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Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?

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November 28, 2006

Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?

As questions about the accuracy of the anyone-can-edit encyclopedia persist, academics are split on whether to ignore it, or start contributing

by Brock Read

The journal Nature published a study comparing the accuracy of scientific articles in Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. photo: Wikipedia
Alexander M.C. Halavais, an assistant professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, has spent hours and hours wading through Wikipedia, which has become the Internet's hottest information source. Like thousands of his colleagues, he has turned to the open-source encyclopedia for timely information and trivia; unlike most of his peers, he has, from time to time, contributed his own expertise to the site.

But to Wikipedia's legions of ardent amateur editors, Mr. Halavais may be best remembered as a troll.

Two years ago, when he was teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the professor hatched a plan designed to undermine the site's veracity — which, at that time, had gone largely unchallenged by scholars. Adopting the pseudonym "Dr. al-Halawi" and billing himself as a "visiting lecturer in law, Jesus College, Oxford University," Mr. Halavais snuck onto Wikipedia and slipped 13 errors into its various articles. He knew that no one would check his persona's credentials: Anyone can add material to the encyclopedia's entries without having to show any proof of expertise.

Some of the errata he inserted — like a claim that Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, had made Syracuse, N.Y., his home for four years — seemed entirely credible. Some — like an Oscar for film editing that Mr. Halavais awarded to The Rescuers Down Under, an animated Disney film — were more obviously false, and easier to fact-check. And others were downright odd: In an obscure article on a short-lived political party in New Brunswick, the professor wrote of a politician felled by "a very public scandal relating to an official Party event at which cocaine and prostitutes were made available."

Mr. Halavais expected some of his fabrications to languish online for some time. Like many academics, he was skeptical about a mob-edited publication that called itself an authoritative encyclopedia. But less than three hours after he posted them, all of his false facts had been deleted, thanks to the vigilance of Wikipedia editors who regularly check a page on the Web site that displays recently updated entries. On Dr. al-Halawi's "user talk" page, one Wikipedian pleaded with him to "refrain from writing nonsense articles and falsifying information."

Mr. Halavais realized that the jig was up.

Writing about the experiment on his blog (http://alex .halavais.net), Mr. Halavais argued that a more determined "troll" — in Web-forum parlance, a poster who contributes only inflammatory or disruptive content — could have done a better job of slipping mistakes into the encyclopedia. But he said he was "impressed" by Wikipedia participants' ability to root out his fabrications. Since then several other high-profile studies have confirmed that the site does a fairly good job at getting its facts straight — particularly in articles on science, an area where Wikipedia excels.

Among academics, however, Wikipedia continues to receive mixed — and often failing — grades. Wikipedia's supporters often portray the site as a brave new world in which scholars can rub elbows with the general public. But doubters of the approach — and in academe, there are many — say Wikipedia devalues the notion of expertise itself.

Perhaps because of the site's refusal to give professors or other experts priority — and because of an editing process that can resemble a free-for-all — a clear preponderance of Wikipedia's contents has been written by people outside academe. In fact, the dearth of scholarly contributions to the site has prompted one prominent former Wikipedian — Larry Sanger, one of the site's co-founders — to start an alternative online encyclopedia, vetted by experts.

Perhaps the biggest and most well-known attempt to grade the quality of Wikipedia was done last year by the journal Nature, which published a study comparing the accuracy of scientific articles in Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Staff members at the journal chose articles from each reference work and sent them to a panel of experts in the respective fields, who reviewed the texts for factual accuracy, misleading statements, and key omissions. The reviewers found, somewhat surprisingly, that Wikipedia was playing in Britannica's ballpark: An average Britannica article had about three errors, while a typical Wikipedia post on the same subject had about four.

But as the encyclopedia's popularity continues to grow, some professors are calling on scholars to contribute articles to Wikipedia, or at least to hone less-than-inspiring entries in the site's vast and growing collection. Those scholars' take is simple: If you can't beat the Wikipedians, join 'em.

Proponents of that strategy showed up in force at Wikimania, the annual meeting for Wikipedia contributors, a three-day event held in August at Harvard University. Leaders of Wikipedia said there that they had turned their attention to increasing the accuracy of information on the Web site, announcing several policies intended to prevent editorial vandalism and to improve or erase Wikipedia's least-trusted entries. "We can no longer feel satisfied and happy when we see these numbers going up," said Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's other co-founder, referring to the site's ever-expanding base of articles. "We should continue to turn our attention away from growth and towards quality."

Still, not all of Wikipedia's most-active contributors want academics in their club. They argue that an army of hobbyists, teenagers, and even the occasional troll can create a more comprehensive, more useful, and possibly even more accurate resource than can be found in the ivied halls.

Read the original article in full at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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