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A Vote of Confidence in Wikipedia

Search for almost anything on Google (GOOG) these days, and you're bound to see pointers to Wikipedia, the sprawling open-source online encyclopedia. But the bigger the compendium gets, the more strident its detractors become. How, they ask, could an encyclopedia that lets anyone anonymously create and edit articles possibly be a repository of reliable information?

Lately the skeptics have had a field day. In a Nov. 29 USA Today op-ed piece, John Seigenthaler, a former editorial director at the newspaper, blasted Wikipedia for permitting an anonymous user to write -- incorrectly -- that the journalist had been involved in the Kennedy assassination. Cybersleuths quickly cornered the culprit, who apologized to Seigenthaler, but the incident left many people with the impression Wikipedia is riddled with factual errors and partisan rants.

Not so. At least, not when it comes to science. A study published Dec. 14 by the journal Nature found that in a random sample of 42 science entries, Wikipedia had an average of just one more inaccuracy per entry than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nature also polled more than 1,000 scientists who have published papers in Nature's prestigious pages and found that 17% consulted Wikipedia on a weekly basis.

PLENTY OF COOKS. There's no question that Wikipedia entries on politically charged topics such as abortion, evolution, and almost anything related to the Islamic faith reflect the efforts of a great many cooks. The resulting articles are often conscientiously bland and exhaustively footnoted. But draw back the curtain on how each article is actually produced, and you'll find a reassuring competition for accuracy, as well as a surprisingly efficient mechanism for establishing which writers have the best information.

While any user can theoretically change anything, the site doesn't run completely wild. Volunteer administrators mediate debates and require contributors to provide external sources on contentious assertions. Paragraphs that draw excessive debate may be temporarily removed to special "discussion" areas, where opposing contributors negotiate and hammer out paragraphs in ways that will satisfy both sides.

The process inevitably turns up a wealth of interesting background material, if not definitive conclusions. Because of the combative, quasi-democratic vetting and editing process, the quality of the entries actually improves when the topics are controversial and the readership is broad. Opposing sides fight to ferret out inconsistencies on the other side, as reputations are built up from scratch on the site.

GAINING TRUST. "Your user ID is the basis for your reputation," says Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikimedia Foundation, which posts Wikipedia (see BW Online, 12/14/05, "Wikipedia: 'A Work in Progress'"). "If you are doing good work, you will gain trust. If you do bad work it will get reverted. We don't care about your personal name or what your previous credentials are."

The editing process is particularly transparent when it comes to historically rich constructs such as "Dhimmi," the Arabic term for non-Muslim people living in a Muslim state. The first page of this entry is a straightforward four-part encyclopedia article. It describes the history of the word and how the Dhimmi lived both historically and in present-day Muslim states, and also lists eight books as references.

That seems clear enough, but click the "discussion" tab at the top of the page, and you'll find 25 separate discussions and debates raging across topics including the objectivity of specific sources, pedantic clarifications over Dhimmi marriage rights in a traditional Islamic state, and simple bickering over wordings (e.g., "Mirv, please stop doing that-[your] wording…is no different than the [existing one]").

LIVING TEXT. Wikipedia still contains flaws, and not just on subjects that border on obscurity. Entries on Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and actress Jane Fonda were lambasted in blogs as recently as October for sloppy writing and poor organization. But dwelling on short-lived mistakes misses the innovative power of Wikipedia. Today, the flaws on those entries -- and the reference to Seigenthaler -- have been ironed out.

For all its liabilities, the strengths of the Wikipedia are beyond dispute. Mistakes are fixed as they come to light. The site has become a living, breathing text with more than 2 million entries in 10 different languages -- more than any encyclopedia in history. The ability to be more current than any latest print edition, to morph and change with the news, is unlike any reference work in the world of print.

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