An interesting blog post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University, compared the authorship of the Bible to Wikipedia, a collaboratively-authored encyclopedia. Both works are the result of a myriad of authors, though, depending on your specific religious disposition, you might believe God to be the ultimate author of the former, and therefore inerrant. The same regard is not held for Wikipedia: teachers often rant about its inaccuracies, and frequently forbid students from using it as a source for research. But, is Wikipedia really inaccurate? Is Wikipedia rotting the minds of our nation’s youth?
A number of studies have actually been undertaken on this topic, so much so that Wikipedia itself has an article dedicated to the topic. One of the first to attempt to study this was The Guardian, a British daily. In their study, experts were asked to review articles related to their fields, with most articles receiving favorable marks. In a now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) study on the topic, the British weekly journal Nature pitted Wikipedia against popular Encyclopedia Britannica. Its findings (payment or subscription required) were that serious errors occurred about equally between the two encyclopedias, and that Wikipedia was only marginally less reliable with respect to minor errors. (A free review of the research can be found in “Wikipedia survives research test” by BBC News.) Other studies have found similar results, some with Wikipedia actually slightly outpacing its commercial competitors. Wikipedia is anywhere from slightly more authoritative to slightly less authoritative than a traditional commercial encyclopedia, depending on the particular study and methodology.
Of course, study methodologies are closely scrutinized, and the Nature study was, not surprisingly, openly criticized by Encyclopedia Britannica. Nature responded to the open criticism with a point-by-point rebuttal. One of the more interesting outcomes of all this scuttlebutt is a Wikipedia article that lists errors present in Encyclopedia Britannica that are corrected in Wikipedia. According to the article, it was started to serve as a reminder that no encyclopedia is perfect, and “as an illustration of the advantages of an editorial process where anybody can correct an error at any time.”
However, it is Wikipedia’s editorial process that is at the heart of the debate. Heretofore, we have relied on academic “experts” writing on the subjects of their expertise. In the Wikipedia editorial process, originally even anonymous authors were allowed to contribute. Is a collaboratively authored encyclopedia, written by the “general public,” as “authoritative” as an encyclopedia authored by experts? (See the aforementioned blog post by Mr. Bivens-Tatum for a great discussion on authority in sources.) At initial blush, it would seem that the answer is yes. On the other hand, Wikipedia may no longer fit this definition. Precisely because of vandalism of pages on prominent people such as Edward Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, Wikipedia has decided to limit changes to articles on people, a change detailed in a The New York Times article. Such changes serve as barriers to entry, which may have stagnated Wikipedia’s growth. According to the article, Ed Chi of Palo Alto Research Center has found that the site’s growth hit a plateau in 2007-2008.
The Economist has elucidated such limitations and its impact on the future of Wikipedia in an amusing article titled “Wiki birthday to you,” written in Wikipedia-style. The Economist points out that the editorial review process has gotten increasingly more complicated over the years as Wikipedia has “grown up,” and that regular contributors have dropped by as much as a third. In the aforementioned The New York Times article, Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board, the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia, openly discusses the fact that Wikipedia has moved beyond its initial frontier heyday, and that more discipline is now required.
The real irony in Wikipedia is that, as it institutes increased rigor and discipline, it becomes more like the commercial entities that it has dethroned in page viewership. As it becomes more like them, its ability to draw interest from the public at large. And, as contributions decrease, there could be a real spike in errant entries. In so doing, could the inerrant (or at least less errant) Word of Wikipedia become what teachers have always feared it was?