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Encyclopaedia Idiotica

Wikipedia is created mostly by teenage male computer nerds, so Martin Cohen worries about its growing clout among 'scholars'

What is it about Wikipedia? It didn't exist in 2001. Not so long ago, it was just an obscure website full of biographies of sports figures and esoteric details about TV shows such as Star Trek.

But now it is big business. Wikipedia has unexpectedly become the most dominant "scholarly" source on the web. Now its aim is no less than "to become a complete record of human knowledge".

It is regularly in the top ten of sites visited. No matter what inquiry you put into Google, by curious alchemy up pops a Wikipedia page to answer it. This in large part explains why last year the online "encyclopaedia" was consulted 700 million times.

If it once was easy to dismiss, it isn't any more. Journalists doing research turn to Wikipedia. Students write essays based on its entries. Professors grab lecture notes from it.

But it's still a funny mix. Of the two and a half million articles in English, nearly half are in the "entertainment category", with science and the arts a miserly 6 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. But, significantly, the category "politics and history" is the second most popular (15 per cent).

According to a study by Anselm Spoerri, an academic at Rutgers University, statistics suggest that readers favour a diet of the Wikipedia introductory pages followed by entries for "the United States", "World War Two", "sex", "Naruto", "list of sex positions" and "PlayStation 3". You won't get all those in your dusty Britannica, and you might not want to. But now what you want is not important. Wikipedia's version of reality has already become a monopoly. And all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators are imposed too.

To control the reference sources that people use is to control the way people comprehend the world. Wikipedia may have a benign, even trivial face, but underneath may lie a more sinister and subtle threat to freedom of thought.

Thus on Wikipedia we must learn that Mao's political philosophy is essentially the use of violence to suppress dissent, that Socrates was "Plato's teacher" who left behind "not very many" writings, and that Hitler greatly admired Russian Communism, saying: "The whole of National Socialism is based on it."

Wikipedia itself began as "Nupedia" in 2000 as a conventional encyclopaedia to be written and peer-reviewed by "experts".

But experts take an awfully long time to produce very little. Hence Wikipedia, an offshoot in which articles could be written by anyone. That certainly got the numbers up, but did it risk losing reference value? Would knowledge emerge from "the wisdom of the crowds", as the "wiki" model assures us, or does it necessarily have to be painstakingly gathered by a scholarly elite?

Wikipedia itself gives a clue. Articles considered approved for being accurate, neutral, complete and stylish are given a bronze (although it looks like a gold) star.

Of the 2,453,541 pages in English to date, some 2,130 articles have earned a bronze star - apparently cause to congratulate the monkeys at their virtual typewriters! On the other hand, 99.9 per cent of articles failed to make the grade. Evidently they're inaccurate, unstylish, biased and a mishmash.

So why should we want to read them? It is because what matters on Wikipedia is not your sources but the "support of the community". The Wikipedia community that is, within which there is much talk about consensus, civility and reliable sources. Yet on closer examination, Wikipedians seem an unappealing bunch - computer fanatics, generally male, usually teenagers. They see the world only from a youthful cab driver's perspective. If anyone disagrees with the Wikipedian consensus, their edits are "reverted" and they can be banned - "indefinitely".

And now it is these "editors" who are regularly trumping the fuddy-duddy professors in their ivory towers, plodding patiently through dusty books to produce yet more ... dusty books. Books! Because, on Wikipedia, knowledge is tracked instantly via Google searches, online newspapers and other internet encyclopaedias, not so much by consulting primary sources as "tertiary sources" - other internet sites.

But since it is free and has vastly more topics, Wikipedia tends to steamroller other conventional encyclopaedias into the ground. Britannica hoped to charge for access to its pages and soon had to abandon that idea.

Even the popular French encyclopaedia Larousse, for which every topic has to be rewritten to feature the pre-eminence of French thinkers, is attempting to supplement its old, staid pages with new ones submitted by users. As Mr Spock might say, at least on Wikipedia: "It's knowledge, Jim. But not as we know it ... ".

Readers' comments (17)

  • Giving undergraduate students a tutorial exercise to correct a Wiki page on a topic that they have covered in their course is a useful way of bringing home Wikipedia's dangers as a reference source.

    Let's not forget Wiki-editing pranks too... In their obituaries of composer Ronnie Hazelhurst, several broadsheet journalists fell for a joke edit claiming he had composed S-Club 7's song "Reach".

    And for 18 months now, my own institution's Wikipedia page has erroneously claimed that our Centre was opened by a Canadian hockey player, rather than the Duke of Edinburgh. I haven't corrected that myself, as it is more useful as a demonstration of Wikipedia's flaws.

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  • Mister Cohen would better write new or improved Wikipedia articles than lament how the world is going down the drain because of Wikipedia

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  • Whilst I can see what the poster above is getting at in arguing that academics should help to make Wikipedia more accurate rather than complain about it, I think that it is an unrealistic and impractical suggestion. Somehow I don't think that contribution to Wikipedia articles will count for much when in comes to the next REF... Anyway, I'm not sure that there are enough hours in the day to endulge in such a task whose potential impact is questionable. There is no guarantee as to how long such contributions would remain before being altered, whether in good faith or otherwise.

    Instead, I feel that the priority should be to explain to students what sorts of issues they need to take into account when using online sources. Jon C's suggestion above provides one example of how to do so.

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  • I'm an Information & Library Management postgrad, and very interested in new forms of scholarly publication.

    I'd be very interested to see some scholarly research into ideas such as "Wikipedia is created mostly by teenage male computer nerds" - undoubtably, very many articles on their (often esoteric) favourite topics would never make it into a (let's be controversial) real encyclopaedia.

    What about pay-per-page? Many thousands of people happily upload their bank details into Amazon and Ebay and click away tens and hundreds of pounds per item; surely a possible business model is a small charge per article in return for verifiable quality and academic kudos - something like that could be marketed to universities and libraries quite easily...?

    Wikipedia really does suffer from some painful flaws in many areas; I recently tried to improve the "Content Analysis" (a method used in my MSc dissertation) page by simply removing a sweeping generalisation based on no apparent evidence, but which was the foundation of a large part of the article.

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  • What I like about wikipedia is that it IS unreliable, and so encourages a suspecting glance when dealing with all written sources.

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  • I'm sure Wikipedia is no more a dubious source than academia itself. It just happens to be a different source, with overlap here and there. Each of these, if anyone wants to concentrate on them, are political in their agendas and approaches. Having academics write or rewrite Wikipedia articles would do little good, and for the most part would consist of academics using their power to keep other people down. Wikipedia is meant to give ordinary people opportunities to write, as I understand it - though no original research is allowed! This does create a problem, of course, for researchers external to universities, who are fully capable of producing new research but who are not integrated into the academic community and able to have their research given recognition through publication in academic journals. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is no place for such people either. It's good that academia has some competition, even though Wikipedia doesn't provide the entire solution.

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  • Thank you Martin for a thought provoking article, that highlights the 'democratic' shift in power, from an intellectually driven society to a commercially led populace.

    The Agora-Pnyx nexus within society aims to dumb down intellectually the populace and keep them distracted by 'jingoistic' sporting entertainment, in a similar way to what the good old Romans did centuries ago. Is it any surprise that each medal winner on the Australian Olympics team had cost the public purse an estimated 16 million dollars? The debate is already raging to increase this meager funding for the London Olympics in 2012! This is not surprising when only 7% of the population have had any tertiary experience! I dare say that this may be the norm in many other 'civilised advanced' OECD societies.

    Some of you may not be aware of how the Australian Young Liberal apprentices of neo-conservatism are on campuses spying, hounding and shaming on public forums academics, who bring critical or postmodernism into the classroom! We have only rid ourselves recently of a Schmuck of a Prime Minister that was chastising the English 'postmodern' curriculum taught within the Australian School system, let alone teachers in general. It seemed during his tenure that any 'social' issue being publically debated, was by default the concern of the political 'left', as if social issues were not the concern of the political right! Ultimately, the Australian people got tired of a government that had applied the politics of distraction to avoid the complex societal problems, through mere nonsensical polarisation of society into left and right. I must say that at times, it was amusing to watch government Ministers in the previous government refusing to respond or debate others, because they were from the political left!

    It bemuses me this obsession with polarising opposites of extreme opposites, as if all the shades in between are irrelevant.

    If the populace determines our political masters, who are funded by private business interests – that happen to fund our Universities, then perhaps we should be kind enough to dumb down our intellectual pursuits to be tailored for a non-discerning populace, so it would cater for their pivotal role in an all consuming society, that is consuming us all to death!

    Reason is Dead, Viva la Dogma!

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  • At the university where I achieved my most recent (1 year) postgraduate qualification, the lecturers explicitly forbade me and the other students on my course from citing wikipedia as a reference in the coursework we produced, but also gave us instructions on how to cite a webpage in a bibliography. The implication of this was that we could cite any webpage on the whole of the internet except wikipedia!

    I thought this was an unfortunate proscription: unscholarly and anti-intellectual, because it made no allowance for the student to demonstrate an ability to evaluate online sources and deliver a critique of the information found therein.

    In one assessed exercise it suited my purpose to refer in passing to the optical experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (or Alhazen). I didn't have a book to hand that I could reference as a source for my insight to show that I had not just made it up, and because I was not allowed to reference wikipedia, I resorted to Google and referenced instead four other websites I neither trusted nor had encountered before which each contained a paragraph discussing optical experiments in the medieval Arab world.

    My tutors' prohibition of wikipedia was ostensibly because it is not a reliable and peer-reviewed source of information. However, nor are any of the millions of other websites they were prepared to accept as bibliographic sources. My strong suspicion is the real reason for my tutors' ban on referencing wikipedia is that whilst they know it contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, they also lack confidence in their own knowledge base and ability to discriminate between what among its contents is accurate and what is not. They know where they are with a book or a journal article because those sources are legitimated by being produced within the academic community.

    Put simply, if you quoted from a book or journal article, that was fine; but if you referenced a name, a date or a theory against wikipedia, the tutors were unsure of their ground in case the wikipedia version was incorrect and they failed to spot the error. They didn't want to appear foolish, and preferred to play it safe, and they encouraged their students to do the same. Because, as everybody knows, it is by playing it safe that we expand our knowledge of the world and develop as scholars.

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  • I'm shaking my head at David Knight's comment. The reason why it may be perfectly acceptable to instruct students on how to cite a webpage, but not encourage citation of Wikipedia is simple:

    Wikipedia is not responsible for its content, thanks to Section 230 of the CDA. Other websites (such as Salon.com, or Chronicle.com, or even TimesHigherEducation.co.uk) ARE responsible as publishers of their content. So, one can be more easily assured that what has been published on such a site is verifiable and true (and if not, a correction or a lawsuit could be the consequence). Wikipedia is, by law, down at the other end of the spectrum -- thanks to Section 230, the Wikimedia Foundation claims that everything they do is as an "interactive computer service".

    We all KNOW that Wikipedia is not merely an "interactive computer service", but that's the sham.

    I wish intelligent people like David Knight would wake up and scrape the scales from their eyes. It's a mighty strong Kool-Aid that Jimbo's served up over these past few years. Shake it off!

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  • I have no problem with it!

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