FYI, this week Wall Street Journal (perhaps Asia only) had one of the
more useful stories on Wikipedia, which has some comments from
academics/expets on WP articles. In general, very good opinions of
Wikipedia. My comments are probably the harshest. :)
June 17, 2005
Your Life -- Loose Wire:
Trusting an Internet Encyclopedia
By Jeremy Wagstaff
The Asian Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones
I've found Wikipedia to be pretty good on the few subjects I know a little
about. But you aren't interested in what I think. So I polled some people who
might have something to say: random academics from diverse disciplines in North
America, Australia and the United Kingdom. I asked them to look up five to 10
subjects in their field and offer their impressions. Here's what they said:
-- Claudia Eberlein, a theoretical physicist at the U.K.'s University of
Sussex, checked entries relating to quantum and laser science: "I must say I am
impressed! Not everything was 100% accurate, but it was close enough for a
general knowledge encyclopedia, and in places it was much more detailed than I
would possibly have expected."
-- William J. Jackson, an expert in Hinduism at Indiana University-Purdue
University at Indianapolis, says he was "pleasantly surprised at how accurate
the information is -- not because I assumed Wikipedia would get things wrong,
but because often sources from the West often seem put together by people who
haven't studied the other culture in depth."
-- Ray Trygstad, Director of Information Technology at the Illinois Institute
of Technology, focused on several areas of interest: Internet & Web, Information
Security and Navy/Naval Aviation. He was impressed with accuracy and balance,
but felt that some entries were thin or nonexistent: "The information security
article was an outstanding introduction to the field and very well balanced . .
. The helicopter article was very complete and very accurate although there
were some additional areas that could be discussed."
-- Komninos Zervos, a lecturer in CyberStudies at Australia's Griffith
University, looked up digital poetry (poetry that in some way uses the computer)
and found it "a good starting point to a new and developing field of new
media/cyber/digital/web poetry" although he found it "still very patchy
mentioning types of digital poetry."
-- Charles Chapman, manager of digital marketing at Massachusetts' Babson
College and an occasional tweaker of entries covering emerging technologies
found entries on his subject matter 95% accurate. "I can't say 100% because
there was missing information, rather than incorrect information, on some of the
topics I researched. I was happy to find most everything correct."
-- Chris Ewels, a nanotechnology expert at the University of Paris, was
lukewarm on entries on nanotechnology ("started well, then lumpy") and
transmission electron microscopy ("it's a good, very introductory description,
but is missing many of the important features of this type of microscopy"), but
was impressed by density functional theory ("would give this 100% on all fronts
-- very accurate, detailed, well written"). Overall, Mr. Ewels said he was
impressed by how far Wikipedia has come since he last checked: "(I) must admit I
didn't realize to what depth information was available," he said.
I would take those responses as a general thumbs up. If the experts can't pick
big holes in Wikipedia, I'd say the rest of us can use it. This doesn't mean, of
course, that we should use the information in it without confirming it
elsewhere. As Andrew Lih, director of technology at Hong Kong University's
Journalism and Media Studies Centre and a long-time contributor to Wikipedia,
puts it: "It's a good starting point for things; it isn't a good
Why is something so easy to tamper with so good? This is easily answered:
Guardians of the site constantly monitor the updated information by viewing a
real-time feed of changes and can quickly spot a vandal or heavily biased
contributor and undo the damage, or refer the case to others. Vandalism usually
stays there for only a few minutes, or even less.
Indeed, comparing it with an existing encyclopedia may be missing the point of
Wikipedia. It isn't written by individual contributors -- who, like everyone
else, may be fallible -- but by a vast network of people of varying expertise
whose contributions are open to challenge and review by anyone else. In other
words, it isn't about what qualifications you have. It's about what you
contribute. If your contribution is good enough, well-sourced enough and
balanced enough to survive the challenges of others, then it's probably pretty
good stuff. There's always room for improvement, but then any print editor who
has had to issue a correction would acknowledge that.
Wikipedia, for what it is, is an impressive monument to collective scholarship
Send comments to jeremy.wagstaff(a)awsj.com