Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wikipedia: 4 Out Of 5 Experts Agree

The Denver Post ran an article about Wikipedia this week.
To try a more objective test than my own need to find Martin Scorsese's birthdate, The Denver Post asked five Colorado scholars to review the Wikipedia entries on Islam, Bill Clinton, global warming, China and evolution.

The results? Four out of five agreed their relevant Wikipedia entries are accurate, informative, comprehensive and a great resource for students or the merely curious.
The fifth scholar called his chosen entry "not very good," found some details to be inaccurate by omission, and said similar entries in more accepted encyclopedias like Encarta do their job better.
Who were the Colorado scholars?

Global Warming: Scott Denning, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.
Denning called the Wikipedia entry "a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia I've seen"
China: William Wei, Professor of History at the University of Colorado.
[Wei] call[ed] the basic entry on China "simplistic, and in some places, even incoherent." Wei said the Wikipedia entry mishandled the issue of Korean independence from China, for example, and the context of the Silk Road in China's international relations.

"One of its problems is relying on amateurs to contribute," said Wei, who admits he brings a rigorous perspective to the material as a specialist in Chinese Republican history. "I applaud a democratizing spirit, but quite frankly it can lead to, for want of a better word, mediocrity."
Clinton: Bob Loevy, Professor of Political Science at Colorado College (and frequent writer on Bill Clinton).
[Loevy] said the President Clinton entry was thorough and unbiased, giving fair weight to both Clinton accomplishments and scandals. The bulk of it appeared to have been written by the Clinton Museum and Library in Little Rock, Ark., Loevy said.

"It would have been a great place for a student to begin building his or her knowledge" on Clinton, Loevy said. As did the other professors, Loevy said he cautions his students to treat Wikipedia like any other single book in the library - any fact cited there should be double-checked somewhere else.
Islam: Frederick Denny, retired Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado (and a “40-year specialist in Islam”).
[Denny] was "quite impressed" with Wikipedia's 28-page entry.

"It looks like something that might have been done by a young graduate student, or assistant professor, or two or three," Denny said. He described the writing as clinical and straightforward, but not boring. Where important translations of Arabic language or fine religious distinctions are required, Wikipedia acquits itself well.

"I have a feeling there are very responsible people out there who are making sure this doesn't become" a free-for-all, Denny said.
Evolution: Jeffrey Mitton, Professor of Biology at the University of Colorado.
Mitton declared the entry "good," even if "stylistic infelicities abound." If a student read through the main entry and the primary links to supporting concepts, he would get a fine introduction, Mitton said.

Always the careful scholar, Mitton scrolled to the bottom of the evolution entry to the bibliography. The first reference cited was for the authoritative textbook on evolution by Douglas Futuyma, "so that is excellent, as it should be," Mitton observed. The rest of the source list was appropriate, and well-rounded, he added.

"Years ago, I never thought you'd be able to use a computer to find information so easily," said Mitton, who consults Wikipedia among other sources when he writes a newspaper column on plant species. "It has changed the nature of studying."
Now, obviously this is not a rigorous scientific study of Wikipedia. But I found it interesting on several fronts:
  • That the reliability of Wikipedia merited a story in the Denver Post in the first place – in the entertainment section.

  • That four out of five “scholars” on some pretty important and complex topics thought that Wikipedia was a pretty good resource.

  • That there was no mention of whether any of the scholars contributed to the Wikipedia article they were reviewing.
That last one is always the question that I ask – and wonder why the writer doesn’t ask – after reading these types of articles. I did email the reporter that question, but haven’t heard back. It’s not like I expect the reviewers to take hours (or days) to clean up the articles, but you would think they might take an extra five or ten minutes to modify a few things since they’re there anyway. It almost seems like the thought never crosses their minds – or at least the mind of the reporter. It seems like such an obvious question to ask, and include the answer in the article.

This article was for the print newspaper, but I find it interesting that the print version doesn’t include the URL for Wikipedia (much less for the particular topics), and that the online version doesn’t include links. Again, that seems like such an obvious thing to do – at least to me. I wonder why they didn’t?

So, I guess my opinion of Wikipedia hasn’t changed much. I still think it’s an excellent resource for students – or anyone – wanting to delve deeper into any particular topic. As with any source, you shouldn’t rely on it exclusively. But think how often students (and teachers) in the past have relied on one source – often the textbook, with the assumption that it was both accurate and told the entire story. And, of course, the great thing about Wikipedia compared to a print resource is the links - you can easily find some of those other sources, which lead you to even more sources, and so on. To echo Professor Mitton, Wikipedia – and many other Web 2.0 resources like it – should change the nature of learning.


  1. Thanks for that insightful posting, I like to hear what others are thinking and saying about Wikipedia. As you say, it's not an authoritative blessing of the site, but it's worth hearing nonetheless. Your point about the five professors apparently missing the chance to make their own edits is very interesting... I tend to believe that most folks in the academic world (Scott McLeod and a few others being exceptions) are so tied to the traditional, peer-reviewed publishing world that contributing to an "open source" document is not generally their paradigm. Like you, I wonder if they even considered making edits!

  2. I agree - here is the difference -- the expert can actually EDIT the entry (novel idea) so that the information IS accurate -- can they do that with an encyclopedia? Can they do that with a magazine article?

    Experts everywhere should be climbing into wikipedia and editing and not just reviewing.

    I think the fact that the experts were asked to read and not write was a Web 2 article written in a very Web 1 way. Perhaps if they had been asked to review and edit and see if the information remained accurate would be a better measure of wikipedia's accuracy.

    Oh, goodness, I'm so provoked by this thought, I think I'm going to have to blog about it!

  3. Vicki - I'm sure glad I may have given you something to blog about, since you seem to have trouble coming up with ideas of things to write about . . . :-)

  4. As a student I use wikipedia quite often. In fact at the moment I'm multitasking and using it for a history project. The amazing thing about wikipedia is that the site looks through its articles. I always thought it was a bad resource because of the face some teachers give it. Ben Horblit recently informed me, however, that when the content in an article is in question there's a notice at the top about why it is questionable and it even tells you to maybe go in a fix the problems. I've never done this myself because I either haven't had the time or haven't had the information to do so. When I see a notice though, I always make sure to crosscheck the info on that page. Otherwise I trust articles I find there and I use them because they are thorough and work well for the information I need. As for the people who obviously know what they are talking about, I would think that the natural thing to do when given time to examine an article would be to edit it if innacuracies are found. I, like you Mr. Fisch, wonder if that ever crossed their mind.

  5. The other really neat thing about Wikipedia which is not mentioned is its being up to date. All new happenings and developments are almost immediately reflected in the Wikipedia articles, and you almost always find new technologies, products, or jargon explained in Wikipedia before they appear in any other Encyclopedias. So you are always up to date.