Wikipedia = reliable

On: September 24, 2009
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About Albert Cornelissen
Student of the master New Media at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA).


A lof of comments on the reliability of Wikipedia are getting old. These questions do not really concern Wikipedia, but the question: What is a usable source of information? Wikipedia is off course a unique example, but is it any different than other sources of information?

Academic writings, for example, get reviewed at three points. First it is written in a certain program and reviewed by experts, mostly colleagues, on the specific subject. Second, a text is judged by the publisher of the text, which reviews it to its own standards. Third, after an article gets published, it can be read and judged by whoever has access to the article. Here a text can gain popularity and influence.

This happens when other academics write about the article, especially when a text gets references in other publications. The quality is not entirely intrinsic to a text, but expands when it is used by others. Academics use this principle by integrating other sources in their writings to make a credible argument.

Wikipedia uses the same three step process, although certain details may differ. Via a number of rules or conventions, Wikipedia forces users to review their own article and produce a proper text. Once it is posted it gets reviewed by experts on the field of the subject to determine if a post has misinformation, references and is relevant. If an articles takes this second hurdle, it can be peer reviewed and changed by everyone. A closer look into the workings of Wikipedia raises a number of questions. 

The three questions one can ask is: who writes the article, is the information reviewed and how long has it been online? With written text there is a certain trust that before it is published it is reviewed by professionals, but does this mean that everything that is printed contains reliable information? No, one can only aim for reliability, but it can never be a certainty.

The other question concerns the peer reviewing of an article, where an article gains most of its credibility. The best example is ‘featured content’, which is a status an article can gain not solely by its content, but by the approval of others. These articles are, however, slim in numbers compared to the entire database, so not a representation of Wikipedia in full. This does not mean an article which has not gained the ‘featured content’ status contains bogus information or is not properly written. Why then, the cautious attitude towards Wikipedia

The hesitation towards Wikipedia lies for the most part in the intuitive reaction against digital information and products of uncertified professionals. This is an understandable atitude, but Yochai Benkler argues peer production is a new form of organisation, that should be more present in organizational models. The point of peer production is that it is an ongoing process, enhanced in the case of Wikipedia by its digital form. Put in the perspective of the existence of Wikipedia, in this form around since 2004, the demands put on the initiative are understandable, but on the opportunistic side.

Wikipedia is a young peer produced initiative supported by professionals and non professionals. The criticism on Wikipedia shows the hesitation towards its organisational form and digital character: criticism often not found in on printed information. This blogpost is not an argument against critical thinking concerning Wikipedia, but against the simplistic reliability questions, which cloud the fact that it is a peer produced product as an alternative to the from of the printed press.

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