Are you a murderer according to Wikipedia?
In December 2005 BBC reported that “the free online resource Wikipedia is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopedia Britannica.” (1) The study of Wikipedia’s reliability was conducted by the British journal Nature which examined a range of scientific entries posted on both Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. Few differences were found. The study focused fully on scientific entries and was based on peer-review of articles. The reviewers were asked to check for errors, but were not told about the source of the information.
Results of this study are very flattering for Wikipedia. “Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia,” reported Nature (2). However, many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements were also found. What might be surprising, the numbers are balanced in both sources: 162 such errors were found in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica.
Browsing through some Wikipedia entries one might have serious doubts to what extend the results of scientific articles’ reliability can be generalized to Wikipedia being a reliable source altogether.
One example of a non-scientific case study might be the entry on John Seigenthaler, the founding editorial director of USA Today. In 2005 he attacked a Wikipedia entry that incorrectly named him as a suspect in the assassinations of president John F Kennedy and his brother, Robert. The New York Times reports that “the false information was the work of Tennessean Brian Chase, who said he was trying to trick a co-worker” (3). The false information was published on the site for several months, possibly causing an enormous harm to Mr. Seigenthaler’s public image. Such erroneous information could have been read by an unknown number of people, who possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.
I suggest a research focusing on acts of vandalism or misinformation to Wikipedia, the core of the study being time needed for editors to detect such acts and to correct them. The method for this study would be an analysis of articles’ history in order to detect how much time elapsed before a false information was removed.
1. BBC News (2005). Wikipedia survives research test. Online article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4530930.stm
3. Katharine Q. Seelye (2005). Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar. Online article: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/weekinreview/04seelye.html