Wikipedia's rep has been getting pretty battered lately.
Critics claim the multi-source info site - named after "wiki-wiki," the Hawaiian word for "quick" - offers inaccurate information, because any surfer can add a new entry or delete or add to an existing one.
A few days ago I decided to test the online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit."
In the NOW Magazine entry, I wrote that "the paper's quality increased dramatically in 2004 when it began printing a biweekly technology column by Joseph Wilson. What a great guy."
It lasted 12 hours. Looks like Wikipedia is not such easy prey to the whims of egotistical or delusional pundits (like me).
Last November, false information was appended to the Wiki biography of American journalist John Seigenthaler Sr., suggesting he played a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The erroneous facts made their way into the mainstream media as truth. Seigenthaler wrote a scathing editorial in USA Today decrying the whole concept of Wikipedia.
But then in December, the scientific journal Nature published a study comparing the error rate in Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica. It concluded that cases like Seigenthaler's are "the exception rather than the rule" and that the "difference in accuracy was not particularly great."
The real problem is not Wikipedia, but reporters who fail to check their facts.
Fans of the site claim that false information is quickly edited out by the sheer volume of entrants, and quality information bubbles to the surface over time in a Darwinian version of information competition. Call it survival of the fittest entry.
Whether Wikipedia is useful depends on the kind of information you need. It's not the miraculous answer to researchers' needs; facts have to be be rigorously cross-checked, just as they should be with sources like Britannica that employ living, breathing authors with opinions, egos and jobs to protect.
Wikipedia is a better source for questions for which the answer is debatable, since the debate happens in plain view of the surfer rather than behind closed doors. It's an ideal site for exploring a multi-faceted topic like the history of jazz or stem cell research, because it encourages the clash of disparate views, allowing surfers to synthesize their own. Over time, the most interesting and thought-provoking ideas remain through sheer consensus of readers.
I experimented with the concept using my grade 9 science class as guinea pigs. The students were having a hard time remembering definitions for the words in their electricity unit. I organized them into groups and asked them to write down anything they could remember about a particular word. Then they passed the papers to the next group, adding their thoughts about the new words, editing out anything they knew to be wrong from previous groups' entries.
After a few rounds of this, they were left with a solid bank of definitions to study, with intricate entries including examples and references to personal experiences.
Granted, they had the benefit of an editor: me, their teacher. But Wikipedia operates under the legitimate assumption that the consensus of readers actually provides a better editor than any single person.
Co-founder Mitch Kapor admitted a few months ago in a talk that the idea of an open-source encyclopedia is counterintuitive.
But, he admits, "it does work. It's now one of the top 40 websites in the world."
So try it yourself. Post something on the site and see how long it lasts. But heed the warning: "If you don't want your writing to be edited mercilessly or redistributed by others, do not submit it."