Wednesday, April 02, 2008

In Defense of Wikipedia: I Kinda Like It

Columbia Journalism Review--At the end of the day, Wikipedia looks less like the reputation-munching monster it’s being portrayed as, and more like the future of information in the Internet age.

Professor Mark Goodacre, Duke University--It is becoming fashionable among academics these days to have a go at Wikipedia. This is inevitable for a variety of reasons. Academics are often behind their students in the use of new technology, and this brings about a reaction of fear. We witnessed the same thing with the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and now that fears about the academic value of Internet resources has diminished, a new, narrower target has been found. It is an easy target because its open source basis makes it often apparently "unreliable." Negative reactions to the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, however, are unnecessary and should be discouraged.

Professor Tyler Cowen--Critiques of Wikipedia miss its comparative advantage. Entries tend to be link-rich, and the ongoing debate and revisions refresh and improve the links. Think of Wikipedia as hiring someone to do search engine work for you, not just Google but the other brands as well. They then report back with the best links. Wikipedia brings you this service for free.

Washington Post Blog--Even the most celebrated sources of fact are frequently flawed. A study by the scientific journal Nature investigated the legitimacy of both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, a widely respected information outlet. Through a random sampling of articles, the study discovered 162 errors from Wikipedia and 123 from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ultimately, Wikipedia is more than merely a source of information; it is a global system that promotes a constant exchange of information. Its purpose is to encourage a dynamic flow of knowledge, an element that is critical to this era of globalization.

Duke Professor Cathy Davidson
--Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia. It is a knowledge community, uniting anonymous readers all over the world who edit and correct grammar, style, interpretations, and facts. It is a community devoted to a common good — the life of the intellect. Isn't that what we educators want to model for our students?

As a cultural historian and historian of technology, I find that I often go to Wikipedia for a quick and easy reference before heading into more-scholarly depths. I'm often surprised at how sound and good a first source it is.

Comment: There are a lot of Wikipedia-skeptics out there, especially in academia, where it seems to be almost universally condemned, banned and ridiculed by professors.

Well, at the risk of being an academic heretic, I have a confession to make: I like Wikipedia, and often go there first when trying to find information on the Internet. For example, check out the Wikipedia listing for Gross Domestic Product. In addition to links for original sources of GDP data in many countries, there are many useful ranked lists at the end of the Wikipedia GDP entry, based on GDP using data from the IMF, World Bank and the CIA World Factbook with adjustments for inflation, PPP and per capita, etc. (I refer to these lists often):

List of countries by GDP (nominal), (per capita)
List of countries by GDP (PPP), (per capita), (per hour)
List of countries by GDP (real) growth rate, (per capita)
List of countries by GDP sector composition
List of countries by future GDP estimates (PPP), (per capita), (nominal)
List of countries by past GDP (PPP), (nominal)

Wikipedia is in its infancy, and will likely continue to improve significantly over time. Wikipedia-skeptics, give it some time. It'll likely be the "future of information in the Internet age."


At 4/02/2008 3:11 PM, Blogger thomasblair said...

Agreed on all points. Wikipedia is an excellent place to start research. The articles are full of links to sources that would take hours and hours to discover and aggregate through the use of a search engine. Wikipedia helps me to find my footing, zero my compass, and provides me a map of places to start looking. And it's free to the user!

At 4/02/2008 4:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Orwell would recognize the people trashing Wikipedia. Anything of even marginal interest to the left is suborned to their agenda or destroyed.

At 4/02/2008 4:54 PM, Blogger Steamboat Lion said...

"Wikipedia-skeptics, give it some time"

What Wikipedia-skeptics don't understand is that Wikipedia is only wrong until someone corrects it. So the message ought to be "Wikipedia-skeptics start your editing"

At 4/02/2008 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wikipedia is an excellent quick reference and has many excellent articles. It is, however, generally very left leaning. (Just read the articles on Jimmy Carter, Rachel Carson or Hugo Chavez).

One should not take Wikipedia or any other source of information as gospel. Understanding any subject of importance necessitates gathering information from a diversity of sources and political viewpoints.

That being said, Wikipedia is a step forward just like online banking. We live in a very remarkable time to be alive.

At 4/02/2008 10:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wikipedia is an excellent tool if you are in a hurry to discover the very basics of a subject.

It has yet to evolve into a reference site worthy of complete trust. But give it is new.

Live From Las Vegas

At 4/02/2008 11:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any reference tool or source of information that is worthy of "complete trust"?

Information is not a matter of trust but a matter of accuracy and completeness. You test it, look for bias, run the numbers, check the methodology, do the smell vet it to see if it passes muster.

Would you buy a business without looking at the financial statements, the business plan, the equipment, or without talking to the managers and sitting down with the staff?

Trust is something I reserve for God. The rest of us are human. Sometimes, we're brilliant, and on other occasions, we miss the mark.

At 4/03/2008 7:37 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

I wouldn't base an academic research paper on its contents, but I'd certainly use it as a first source, with anything "in print" annotated as reference source material after verifying the sourcing.

Didn't some study do a test, and deliberately enter incorrect information into Wiki entries, which got fixed, on average, within five days? Contrast with how often Newspaper entries get "fixed", much less Brittanica articles.

I've even used the Japanese version (which has some english xlated) to look up information on some Manga and Anime.

Another case in point, I was trying to remember the name of an obscure show. I couldn't remember more than the general subject matter, much less the stars, but I knew it was on in the 90s and what channel and time/day it was on. I figured a schedule grid for each year in the 90s would be a quick solution. Oddly enough, I could find no sign of it on (the "imdb" of US -- and more -- television), and (no "www"), another good source for info on US YV shows, had grids but only back to 2000. Wiki had them, going all the way back to the 50s. That says a lot, when you find obscure information nowhere else.

Here's 1996:

It's interesting to look back and see shows you've forgotten from only 10 years ago (often quite rightly, but it's still tickles the nostalgia nerves), much less 20 or 30 (if you aren't old enough, you will be) -- "The Blue Knight" :o)


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