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Opinion: Wikipedia should be your first – not final – reference

By   |  December 12, 2005

The open encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, is facing renewed criticism from media professionals and academics worldwide, who argue that it cannot be trusted as a credible source of information.
American journalist, John Seigenthaler, a one-time administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, recently complained that a biographic entry on Wikipedia alleged he was \”directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations\”.
Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who deleted the post with the false allegations. The prankster, Brian Chase of Nashville, Tennessee, has since been discovered.
Wikipedia is the largest encyclopaedia in the world, with over 3.7 million articles in over 200 languages. It has over 850 000 articles in its English version alone, more than four times as many as the next-biggest English encyclopaedia – Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The issue at stake for many though, is how many of these articles are reasonably accurate and adequate.
The Mail&Guardian recently published the mixed responses of a panel of South African experts in an article about the accuracy of Wikipedia last month. The panel reviewed entries ranging from the economy of South Africa to boerewors and dished out marks from 2/10 to 10/10.
Following the Seigenthaler incident, Wikipedia says it will now require users to register before they can create articles. People who modify existing articles, however, will still be able to do so without registering.
It is one of the first major restrictions Wales has imposed on the information sharing system. But it is unlikely to make much difference to determined pranksters – 20 seconds to be exact. That\’s how long a user takes to register on the system.
Wikipedia users themselves do admit its entries are sometimes inadequate. A posting under \”Largest encyclopedia\” states: \”Some commentators have suggested that, because of Wikipedia\’s collaborative nature and lack of a formal and accountable editing process, for serious research Wikipedia is best used as a first resource, rather than a final resource.\”
The moral of the story? Wikipedia is not Encyclopaedia Britannica and its unlikely it will ever be. Chuck the idea that it must be authoritative, add a stronger and more prominent disclaimer, and let\’s continue sharing what we know.
Its a well-organised system of information sharing that needn\’t suffer from continual comparisons to professional encyclopaedias. Placing more restrictions on the ability of users to share information will more likely kill the project than make it stronger.


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