Friday, November 10, 2006

Wikipedia: Authoritative? Or Questionable?

Wikipedia bills itself as the web's "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." That statement illustrates Wikipedia's greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness.

Anyone with an Internet connection can instantly create or edit an article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia contributors are not certified nor are their credentials verified--either formally or informally. Critics are concerned that this open--apparently laissez-faire--approach makes Wikipedia content vulnerable to incomptents, zealots, or vandals. While the possibility of bad Wikipedia content troubles the detractors, the proponents contend that the open approach also provides for continual peer review which leads to a superior product.

For example, several weeks ago a prominent news celebrity attempted to demonstate the vulnerability of Wikipedia to vandalism by adding false information to the Wikipedia entry devoted to elephants. The fellow was appalled to see how easy it was to introduce false information. However, within an hour of his changes, an expert on elepants, who had taken upon himself the responsibility of monitoring the article, noticed the vandalism and posted corrections.

The Wikipedia approach to content management follows the paradigm of the the open-source software movement. Uncompiled open-source software code is made freely available to programmers. Anyone is allowed to acquire, edit, and redistribute the software, and thousands do so. The result? Open-source software regularly out-performs that of such giants as Sun Microsystems and Microsoft. Sure, open-source software often has bugs, but those bugs are often discovered and repaired within days while commercial applications often need weeks or months to make repairs.

The same phenomenon is occuring with Wikipedia: experts look after the articles and make regular updates. Users are able to view discussions of the articles and may even view previous versions. This allows the discerning user to evaluate the veracity of the content. Commercial encyclopedias simply do not have the resources necessary to employ similar numbers of experts. In fact, comparative tests of Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedia publishers indicate that Wikipedia's articles are at least as useful, and in many cases superior.

Wikipedia entries can now be found for the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Public Libraries. When you get a chance, take a look at them. If you see errors, go ahead and fix them. I have both articles on my "watch list," and wil be able to see and evaluate the changes.

While you're at it, look at some Wikipedia articles in your area of expertise. If they're broke, fix 'em. If they ain't broke, leave 'em alone.

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