Wikipedia Is Not a Valid Source (Except When I Have To Look Something Up)

Wikipedia is a cluster of contradictions. It’s a site that nobody takes seriously, but everyone refers to. It’s a compendium of knowledge of the world, but has more information about Star Trek than particle physics. It’s written in most part by non-experts (at least in the academic sense of the word) but is understood to have significant content.

A couple of events in recent days has brought this resource to mind. The first is the story of French composer Maurice Jarre. After dying in late March, inevitably the obituaries by newspapers around the world came out. During the interim, according to a report from the Irish Times and substantiated by other news sources, a senior at University College Dublin named Shane Fitzgerald fabricated a quote for Jarre and inserted it into his Wikipedia profile.

In Wikipedia’s defense, the quote was removed after no source was attributed to it. However, Fitzgerald kept simply reinserting it until it remained up there for over 24 hours. At this point, several newspapers including The Guardian and the Daily Mail used the inaccurate quote. The Guardian subsequently issued a correction when Fitzgerald alerted them to the fact that he had fabricated the quotation.

One of the interesting facts about this case is that it demonstrates that Wikipedia is a source of biographical information for many journalists. While many outlets might be in a position to check that information before publication, some clearly do not, or just do not do it every time.

However, one of the more interesting things to take away from this is that under more normal circumstances (i.e. this hoax hadn’t been revealed) this quote would have a verifiable source and would then be worthy of inclusion into Wikipedia. For each hoax that has been revealed, it would be fascinating to know how many have not. One should note that there have been studies that indicate that Wikipedia is actually more accurate in certain areas than even the esteemed Encyclopedia Britannica, although some people, Britannica in particular, have claimed that at least one of those studies was fundamentally flawed.

Speaking of Encyclopedia Britannica as a blogger, I am given access to the content of the online site there for free. (This is actually the second reason I have encyclopedia content on my mind, since I had to renew my account this week.) However, I find myself using it exceedingly rarely. Why is that? I’m not exactly sure, but I think the primary reason is that I have to go through the trouble of logging in to the site before I can access the content. Concurrently, I also assume that its content of pop culture content is not up to snuff, so that when I want to look up something about Star Trek, as opposed to particle physics, I believe that Wikipedia will have better content. This combined with the impressive presence that Wikipedia articles have on Google searches means that I rarely ever use my Britannica account.

Another important aspect of this is that most of the Wikipedia’s work is done by people who are not paid. Volunteer who work on the site for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’m pretty confident that there are exceedingly few Britannica volunteer, so how does an online encyclopedia compete on this business model? That’s a question I’ll have to leave unanswered for now…unless it is on Wikipedia.

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