Internet encyclopaedias go head to head
Published online: 14 December 2005
Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.
One of the extraordinary stories of the Internet age is that of Wikipedia, a free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. This radical and rapidly growing publication, which includes close to 4 million entries, is now a much-used resource. But it is also controversial: if anyone can edit entries, how do users know if Wikipedia is as accurate as established sources such as Encyclopaedia Britannica?
Wikipedia is growing fast. The encyclopaedia has added 3.7 million articles in 200 languages since it was founded in 2001. The English version has more than 45,000 registered users, and added about 1,500 new articles every day of October 2005. Wikipedia has become the 37th most visited website, according to Alexa, a web ranking service.
But to improve Wikipedia, Wales is not so much interested in checking articles with experts as getting them to write the articles in the first place.
As well as comparing the two encyclopaedias, Nature surveyed more than 1,000 Nature authors and found that although more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis, less than 10% help to update it. The steady trickle of scientists who have contributed to articles describe the experience as rewarding, if occasionally frustrating (see 'Challenges of being a Wikipedian').
Greater involvement by scientists would lead to a "multiplier effect", says Wales. Most entries are edited by enthusiasts, and the addition of a researcher can boost article quality hugely. "Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way," he says.
Wales also plans to introduce a 'stable' version of each entry. Once an article reaches a specific quality threshold it will be tagged as stable. Further edits will be made to a separate 'live' version that would replace the stable version when deemed to be a significant improvement. One method for determining that threshold, where users rate article quality, will be trialled early next year.
What is it with Wikipedia?
Last Updated: Friday, 16 December 2005, 12:24 GMT
Technology commentator Bill Thompson is a big fan of the open source encyclopedia Wikipedia, despite its faults. But that does not mean he is not aware of them.
The achievement of the Wikimedia Foundation should not be underestimated, but we should not be surprised if there are errors. No information source is guaranteed to be accurate, and we should not place complete faith in something which can so easily be undermined through malice or ignorance thanks to its open architecture.
That does not devalue the project entirely, it just means that we should be sceptical about Wikipedia entries as a primary source of information, and not accept the claims that it marks some form of emergent collective intelligence, a new era in human consciousness or the rebuilding of the Library of Alexandria.
Wikipedia is produced by volunteers, who add entries and edit any page
It is the same with search engine results. Just because something comes up in the top 10 on MSN Search or Google does not automatically give it credibility or vouch for its accuracy or importance.
It tells you something about how the page or site under consideration is viewed by the search engine, but that is really all.
One benefit that might come from the wider publicity that Wikipedia is currently receiving is a better sense of how to evaluate information sources.
Ofcom, the UK's media regulator, is also responsible for media literacy; although it sits oddly with its role investigating competition in the telecoms market or reporting on broadband uptake.
The days when everything you saw on a screen had been carefully filtered, vetted, edited and checked are long gone. Product placement, advertorials and sponsorship are all becoming more common.
An educated audience is the only realistic way to ensure that we are not duped, tricked, fleeced or offended by the media we consume, and learning that online information sources may not be as accurate as they pretend to be is an important part of that education.