 2004 @06:53PM (#10164809) Homepage

            " Think of all the damage done by the millions of people reacting to false information."

            I have found Encyclopedia Brittanica to be extremely and subtly destructive. The short entry for Nobel prize winner Barbara McClintock [] gave no idea that her scientific articles spanned a width of 80 feet when put together. I discovered that only after a web search. Her work is still important to molecular biologists. Reading EB gave no impression of her importance.

            The paper version of Encyclopedia Brittanica is limited by how much the executives of the company want to spend on paper. They probably say something like this to writers: "Give us 500 words on Barbara McClintock."

            Wikipedia has the advantage of being written by enthusiasts.

            24 wars [] since WW2: Creating fear so rich [] people [] can profit.
      • Re:surprising? (Score:3, Insightful)

        ...there are always going to be errors... Some of it is correct some of the time.

        The ironic thing is that the wikipedia might actually be more correct more often than normal encyclopedias. Wikipedia entries are often entered by experts in that field who have the best understanding of the subject. "Real" encyclopedia enties are written (as I understand it) by information researchers who are experts at researching information, not in the subjects of the fields they're writing about. The tradeoff is, of

        • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Informative)

          by westlake ( 615356 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:09AM (#10162410)
          The Britannica's essays are signed and historically have included authors like Einstein and Freud. I don't know how you can reconcile these two beliefs:

          Wikipedia entries are often entered by experts in that field
          there is no verification of expertise of the wiki writers so it's more or less a "use at your own risk".

          • Re:surprising? (Score:3, Insightful)

            I don't know how you can reconcile these two beliefs:

            Wikipedia entries are often entered by experts in that field
            there is no verification of expertise of the wiki writers so it's more or less a "use at your own risk".

            often != always

          • Peer Review (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Jonathan ( 5011 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @01:17PM (#10163107) Homepage
            The way to authenticity is not through "authorities" but through peer review. Freud is a perfect example -- there's a reason why he published most of his stuff in books (which need merely to sell well) rather than in peer reviewed journals -- even in his own time most scientists realized that babblings about "penis envy" by the juvenile-minded Freud weren't science and couldn't have stood up to the peer review process. And the fact is Wikipedia is far closer to the scientific model of peer review than is Britannica.
            • by dh003i ( 203189 ) < minus physicist> on Sunday September 05, 2004 @02:49PM (#10163562) Homepage Journal
              Particularly in the social sciences -- such as economics -- peer review has been a poor maintainer of quality. In the social sciences, pro-Statist ideas dominate, while free-market ideas are systematically selected against (this is not a conspiracy, but it is simply a natural outcome of the way the system is set up, with State-funding etc). However, the problem isn't so severe in the natural sciences, where the issue of pro-State vs. free-market is marginal.

              I agree, however, that Wikipedia has a better model.
        • Re:surprising? (Score:3, Informative)

          by Jester99 ( 23135 )
          Wikipedia entries are often entered by experts in that field who have the best understanding of the subject. "Real" encyclopedia enties are written (as I understand it) by information researchers who are experts at researching information, not in the subjects of the fields they're writing about.

          Actually, you're not entirely correct. While researchers may write some articles for "real" encyclopedias, I know a few professors who have been contacted by Brittanica to write articles specifically related to th
    • Re:surprising? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:17AM (#10162130)
      Hmm .. get a job at brittanica or encarta and try that experiment.

      Once they print an edition it's out there .. never to be fixed.

      This is really crappy. He only let it sit for a short time .. that's not enough time to get it fixed. Also, and this is significant.. HE TRIED TOPICS THAT WERE SHITTY. Seriously .. read his article .. it's not like he vandalized the page on current events or something .. the pages he vandalized were boring !! Topics nobody is interested in or has ever heard of. What do you expect the results to be?

      Wikipedia operates with under $40,000 per year. Their funding needs to be $2 or $3 million a year come foundations are not stepping up to the plate? Or, give these guys a government grant (not just US govt. other govts should help out) ..instead of funding stupid stuff.
      • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by aardvarkjoe ( 156801 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:37AM (#10162250)
        Your arguing a point that the article doesn't address. His point isn't "look, I can get mistakes into wikipedia, so wikipedia is stupid!" His point is that you can't treat the wikipedia as an authoritative source, because it's far too easy to insert the mistakes. The amount of funding that wikipedia gets, how "boring" the topics are, and how long he left them up are all completely irrelevant. Either a source can be trusted, or it can't -- and wikipedia cannot.
        • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:57AM (#10162350) Homepage Journal
          *Either a source can be trusted, or it can't -- and wikipedia cannot.*

          it's not black and white, you just need to use your own brain, like when reading a newspaper.
          encarta has mistakes in it. britannica has mistakes in it. probably cia world factbook has mistakes in it. if you just use one of them on basis of very important decisions you're stupid.

          • by gad_zuki! ( 70830 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @02:01PM (#10163348)
            >it's not black and white, you just need to use your own brain

            Agreed, but the lack of a formal registration system and dependence on volunteers is going to hurt this project as it becomes more complex and more popular. I don't think the "open wiki" model scales so well as A LOT of wiki articles are full of disinformation and bias. Granted, most aren't, but there is a strong US-centric bias and some of us who have corrected disinformation only to see it reappear because of the citation of false facts makes me, at least, give up on contributing.

            That said, the best advice is the line you just gave: always be skeptical about your sources. I think this is a postmodern idea, as this whole debate focuses on the assumption that britanica et al are infailable when in reality they have to deal with the exact same problems the wiki people have to deal with.

            >like when reading a newspaper.

            I would go as far as saying that people don't use their brain with the media. How many Americans still believe between the fictional connection between Saddam and 9/11?

            The problem here is cultural and wikipedia is the symptom. People, in general, are not skeptical enough. There is way too much trust (this also applies to politics, religion, etc). Wiki readers know they are getting into something they can't trust unlike old media. The real catch (the real issue) is that old media is just as untrustworthy, if not more so because of ownership bias and other factors.
        • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by rpdillon ( 715137 ) * on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:29PM (#10162831) Homepage

          Using that logic, very little on the web can ever be trusted.

          Hackers often change websites, accounts get hacked (Gabe Newell?), people lie in posts all the time, whole websites can be designed to mislead you...

          But this shows one important thing: you don't have to be able to trust a source for it to be useful. I don't trust most of the web, but if I do research and 15 websites agree on a fact, even though I don't trust each individual website, I can trust the consensus of 15 independent websites.

          This phenomenon is present in Wikipedia because there are so many folks contributing. The liklihood is that errors will be corrected over time, and that even though you cannot trust it as infalliable, it proves to be an extremely useful tool. Further, it at least has a policy on accuracy and NPOV, whereas most other internet-based sources do not, or at least do not publish one publicly.

      • Re:surprising? (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Zibblsnrt ( 125875 )
        Hmm .. get a job at brittanica or encarta and try that experiment.

        I'd imagine it's a little more difficult to get a job at Britannica or Encarta and try that experiment, than it is to do the same thing with Wikipedia articles. Why don't you give it a shot, lemme know how it works out? I'll wait.

        People keep pointing out that anyone can contribute to Wiki articles as though it's a good thing. To me, that's its primary fault.

        It's also started contaminating other sites anyway. My main interest is histor

    • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by pHatidic ( 163975 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:30AM (#10162198)
      Yes, specifically if you go to the Wikipedia page Making Fun of Britannica [] they have a whole list of britannica errors. Furthermore, if you look at the disclaimer on Britannica you notice that they do not guarantee any of the validity of their article contents. It is true that there are less errors per sentence in Britannica than in Wikipedia, but Britannica has been around hundreds of years. In the last month alone, according to Wikistats [] the English version of Wikipedia has grown from 99 million words to 107 million words, 8 million words in a single month. Wikipedia as a whole will hit the 1 million article mark between september 15th and 20th. So if you give Wikipedia just a few more years until there are articles about every major topic and the current topics are just edited again and again, the accuracy of Wikipedia will be comparable with Britannica.

      Also it is worth pointing out that one should never cite sources in a paper from an encyclopedia, rather you should find the sources the encyclopedia gets its facts from and cite those. Anyone who has ever failed a paper for getting all of their facts from the encyclopedia, be it Britannica or Wikipedia, will know what I mean by this. So in this sense it doesn't even matter so much because if a Wikipedia fact isn't true then one just won't be able to find it in a primary source so citing it in a paper incorrectly won't be an issue. The problem is that teachers lie to little kids and brainwash them in thinking that an encyclopedia is an unquestionable source of all truth, when really nothing could be further from the case.

      • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Informative)

        by justins ( 80659 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:24PM (#10162798) Homepage Journal
        So if you give Wikipedia just a few more years until there are articles about every major topic and the current topics are just edited again and again, the accuracy of Wikipedia will be comparable with Britannica.


        The problem is that the less mainstream topics, and the little details, aren't being fact checked. The user base can grow astronomically and this problem won't go away.

        I suppose it might, arguably, get worse as the potential number of vandals increases. That's not the sort of problem that interests me most when we talk about accuracy. It's the little things that even the educated among us might not remember, little dates in history and minutia, that are likely to be slightly off.

        I think this is might be a largely solvable problem by employing volunteer fact checkers - something that could be a really fun job. But it's never going to be 100%, since you're trying to hit a moving target.

        The problem is that teachers lie to little kids and brainwash them in thinking that an encyclopedia is an unquestionable source of all truth, when really nothing could be further from the case.

        Where did you go to school??!?!? My teacher taught me that:

        one should never cite sources in a paper from an encyclopedia

        Who taught you this, if not a teacher?
      • Re:surprising? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by michael_cain ( 66650 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:33PM (#10162854) Journal
        Also it is worth pointing out that one should never cite sources in a paper from an encyclopedia, rather you should find the sources the encyclopedia gets its facts from and cite those.

        From an academic perspective, Wikipedia suffers the same problem that most of the Internet suffers: the information provided has no pedigree. There is a loud debate going on these days about the high costs of publishing academic papers. One of the points that is seldom made is that printed journals provide a pedigree for the articles that is hard to forge: the article was authored by a certain person, published on a certain date, said whatever it said. Far too much of the content that is quoted from the Internet is simply untraceable. It cannot be reliably attributed to anyone, it can often be changed at will, often by someone other than the original author.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:41AM (#10162268) Homepage
      ...the problem is, if websites start using Wikipedia as their source, you suddenly have bogus information backed up by "semi-legitimate" websites. Suddenly it starts seeming rather plausible, particularly if it is the kind of information you wouldn't normally expect to find in a standard encyclopedia. Basicly, while not verified by a proper source, it would go unquestioned. And then often taken for truth.

      • by bjohnson ( 3225 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:39AM (#10162571)

        In news reporting it's known as the "Enquirer Effect"

        The National Enquirer, Matt Drudge, or Faux News reports some half-baked erroneous bullshit.

        The 'legitimate' news organizations pick it up and report it from there.

        A week later it's common knowledge and accepted as absolute fact that Al Gore said he "invented the Internet."

        After all, it's quoted in all those news stories, isn't it?

    • by Famatra ( 669740 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:07AM (#10162401) Journal

      Wikipedia is currently working to reference all the facts on it. There is a project set up to do it also here Fact and Reference Check []. Here is a quote:

      Not only can we make Wikipedia a more factual, a more reputable, source of information but perhaps the *most*. Imagine an article in which each *fact* is referenced with many academic text books, journals and websites! Wikipedia has the potential to be the *most* crossreferenced body of knowledge ever created, but to get there it needs help.

      There isn't any reason why every fact couldn't be referenced making Wikipedia one of the most authoritative sources of information ever created.

      • by jilles ( 20976 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @02:34PM (#10163485) Homepage
        In fact, unlike traditional encyclopedias, wikipedia has both the manpower (all users, anyone who cares to contribute) and the room to provide exhaustive information.

        Traditional encyclopedias are constrained in the amount of writers they can afford, the amount of research they can do and the amount of paper available for a single article. In a time where traditional encyclopedias are losing marketshare (thanks to internet, cdroms and other sources of information), cost savings are likely to put pressure on all three factors.

        Wikipedia is a cumulative effort. If an article is not good, it can be fixed. If there are multiple views/interpretations on a topic, there is room to highlight both sides of the debate.

        The longer the process goes on the better it becomes. Of course malicious people can insert information but sooner or later people will find out and fix it. You can put screening processes and peer reviews on wikipedia just like you can on a traditional encyclopedia.

        Probably wikipedia's largest problem is not the process but the fact that it is accumulating information much faster than all other encyclopedias.

        Now this guy has done something clever. He has made some small changes that would pass a first glance unless you already knew the facts. The problem is that he jumped to the wrong conclusion and never actually wondered how many people ever saw the changes. Since he only left the changes for 20 hours to max 5 days (!) and the articles do not exactly qualify as hot information, probably noone or at most a handful of people read the article. The changes obviously passed the vandalism procedures (for e.g. excessive changes in short periods of time) and nobody bothered to verify the information right away. The latter is actually the whole point of criticism. Wikipedia cannot be authorative because not all information is verified right away.

        However, he misses the point. If brittanica has a mistake you might be tempted to write to the editor and maybe in a next edition it would be fixed. But most people probably don't. If you spot an error in wikipedia, you can just fix it. The more articles are referred to, the more authorative and informative they become. Especially the 'hot' articles on politics, famous people, etc are likely to be read, scrutinized and edited very often. Messing up 'empuries' is easy but try inserting false data under 'George Bush' and see how quickly that is corrected.

        • by Brandybuck ( 704397 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @07:38PM (#10164969) Homepage Journal
          However, he misses the point.

          No, you Wikipedia disciples have missed the point. RANDOM ANONYMOUS INEXPERT people can alter the information in the "encyclopedia" at any time.

          There is no Free or Open Source Software project that does this. They all have gatekeepers of some kind. Can you imagine how horrible the Linux kernel would be if random users could check in code without asking? What if random users with barely two weeks into an introductory programming class decided to hack on GNOME or KDE? Of course most errors (but not all) won't be subsequently pushed out to the rest of the users, because the compiler or the testers will throw them out. But Wikipedia isn't software. Mistakes in the information WILL get pushed out to the other users.

          I don't expect my authoritative sources to be error free, but I do expect them to be authoritative. You cannot do that without restricting membership to authoritative sources.
  • Duh. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by keiferb ( 267153 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:05AM (#10162061) Homepage
    Seriously... do you believe everything you read on the internet?

    It's a publicly editable encyclopedia. By now, people should realize that there are many kiddies out there who have nothing better to do than to screw with others.
  • Sigh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ReTay ( 164994 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:06AM (#10162065)
    And how much are people paying to use the site?

    Oh ya its free. And not a bad quick referance.
    • Re:Sigh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nine-times ( 778537 ) <> on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:30PM (#10162836) Homepage
      Oh ya its free. And not a bad quick referance.

      I don't think anyone is complaining that the Wikipedia isn't useful. But how many times on Slashdot to you see somebody say "Nope, you're wrong. Look- it's in Wikipedia!" Wikipedia is being used as an authoritative source of information, and I think it's valid to at least ask the question, "Does the lack of an formal editorial process compromise the trustworthiness of the information posted on Wikipedia?"

      Honestly, I think it's the first question that came to my mind when I first heard about how Wikipedia worked. I think there are arguments for both sides, but it doesn't help to say "Oh, well, it's free, so you can't complain if it contains inaccuracies." To say you can't complain about open source products (which I'll lump Wiki in with) because "it's free" only seems to confirm that free things are of poorer quality than expensive things, which I believe is the wrong message to send. Plus, the statement seems to be aimed at quashing valuable debate. Wouldn't it be better to talk about perceived failings in the submission process in order to see if they can be fixed/improved?

  • bleh (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:08AM (#10162075) Homepage
    Wikipedia isn't that great. It's not comprehensive like a real dictionary, and anyone can insert bogus data and garbage up the system.

    Worse, it's subject to the biases of whoever writes the article. I've seen some pretty bad stuff, horribly biased, passed off as a real encyclopedia author. It also sucks that people around here tend to insert Wikipedia links, thus inferring that they're somehow authoritative in any way. They're not.

    Wikipedia != encyclopedia.
    Wikipedia == blog

    • I'd disagree... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by theluckyleper ( 758120 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:34AM (#10162233) Homepage
      If you'll grant that there are more honest people than asshats in the world, then over long periods of time, the wiki will tend towards authoritativeness as intentional errors are weeded out. The majority of edits will be valuable.

      Or perhaps you're more pessimistic than I am, with regard to human nature.
      • Re:I'd disagree... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by anthony_dipierro ( 543308 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:24AM (#10162483) Journal

        If you'll grant that there are more honest people than asshats in the world, then over long periods of time, the wiki will tend towards authoritativeness as intentional errors are weeded out.

        There are a lot of problems with that. For one thing, not everyone in the world will ever use Wikipedia. So we're only talking about the proportion of people who use Wikipedia. Another problem is that it's much easier to introduce intentional errors than it is to introduce true facts. So people inserting errors have a basic advantage there. Finally, you assume that merely being honest is enough, but it's not. You have to not only be honest, but you have to be correct.

        A lot of the errors on Wikipedia fall under that last category. This is especially true in the more technical categories, where there are a lot of amateurs who think they know things but are just completely wrong. It's a similar situation to a lot of the problems with Slashdot and its moderation system. The majority is not always right.

        • Try this, then (Score:3, Insightful)

          I would lump "honest, but incorrect" individuals in with the "dishonest" and still expect to have a higher number of "honest and correct" contributors to the wiki. Most people don't contribute if they are unsure!

          But anyway, try this argument on for size: Individual wiki articles (and even the facts contained within them) evolve, just as organisms do. Good, factual data has a higher fitness quotient than do errrors and misinformation. Over long periods of time, the wiki content will tend towards truth
    • Encyclopaedia bias (Score:3, Insightful)

      by j.leidner ( 642936 )
      Worse, it's subject to the biases of whoever writes the article. I've seen some pretty bad stuff, horribly biased, passed off as a real encyclopedia author. It also sucks that people around here tend to insert Wikipedia links, thus inferring that they're somehow authoritative in any way. They're not.

      That may well be true; however, it would be equally naive to believe that a print encyclopaedia has perfect authority or presents an unbiased view. Ultimately, every human knowledge source is subject to error

  • not very surprising (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tero ( 39203 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:08AM (#10162076)
    Ok, I can imagine this post will be redundant in about 5 seconds, but why on earth would you consider a publicly editable web encyclopedia to be authorative in the first place? This is the Internet, not all you read is true.
  • by scovetta ( 632629 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:08AM (#10162077) Homepage
    Grab an article out of a "real" encyclopedia, and compare it to the Wikipedia article. Do they factually match?

    I would be very interested in the results.

    Oftentimes, Wikipedia articles are updates the same day that events happen. This is one advantage over *any* "real" encyclopedia.
    • by mblase ( 200735 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:20AM (#10162148)
      Grab an article out of a "real" encyclopedia, and compare it to the Wikipedia article. Do they factually match?

      Yes, sometimes it's even word-for-word....
      • Yeah, it's only a matter of time until Wikipedia gets sued for infinging on some copyrighted materials. If someone can just cut and paste bogus information into the system, there isn't much stopping someone from cutting and pasting verbatim text from some other refrence source into it as well.
        • (links removed for your inconvenience): If you are the owner of content that is being used on Wikipedia without your permission, then you may request the page be immediately removed from Wikipedia by following this link [link]. You can also contact our Designated agent [link] to have it permanently removed, but it may take up to a week for the page to be deleted that way (you may also blank the page but the text will still be in the page history). Either way, we will, of course, need some evidence to suppor
        • by at_18 ( 224304 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:32AM (#10162531) Journal
          It happened, it still happens, and articles that result from copy&pasted text are deleted. It's anyway an ongoing problem, see Wikipedia:Copyright problems [].
  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:08AM (#10162080)
    If you try looking for something that isn't directly related to technology the information is sparse. Try, for instance, "permian period". You'll find a rather sketchy description, if compared to a traditional ecyclopaedia, like the Britannica.
    • You'll find a rather sketchy description, if compared to a traditional ecyclopaedia, like the Britannica.

      So, what exactly are you waiting for to improve the article?
      Or perhaps you simply didin't care about it that much to begin with?
  • Wikipedia Errors (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Silwenae ( 514138 ) * on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:09AM (#10162082) Homepage
    I remember seeing this story originally on Boing Boing [], and the author, Frozen North, leaves some facts out that his site covers. However, his submission is a bit of flamebait.

    Alex Halavais did the same experiment [], changing 13 things, and all of those were changed. He did most of them over the course of the same day from the same IP, so they got caught.

    Wikipedia is a tool, nothing more. If you believe everything you read on the internet, well, you get it.
  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:09AM (#10162083) Homepage Journal
    ... I was taught by teachers and librarians not to rely on the printed encyclopedia (the only we kind we had back then, you young whippersnappers!) as an authoritative source, since all it contained, by its nature, was summary data which was easily outdated. I remember one teacher in high school even telling the class that anyone who cited an encyclopedia article in a paper would get an F. A bit drastic, maybe, but it got the point across: an encyclopedia is not supposed to be the be-all and end-all of research. It's a place to get a quick idea of a subject and ideas on how to learn more, a starting point for research in depth. In this role, Wikipedia performs admirably.
  • Actually... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sw155kn1f3 ( 600118 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:10AM (#10162090)
    You should not post such information here!
    With amount of people reading slashdot there's a possibility of many pranksters who didn't have any motivation to deface etc sites now have such motivation...
    Be careful slashdit! May as well introduce the new slashdot effect.
  • by starphish ( 256015 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:11AM (#10162098) Homepage
    ..than any other news or reference source?

    I read inaccurate news. I read mistakes in references. The only difference here is that it can be malicious.

    I'm sure that just like every other reference sourc Wikpedia isn't perfect, but it's pretty damn cool.

    At least it doesn't have a political stance like a news source does, by endorsing a point of view, or a candidate. That worries me more than some prankster inserting bad data.
    • by the pickle ( 261584 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:39AM (#10162259) Homepage
      I read inaccurate news. I read mistakes in references. The only difference here is that it can be malicious.

      ...and mistakes can be corrected by anyone who knows better. This, to me, is why something like Wikipedia is so great. I don't do a lot of factual editing there, but I certainly won't hesitate to do copyediting, which I must say is rather lacking in a lot of so-called "mainstream" Internet news outlets.

    • by pHatidic ( 163975 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:45AM (#10162296)
      Actually in scientific papers there can be malicious mistakes too. If you read this Wikipedia article on Peer Review [] you would see that peer review can only be used to correct small mistakes, but can't actually detect outright fraud. This is why there have been so many completely falsified scientific papers that weren't found out until years later even though they were peer reviewed. In many cases wikipedia articles have more accuracy than scientific papers because of their policy of "no original research", whereby if someone posts a fact you aren't sure about then all you have to do is google it. However in a scientific paper this doesn't work because you would actually have to duplicate the experiment yourself, which many times isn't feasible.
    • by Sunspire ( 784352 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:00AM (#10162365)
      Take any one subject you know really really well. Look up some news articles on it in the papers, on Google News etc. You'll likely find that the news reporter gets things wrong about as often as he gets them right. Now extrapolate that to the rest of the news, to the subjects you do not know so in depth. Right...

      Everything you read, be it on the Internet, in the newspapers, books etc. contains factual errors, mistakes by sloppiness and bias in many forms.

      Wikipedia doesn't claim to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It's a springboard into any subject, giving you a quick overview and perhaps some links to take you further. Encyclopedias can't be used as references for anything beyond grade school anyway, so why hold wikipedia to a higher standard? What it is however, is completely fascinating and the closest thing to a real hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy we're likely to get. Just don't take it too seriously.
  • by davejenkins ( 99111 ) <> on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:12AM (#10162105) Homepage
    The scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn [] put forth a model of "scientific progress" where-- simply put-- once you get enough people to accept a theory as "true", it becomes the baseline for truth. The most common example of this is the slow progressive adaption of Newtonian Physics, and then of Einstein's Relativity: doubters are in abundance, until they are won over to the new paradigm.

    WIkipedia, IMHO, is the epitomy of that concept: if you get enough people on the Internet to write a common text, and go to great lengths to democratize the process, then you will get the generally accepted "truth". Even scam busters like Snopes often resort to the line of reasoning "this sounds too much like an urban myth, therefore it's an urbam myth" variant on the same theme.

    Don't get me wrong-- I love the WIkipedia. In my book, it's enough truth to get you through the day, and that's all I really need 98% of the time.
  • Actually... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BJH ( 11355 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:15AM (#10162117)
    I find Wikipedia to be most useful in the field in which traditional encyclopedias are weakest; pop culture.
    There's thousands of pages in Wikipedia dealing with up-to-the-minute descriptions of cultural phenomena that won't make it into the Britannica for years, if ever.
  • by plasticmillion ( 649623 ) <> on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:18AM (#10162137) Homepage
    To me this is just another example of the "antihype" that anything popular and successful is exposed to (and not just in technology). Wikipedia is amazingly good compared to what I (and probably most people) would have expected. Is it perfect? Of course not, but the nice thing about an internet-based encyclopedia is that it's easy to double check stuff (and most important articles have plenty of external links).

    Wikipedia has proven the concept, and I'm sure we'll see more and more advanced community-managed information sharing projects in the future. For example, adding a moderation system like /.'s would already be a huge step forward.

  • Case in point. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jdkane ( 588293 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:20AM (#10162147)
    Wikipedia has always scared me because of the trust level I cannot put into a resource that can be widely edited (even just for kicks).
    For example, just now (at 10:13 EST) I entered a non-authoritative entry into the Wikipedia under the topic of Authority [] It's just a note at the bottom that says

    "[Note: This comment in brackets is an unauthoritative comment that was added by an individual]"

    Now my foolish edit is available to the whole world -- I didn't have to log in or anything. So gradually it gets fixed. Fortuneately I did not say anything that is untrue. However what about the poor student who wanders into the topic before it gets fixed -- at one point in time. I could never use this as a definitive resource until more protection is put in place to help guarantee the accuracy of the information. How do to that? I don't know .. but I'm sure the suggestions are coming in all the discussions here.

  • by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:23AM (#10162159) Homepage

    From Wikipedia [], the free encyclopedia.

    General disclaimer - Use Wikipedia at your own risk! [] - Wikipedia does not give medical advice [] - Wikipedia does not give legal opinions [] - Wikipedia contains spoilers and content you may find objectionable []


    Wikipedia is an online open-content encyclopedia, that is, a voluntary association of individuals and groups who are developing a common resource of human knowledge. Its structure allows any individual with an Internet connection and World Wide Web browser to alter the content found here. Therefore, please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by professionals who are knowledgeable in the particular areas of expertise necessary to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information about any subject in Wikipedia.

    That's not to say that you won't find much valuable and accurate information at Wikipedia, however please be advised that Wikipedia CANNOT guarantee, in any way whatsoever, the validity of the information found here. It may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the particular area you are interested in learning about. We are working on ways to select and approve more trustable versions of articles, but still without warranty. The closest thing to this that currently exists is the Wikipedia:Featured articles [] process, but even the articles listed there may have been mercilessly edited shortly before you view them.

    None of the authors, contributors, sponsors, administrators, sysops, or anyone else connected with Wikipedia in any way whatsoever can be responsible for the appearance of any inaccurate or libelous information or your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages.

    Please make sure that you understand that the information provided here is being provided free and gratuitously, and that no kind of agreement or contract is created between you and the owners or users of this site, the owners of the servers upon which it is housed, the individual Wikipedia contributors, any project administrators, sysops or anyone else who is in any way connected with this project or sister projects subject to your claims against them directly. You are being granted a limited license to copy anything from this site; it does not create or imply any contractual or extracontractual liability on the part of Wikipedia or any of its agents, members, organizers or other users.

    Any of the trademarks, service marks, collective marks, design rights, personality rights or similar rights that are mentioned, used or cited in the articles of the Wikipedia encyclopedia are the property of their respective owners. Their use here does not imply that you may use them for any other purpose other than for the same or a similar informational use as contemplated by the original authors of these Wikipedia articles under the GFDL licensing scheme. Unless otherwise stated Wikipedia and Wikimedia sites are neither endorsed nor affiliated with any of the holders of any such rights and as such Wikipedia can not grant any rights to use any otherwise protected materials. Your use of any such or similar incorporeal property is at your own risk.

    Please note that that the information found here may be in violation of the laws of the country or jurisdiction from where you are viewing this information. Wikipedia does not encourage the violation of any laws, but as this infor

  • by Noksagt ( 69097 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:23AM (#10162165) Homepage
    Traditional enclyclopedias have errors as well & users have little option to fix them--they certainly can't change them directly. They must write the publisher & hope their corrections make it into the next edition in a year.

    The value of encyclopedias isn't that they are right about everything. It is that they cover so many topics in an easy-to-understand manner. If you need more in depth knowledge or need to ensure correctness, you really should be using some sources which are a little bit more primary--books or journal articles written on the specific subject you are looking into.

    Everyone who rights for the wikipedia should therefore cite references where people could look for more info. Also, I don't think that one person entering 5 errors is that harmful--the quality level is still quite high. Either a lot of people would need to make small numbers of errors (which hasn't really happened--most people write on topics they know about) or one person would need to add many more errors. If this happened, it is much more likely that they would get caught--after noting an error, an editor would likely check that person's other contributions.
  • by Cryofan ( 194126 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:24AM (#10162167) Journal

    Anytime you have something that is both useful and free, and where it is competing with a paid product, you will always have the force of that paid product felt upon the free product.

    Personally, I love Wikipedia. But this article is good in that it forces us to pay attention to the problem and try to fix it.

  • by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:32AM (#10162213) Homepage
    ... is that it's just three years old, and people keep expecting it to be a veritable Britannica. It's not. But what I personally find quite interesting is that it's sufficiently good that people would expect it to be reliable in the first place.

    An article approval mechanism is under development and in testing at the test Wikipedia [] (you'll need to get an account to see it, mind you, and much of the user interface is currently in Finnish, but... :)

  • by Teun ( 17872 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:37AM (#10162249) Homepage
    A lame article.
    This is soo obvious.
    Yet Wikipedia is an excelent *part* of a search.
    The idea to put some sort of "Unverified" label on an article is just as unreliable.
    An indicator by -how many individuals- it has been read / reviewed is probably the best you'll ever get.
    And even then it's possible it'll only be a popularity contest.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 05, 2004 @10:42AM (#10162275)
    The tester introduced five subtle errors over five days in a database with over a million entries and because they weren't corrected in time periods of between 20 hours and five days, concludes "it would be very easy for subtle mistakes to sneak into Wikipedia, and go a very long time without being corrected." Wow.

    A more accurate test, it would seem to me, would be to take articles of varying importance and, in fact, check the facts. (While you're at it, do the same for analogous articles in, say, Britannica.) The one problem with this is that checking facts is a very intense process, if you're serious about it.

    Without having gone through this process, it would appear hard to say whether traditional publishers are any better at it than the volunteers who contribute to Wikipedia, except that over the past few years, I've grown to be as skeptical of traditional "authoritative" sources as I am of the morning newsprint.

    I've worked in the publishing industry, and in my opinion, a number of publishers considered "authoritative" are living off the inertia of a time when sharp, intelligent people were cheap to hire, and one could afford to have encyclopedias checked by "armies" of worker bees.

  • by GuyFawkes ( 729054 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:00AM (#10162369) Homepage Journal
    from merriam webster online
    Main Entry: encyclopedia
    Variant(s): also encyclopaedia /in-"sI-kl&-'pE-dE-&/
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Medieval Latin encyclopaedia course of general education, from Greek enkyklios + paideia education, child rearing, from paid-, pais child -- more at FEW
    : a work that contains information on all branches of knowledge or treats comprehensively a particular branch of knowledge usually in articles arranged alphabetically often by subject

    Britannica always knew their (traditional, dead tree) encyclopedia was aimed at kids, which is why it was always sold to parents AS A RESOURCE FOR THEIR CHILDREN.

    The real problem here is using the same word, encyclopedia, to describe three utterly different things...
    a/ traditional dead tree encyclopedia
    b/ electronic (hyperlinked) encyclopedia on read only media
    c/ wikipedia

    Traditional dead tree stuff was of course read only, and absolute accuracy depended on many things, including cultural background and editorial integrity, as well as actual facts (where said facts were ascertainable) for example the traditional dead tree encyclopedias (that were all there was when I was attending school) would talk about a Christopher Columbus discovering America for our (English) Queen... no mention of him actually hailing from a smelly mediterrenean port or indeed Culumbia (or later New Amsterdam, etc (NY to you young punks)) and any entries about the East India Company will have similar cultural and editorial bias, non mention whatsoever will be made of the facts, that our (English) early trade envoy's gifts and personal manners were treated with richly deserved scorn... the silk brocade wearing maharaji using the proferred gifts of fine english tweed as animal blankets.
    Being read only media, and being "authoritative" these complete fallacies presented as impartial facts.

    Electronic encyclopedia such as Encarta are similarly read only, and similarly in the throes of cultural and editorial filtering, laid on top of any basic factual errors (such as the location of the normal locker observatory, to quote something close to home)

    Wikipedia is completely different, it is not read only, it is not hampered by editorial policies or cultural prejudices.

    Sure, this means assholes are free to enter bullshit as fact, but in just the same fashion as we are free to spoof an IP address or send out forged SYN packets, only the pond scum does it. Of course the pond scum will have every exuse in the book ranging from "I'm only doing it to test how good this is." to "Serves them right for not being as leet as me." however the underlying fact is the same, it is pond scum behaviour.

    Pond scum behaviour is an inevitable part of the internet, it is never going to be stopped and it never should be attempted, because the co-operation of the sensible majority (especially the sensible majority with some real clout like sysadmins) have enough momentum and enough existing weapons of mass co-operation (eg usenet death threats for maladministered nntp servers) to keep the pond scum in the place that they themselves elect to live.

    To blame wikipedia because some pond scum has the ability to make erroneous entries that are uncorrected in five whole days (wow, encarta still has errors that are fucking years old) in a FREE FUCKING RESOURCE is directly akin to blaming Tim B-L, Scott N, and the INN nntp server coding crew for usenet spam.

    In short, such accusations are ONLY EVER MADE BY THE POND SCUM THEMSELVES.

    There is of course a direct parallel to the rules of spammers (subscribe to the usenet abuse groups nanae etc if you don't know what I mean) which are

    No, the real test of the validity of Wikipedia is to choose a hot potato and compare the content with the "respected" outlets such as encarta and britannica, and see which one is actually living up to the TRUE ideal of an ENCYCLOpedia, which is to EDUCATE,
  • by jwales ( 97533 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:13AM (#10162426) Homepage
    The entire Wikipedia model depends on trust and goodwill. If you vandalize wikipedia, then someone will clean up after you. But it's still rude, even for an "experiment".

    A Wikipedian put it this way the other day: In my neighborhood, people make a habit of picking up the trash. Please don't come and litter just to see if someone will pick it up.

    So you know, like, be cool, huh?


    Jimbo Wales
  • by poszi ( 698272 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:23AM (#10162474)
    The changes that were made in the experiment were minor. They will eventually be corrected but how many people know and care at which junction lies Phillipsburg, PA?
  • by ScottSpeaks! ( 707844 ) * on Sunday September 05, 2004 @11:55AM (#10162658) Homepage Journal
    There's a saying in open-source coding that with enough eyes all bugs are visible. The same is true of open-source writing. I think Wikipedia's main problem in terms of authoritativeness is that not enough people are reviewing it yet. I'd actually go further than that and assert that not enough people are writing for it, either. I just started seriously digging into and contributing to Wikipedia in the last few months (so, yes, I've been part of the problem), and I'm amazed at the number of topics that are still missing or just substubs. Not only esoteric humanities subjects that you'd expect to be lagging a bit, but even geek stuff that 1 thousand basement-dwellers must know better than I do. When someone like me can walk in the front door and find no information at all - correct or not - about topics that are common knowledge, it's premature to argue about its authoritativeness.
  • by Dausha ( 546002 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:21PM (#10162787) Homepage
    I only recently started tinkering with the Wikipedia, and in a few places found errors. Naturally, I fixed those. I contend that the experiment was of too brief a duration, or the errors introduced were obscure.

    The success of the Wikipedia is that it is possible to correct errors when they are identified by whomever found the error. This is a great strength over closed encyclopedia.
  • Part of the Problem (Score:3, Informative)

    by nial-in-a-box ( 588883 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:28PM (#10162819) Homepage
    I think a big part of the problem has to do with the diversity and obscurity of the information available. Yes, you might spend some time reading about things you already know something about, but often the idea behind research is to learn new things. Therefore, it's hard for bogus material to be found, especially if it at least sounds reasonable.

    I wrote a fair sized paper last year comparing the majority of Christian religions and how they formed and how they differ on key issues. Frankly, it was hard to find concise, usable information anywhere else, but Wikipedia was more than helpful and by having half of my sources be from Wikipedia I pulled of an A with the Theology chair at a Catholic university. Go figure.

  • by divisionbyzero ( 300681 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:36PM (#10162871)
    Did anyone else notice the irony of the librarian's statement about developing critical thinking skills and her statement that students are very surprised about the Wikipedia not being authoritative. Now, on a charitable read, she may be saying that she has her students check the authority of all sources in order to determine bias, etc., but I think she means that she only wants them to use "authoritative" sources.

    Well, accepting authority as truth is actually the first impediment to critical thinking. Maybe the students should be learning critical thinking skills in a logic class instead of from a librarian? If she said she teaches them research skills, then fine, but that's not the same thing as critical thinking.

    I never use the wikipedia as a final word on anything. It's just a nice, *free* place to *start* my research. Sometimes the content is totally useless and other times it's very helpful.
  • Bad experiment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bastian ( 66383 ) on Sunday September 05, 2004 @12:47PM (#10162938)
    I'm not sure if you can really get a good idea of how self-maintaining Wikipedia is from this experiment. It seems to me that Wikipedia is mostly used by geeks, so the five entries he edited aren't ones that I would think would be read as often, as, say, an article on two's compliment numbers. Who's to say that some of these pages were even viewed by more than one or two people in the time he allowed for them to be fixed?

    With that in mind, I'd rather seen an experiment that tries to determine how many times a page is viewed before it gets altered. I bet if one of the edits he had made were to introduce some sort of error into the database normalization page's explanation of third normal form, it would be a lot more likely to be noticed within two days.

    Stil, shame on anyone who takes any encyclopedia or other reference book as unquestionable authority. Any collection of information that dense is going to be full of errors like made-up words [] and the like.
  • by belmolis ( 702863 ) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu> on Sunday September 05, 2004 @03:04PM (#10163652) Homepage

    My impression is that the Wikipedia is pretty accurate in areas that attract people with real expertise. Even if some contributors have a bias or are ignorant or mistaken on certain points, after a while the article gets to be pretty good through collaborative editing. So it tends to be good on subjects that techies find interesting and are knowledgable about. The problematic areas are ones in which the contributors have an interest but lack real expertise. The collaborative editing process doesn't work very well here because there is no one involved who actually knows the subject, or the real experts are a small minority among the contributors and are not able to have much influence. Topics that are particularly likely to be problematic are those about which some geeks are enthusiastic but not truly knowledgable.

    In my own area of linguistics, for example, I find that articles on formal topics, e.g. "context-free grammar", are generally good, while articles on historical linguistics are often pretty bad. This reflects the fact that techies tend to have real knowledge in areas related to formal linguistics, e.g. mathematics and computer science, while historical linguistics is a subject that lots of people find interesting but few really know much about.

Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan