In Wikipedia We Trust

Wikipedia has had a rough year, and Middlebury College students are only its latest casualties. History professors at Middlebury recently banned citing the online encyclopedia as a research source.

But they're not alone in bullying Wikipedia.

In the span of just two weeks, from late February to early March three separate stories calling into question Wikipedia's credibility attracted national attention.

Middlebury's history professors flung the first dart, placing Wikipedia on a blacklist that runs one deep. The decision came after a handful of students made the same error on a Japanese history exam, and professors traced the error to Wikipedia.

Next, we were introduced to Conservapedia-open-source gone "Fair and Balanced." Its founders, peeved by an apparent liberal bias in Wikipedia articles, launched the site this past November and, as of March, have given it seven "commandments," including mandating American spellings of words and the use of B.C. and A.D. instead of B.C.E. and C.E.

The story of Essjay, a Wikipedia site administrator who lied about his identity, capped off the season of bad press. Essjay claimed to be a tenured professor of religion at a private university and sometimes used his credentials to back his editorial decisions. But Essjay was really 24-year-old Ryan Jordan of Kentucky, who, soon after revealing himself on his user page, was asked to resign.

All this comes on the heels of tech pundit Jason Scott's speech one year ago: "The Great Failure of Wikipedia." His remarks highlighted the sometimes inane Wikipedia editing process, governed by an insider cabal who intimidates casual users through technical "wiki-lawyering."
Wikipedia faces a long list of accusations. It's riddled with mistakes and bias. People lie on Wikipedia. Getting your content into Wikipedia can be exceedingly difficult and editorial decisions are sometimes arbitrarily made. All of this may be true.

Now reread that paragraph, and replace the word Wikipedia with The New York Times, your campus daily, the Encyclopedia Britannica, or any other so-called "more reputable" source of information. Are we giving Wikipedia a fair shake? If the Essjay scandal is Wikipedia's Jayson Blair, that's a triumph for open-source.

Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, can even be criticized for setting the bar unreasonably high. In January, when Microsoft tried to hire a blogger to defend the company's practices in Wikipedia pages, Wales chided the attempt as a "grave violation of community trust."
It doesn't take too many hours in a newsroom to find out how much spin reporters swallow from paid public relations representatives; only a fraction of stories appearing in newspapers involve investigative reporting. Many of these articles go on to become the basis for scholarly literature, the supposed gold standard of truth.

The PR departments of corporations, communications offices of political campaigns and other hired hands undoubtedly do watch over Wikipedia pages, just as they watch over their characterizations elsewhere. Everyone has an axe to grind and will grind it where they can. The value of open-source is in making access democratic and processes transparent; somewhere in the fray we get a good approximation of the truth.

The journal Nature conducted the most respected scientific study of the credibility of Wikipedia, evaluating it on its product rather than its processes. Nature's study concluded that science articles in Wikipedia had less than one additional error than equivalent articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Meanwhile, Wikipedia dwarfs Britannica in size, is free and is updated constantly.

The point isn't to lambaste Encarta or Britannica or the New York Times, nor to defend Wikipedia as a credible academic reference. Bringing us back to the matter at Middlebury, Wikipedia was singled out. While even Wikipedia spokespeople agree that citing any encyclopedia-offline or on, open-source or not-is the refuge of an academic dolt, only Wikipedia has been banned. Wikipedian exceptionalism absolves students of the responsibility for vetting all their sources.

When we could benefit from skepticism toward information inputs everywhere, Wikipedia has been made a boogeyman for inaccuracy.