What Wikipedia Lost: Credibility

I sporadically teach courses for the University of Phoenix to keep my hand in the world of education and, well, because I love teaching, and while grading some disappointingly mediocre final assignments over the weekend, I came across citation after citation from embroiled site Wikipedia and began to ponder…
There’s been a lot of buzz about Wikipedia recently, mostly centered around juvenile publicity-seeking people editing Wikipedia articles to enhance their own reputations and others injecting their own conspiracy theories into articles about specific historical events. It’s contentious enough that media outlets as far away as The India Times and Al Jazeera are reporting the stories, though some of the best coverage is from BusinessWeek, as usual.
Indeed, there’s now even apparently a class action lawsuit against Wikipedia, though I’m highly skeptical of the organization sponsoring the supposed legal action.
But the wanton editing and dueling perspectives aren’t the real problem with Wikipedia, in my opinion…


It really hit me as I was editing the student papers and reading passages like this:

“Twenty-five years ago, all computer usage, including the use of Microsoft applications, was accomplished from manual entries at the command line prompt. In addition to the mainframe operating systems there was Digital Research’s CP/M-80 for the 8080 / 8085 / Z-80 CPUs and MS-DOS (or PC-DOS when supplied by IBM) which was based originally on CP/M-80, among others [Wikipedia, 2005]. The ubiquitous commercial off-the-shelf software of today was not to become available for another fifteen to twenty years…”

It seems like once a Web site gains a certain size or level of visibility in the public eye it automatically gains credibility and veracity. “It’s published on the Web, it must be true.”
This isn’t anything new, of course. We’ve all been talking about how hate sites and highly biased information sources are often impossible to distinguish from legitimate and factual sources, but what’s new is that we can, for perhaps the first time, see a highly credible, much lauded information source lose its credibility while we watch.
Can any of us ever trust anything that’s on a Wikipedia article any more?
I know this personally too because about a year ago I added a few paragraphs about myself on the “Dave Taylor” Wikipedia entry, leaving the other content intact. A few weeks ago when I went to look at the entry there are now six Dave Taylors on the page, but I’ve been erased by some zealous editor. Hmmm….
Oh, and the cited page in the paper? It’s clearly wrong or at least needs some specific calendar references because if you do the math you’ll see that the author is suggesting that commercial applications didn’t show up for the PC or Mac until about 5-10 years ago, which is complete nonsense. Worse, the four students collaborating on the paper never thought to question the information source – after all, it was Wikipedia! – and never caught the mistake.
I see a similarity with the debate about bloggers versus journalists, too. The underlying issue with the debate is who should be granted more credibility? I’ve talked about this topic before (see Journalists versus Bloggers: The Difference is Fact Checking, for example) but let’s ask it again: what makes a site legitimate, trustworthy, accurate and credible?
I don’t see how Wikipedia can recover from the spate of bad publicity surrounding the popped bubble of this Web darling, actually. Once you realize that it really isn’t the “citizen’s Encyclopedia Britannica” but instead an ongoing battleground of facts, fancies, cockeyed theories and crackpots, even the most benign and innocent page begins to seem questionable.
But then again, maybe I’m just being swayed by the tiny subset of Wikipedia I’ve seen, and maybe there are thousands of articles that are splendid, world-class information well worth reading and keeping around as reference material. If that’s the case, though, how do we differentiate without already having subject matter expertise?
A thorny question and one that’s going to prove important not just for the volunteer team at Wikipedia but for the Web at large. After all, what is credibility and how can we share it with each other?

24 comments on “What Wikipedia Lost: Credibility

  1. Where to begin… I give up….
    I agree with your comments on credibility. To make a long story short, there are plenty of things that the Wikipedia “management” team could do to dramatically enhance credibility, but they are doing few of them. For a start, the whole effort is in desperate need of “mature management” and professional supervision. That said, I do note that there are a lot of volunteers that *do* make solid and credible contributions, but they may have a lasting positive impact on a small fraction of the kind of articles I read.
    I think the WP does work well for mature, settled material, but fails miserably for fields (such as computers, the Internet, the Web, the blogosphere, etc.) where so much is in a state of flux and there are still a lot of wild debates going on even among reasonable, sensible, and knowledgeable people.
    The WP is an interesting social phenomenon. In fact, it’s an ongoing social *experiment*. Take a look at the discussion and edit history for many articles and you’ll be amazed (or appalled) at the frenzy that has been involved with any article on a topic that wasn’t settled by the Encyclopedia Brittanica back in 1960 (the edition I grew up with).
    I myself actually do consult the WP on an almost daily basis and sometimes several times a day, not to get definitive reference material, but as a starting point or alternative point of view. As a computer/software industry “insider”, it is easy for me to pick out many of the obvious flaws so that I can keep the baby after throwing out the bath water, but I have to sigh very heavily at the thought that students actually treat some of this stuff as gospel.
    On a final note, I think it is very sad that there is essentially *ZERO* economic value for anyone to doing a great Wikipedia article. Maybe that is the “reality” of The Web and Web 2.0 and all of that, but it is nonetheless a very sad fact and “truth” is the ultimate casualty.
    — Jack Krupansky

  2. I agree with the loss of credibility and I think it’s time that someone exposed the holes in WP’s imputed authority. I think that it still has a lot of value when checked against other sure sources.
    I’ve ceased adding contributions because what few I’ve made have all been erased. I even spot traffic in my server logs (yeah, I’m bored) coming from WP page entries that apparently others have added and editors have removed (I get the feeling they enjoy removing things 🙂 ).
    I can’t wait to see if Google will continue to assign WP high relevancy in search results.

  3. My only contribution to Wikipedia, which was to attempt a definition of Biznik, was first ignored, then erased. But in some ways I can’t blame this behavior on the part of the wikipedia editors – let’s face it, how the hell do you sort of what’s relevant from what’s not, especially with made-up words you’ve never heard before. You can’t really blame them for their current trend toward being more conservative, as evidenced by their recent move to disallow open editing of some topics. I wouldn’t want their job. Nevertheless, I still find wikipedia is frequently my first-stop any time I’m looking for definitions for terms that I know are newly minted. But it’s certainly not my last.

  4. Back in my day, we were taught to cross reference information from multiple sources and it’s advice I still find useful.
    Unless you see something with your own eyes, you really cannot trust it to be true or accurate, and even then you have to wonder whether your eyes were playing tricks on you.
    All in all, I believe WP is about as credible as Google. Sometimes it delivers relevant and accurate information, sometimes it does not.
    In either event, it shouldn’t be the only source referenced when doing any type of quality research.

  5. Dave…specific to a scenario whereby a student cites Wikipedia in a graded assignment, I have two questions. First, for an instance where the student has already drawn a conclusion (right or wrong) and is only looking to SUPPORT their predrawn conclusion, Wikipedia would actually allow them to EDIT (albeit perhaps temporarily) the related Wikipedia entry to include whatever information, perspective, etc…is required to SUPPORT the “fact” that they have included in their graded assignment. How do you deal with this? Second…if the student cites Wikipedia as support for a “fact” that they include in a graded assignment…and then bewteen the time when the student submits their paper and when you go BACK to Wikipedia to confirm the citation as valid…the relevant Wikipedia entry may have completely changed…even to the extreme of now specifically CONTRADICTING the “fact”that your student made. In this case, even if your student had the best of intentions, their “facts” are wrong….their conclusions, if based on those “facts” are wrong…and their entire assignment now has issues. How do you deal with this as it relates to now GRADING that assignment?
    Second…if the student cites Wikipedia as support for a “fact” that they include in a graded assignment…and then bewteen the time when the student submits their paper and when you go BACK to Wikipedia to confirm the citation as valid…the relevant Wikipedia entry may have completely changed…even to the extreme of now specifically CONTRADICTING the “fact”that your student made. In this case, even if your student had the best of intentions, their “facts” are wrong….their conclusions, if based on those “facts” are wrong…and their entire assignment now has issues. How do you deal with this as it relates to now GRADING that assignment?

  6. Thanks for sharing this post, Dave. I thoroughly enjoyed it ! And the same would go for the great feedback comments! I tend to agree with everyone else’s comments but specially with Teli’s where most people would realise that Wikipedia is just the initial resource to gather some thoughts, put them together to then cross check them with other resources and come up with a meaningful definition of what we were looking for in the first place. And if in the mean time we all get a chance to improve that collective knowledge from the initial resource we used, i.e. Wikipedia, we can only expect that the information in it contained will get better and better and therefore much more trustworthy. In the end, it has got to do a bit with personal commitment towards sharing what you know with others.
    For those interested, I have added some additional info on this discussion over at my weblog including what our main role would be with such resource as Wikipedia.

  7. David Fuhrer: I agree, students shouldn’t cite Wikipedia (or any encyclopedia, for that matter — see the journal Nature’s investigation finding that Britannica and Wikipedia have similar levels of scientific accuracy). But if they do cite wikipedia, they should cite using the exact date and time (or the URL of that particular revision), so that you can check to see whether the relevant information was entered ten seconds before. Remember that despite being unsupervised and sometimes anonymous, wikipedia is completely transparent — this is a vital asset.
    Jack Krupansky: Wikipedia didn’t begin as a huge encyclopedia and then institute its seemingly anarchic editing policy. It began as a Nothing, an empty piece of software, and grew into a huge encyclopedia *because* of that policy.
    I do agree that some changes are needed (either changes in wikipedia itself or changes in wikipedia’s place in a larger informational ecosystem). A stable pages policy will probably be implemented soon, for example, which I’ve written about on my weblog.

  8. I just stumbled across the following commentary on a legitimate (and useful) Wikipedia article’s “Talk” page:
    “A lot of this stuff, once registered in the feeble collective unconscious of mankind, is there to stay and common sense doesn’t stand a chance of dislodging it.”
    Credibility is a very lofty standard to shoot for. Usually we simply settle for the *illusion* of credibility.
    — Jack Krupansky

  9. I have been playing around with developing a friendly document discussing constructs to improve electronic communication ( http://commecon.blog-city.com/meet_bob_1.htm ) and construct 1 deals with this issue.
    Seems to me we will need some FDA-like classification of content some day to flag what content has been vetted and by how many people.
    Oh, and we need to ration the numnber of e-mails people send each month… but I digress.

  10. A bit late but, I just gt out of an Edit war, and am now banned from a page on Wikipedia. The aritlce was the Acharya S aerticle. On it, I threatened to post an old article I wrote about Acharya S and use it as a soruce material, as her legions of fans ( OK, maybe 10) where compalining about the soruces used. I exagerated a bit as well. As a reuslt, I was broguth up for aerbitraton months later. Now, the article seems at the mercy of her fanbase. I will grant that soem editors have tried ot make it neutral, but have doen so by takign the neutral concensus verison I defneded, and the biased verison her fans wanted, andf ocmpromisign between the two. ( As if mine was a hostile, Anti–Acharyan one and htiers pro. Mien was Neutrasl.)
    All fo this because of standard bully tactics used ot make me out to be a villain.
    Noentheless, currently the aritlce is Biased.
    And Biase din Faovur of a Minor conspriacy nut.
    Why? Because Sophist arugments work well, it seems.
    Wikipeidans even doubt my own story of havign been a reporter an dholdign a MAsters degreebecause I am dysl;exic and have a bit of a temper. ( I am workign on it.) In reality though Im clam. The net doesnt provide voice inflection.
    Ah well.
    I htink they need ot actulaly take measures in fact chekcing, but have allowed their vision of “Verifiable, not truth” to colour their own veiw.
    It was a good idea though, and I think it can be greatly improved.

  11. I often go into comments and clean up grammatical and spelling errors, but I think that the above comment from Zarove, whether it’s a language issue or otherwise, is a fascinating glimpse into the political backroom of Wikipedia and a hint of just how hard it must be to ensure that the site is populated with quality, credible information. ‘nuf said.

  12. I did say I was dyslexic. And I think I posted this before. ( However, it seems to not have been added.)
    The main problem with Wikipedia is it;s administration, which can rather easily be infleunced by appearances. Acharya S’s follwoers compliend abotu me, and so I was a bad guy who was hostile.
    They wher emanioulated by the verty tactics I was accused of employing and it worked.
    And now, the article is Biased.
    Sort of like 1984, really, excpet not as dire.

  13. “Wikipeidans even doubt my own story of havign been a reporter an dholdign a MAsters degreebecause I am dysl;exic and have a bit of a temper. ( I am workign on it.) In reality though Im clam. The net doesnt provide voice inflection.”
    …….
    BWAHAHAHAHA!
    Oh man *wipes tears*, that’s rich.
    About your temper: What about gdo? Godamnit? god?
    And why it’s very hard to believe that you have a Masters Degree? Does if have to do with the fact that you believe that you are a pterodactyl god, the last Tein Dare?
    And it looks like you still haven’t used a spellchecker in over five years on the net.
    I’m still cheering over the fact that Wiki banned you. Let’s hope other websites keep doing that to you with the temper you have and the threats you throw. And no, (to others) I’m not a wiki user.

  14. Ah look. My Outlawstar.net stalkers havent given up.
    Even after os many years, and after I moved on. By the aay, most sites do not have much a problem with me.
    And you spreadign lies about me won’t exactly negete anythign either.
    Nor will attmeots to goad me into a fight.

  15. What about your lies about Outlaw Star.Net then?
    Paradox!
    And dude, that was five years ago. Are you still blaming all your faults on OLS.Net these days?
    When you get fired from jobs, do you shout that it was all because of OLS.Net, instead of you screwing up?
    Besides, who are they going to choose?
    The person who can spell, has an education, and doesn’t flip out?
    Or the person who can’t and thinks he’s really a dinosaur god?
    And I’ve seen you get bitch slapped on boards where there was no one from that old board. Dang, I wanna know what you’ve been smoking, because I want some of it.
    Nah, probably would give me too much paranoia…

  16. I totally agree with you. To make short and direct I read one an article in wikipedia, about a sensitive topic(dhimmi), I found it intresting, so I added it to my bookmark, a few months later, I was writting about this topic so I check the article again, and I found it 100% changed. One doesn’t like what is written change it(You will find it saying citied need) and another one read the topic doesn;t like what the first one did so it change it.

  17. Just a comment about what you said about the fact that the commercial software didn’t appear until 5-10 years ago.
    “The ubiquitous commercial off-the-shelf software of today was not to become available for another fifteen to twenty years…”
    The quote is not referencing that commercial software period did not exist until five or ten years ago, but the widespread useage of one kind of modern software (like Microsoft Windows). About ten years ago very few people owned personal computers, so commercial production of software was not as viable of a business as it is today. Plus, think about Windows Version 3.1. It sucked and hardly can be considered “Software of today.” The first real practical consumer software developed was really Windows 95, which came out in 1994. This article is probably a few years out of date, so I believe that this quote is 100% acceptable.
    The point of Wikipedia is to allow a bunch of people provide their knowledge for others to use. I suggest that if you object to the material provided on the site that you start a debate on their forums or change the article yourself.

  18. I think people who NEED to know your sources are nit-picky. If YOU can verify that the answer is correct, why the heck does it matter what their source was? If it is correct it is correct. Does the source make a “correct” answer wrong?
    Wikepedia is just a place to go and sound smart…and where punks play games with other people to make them mad by screwing up their posts, definitions, and theories…
    I guess my point is…. stop taking what people say so seriously…. I don’t take anyone’s word for anything…. we are all full of crap!

  19. http://www.computerhistory.org/internet_history/internet_history_80s.shtml please tell me what you were doing in 1980 on the internet. I will comment that a claim to have been involved in the internet since 1980 should be considered as pretentious as editing yourself on wikipedia.
    Very poor judgment. !
    10 years ago was Windows 98… and the arrival of a personal computer in most living rooms was finally becoming a reality as costs crashed. I know because I started servicing computers in the late 80’s and the use was rarefied due to cost until 98 or 99. The interhttp://www.loundy.com/CASES/Compuserve_v_Patterson.htmlnet may have existed prior to that, but most people connected via proprietary bbs systems, including AOL and Compuserve and Prodigy. We were still developing the really useful mailbox system on Compuserve in 1995.
    Consider the state of the art 15 years ago in this case … http://www.loundy.com/CASES/Compuserve_v_Patterson.html

  20. Well, Bill, since you ask, I first logged in back in 1980 to what at the time was the UUCP network, wherein computers used modems to dial each other and forward along both email (where you needed to specify the route it would take, not just the destination name and host) and messages from the Usenet discussion boards. I’ve been online ever since, as that evolved from dialup to higher speed backbone connections, as it got entangled with the ARPAnet (ARPA = the Department of Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency), I attended some of the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX) meetings where we debated how to have commercial businesses utilize the research/academic high speed network, I received a copy of the original Canter & Seigel green card spam, and on and on.
    I appreciate your skepticism, but just because you remember Compuserve as state-of-the-art 15 years ago, doesn’t mean that there weren’t networks around and thriving even earlier. 🙂

  21. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia is a valid resource, you just have to do your homework when you read a particular entry. If any of an article’s claims are not cited, then you need to discount them. If they are cited, of course, you need to check the sources and decide for yourself how “credible” the respective sources are.
    Again, you are still doing a lot of your own research/fact-checking, but it saves a heck of a lot of time to have one page with a summary of all of the relevant references, and links to them.
    I really don’t see how this is any different from any other encyclopedias, which also made mistakes back in the day that were considerable more difficult to verify. A second point, last time I checked, most high schools don’t even consider encyclopedias as valid sources. Even if it is for the University of Phoenix, what Professor in their right mind ever accepted an encyclopedia as a legitimate source?

  22. Wikipedia is an extremely valuable resource in the academic community. While it should not be used as a source in academic or professional papers, it is the ideal starting point for researching a topic. I have found that it is almost always a very credible resource. When you are dealing with advanced fields in science and technology, no one could possibly write a credible sounding article without extensive education in the field, so it would be quite obvious if bogus information was being presented. Most of the time, this is a resource that is constantly reviewed and edited by leaders in the respective fields. This, in essence makes these articles professionally written and peer-reviewed. I find it ironic that this site is often dismissed by community college (or online college) professors, but is otherwise a valued resource in the higher education community.

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