[an error occurred while processing this directive]

learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
June302006

The Wild World of Wikipedia:
A Study in Contrasts

With more than one million entries, Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia on the Internet. But is it reliable? To begin exploring that question, we’ll first have to talk about the JFK assassination and an English duke.

John Seigenthaler Sr. certainly doesn’t think it’s reliable. In the summer of 2005, the award-winning journalist and publisher discovered that Wikipedia had an entry about him. It detailed his career, but included a particular paragraph that rattled him:

John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.

This paragraph was totally false - Seigenthaler had never been linked to the JFK assassination. To make matters worse, the offending paragraph had been on the Wikipedia site for several months, and was also picked up by several other websites that use Wikipedia as a source. Someone had decided to post the information to Wikipedia as a hoax, and it had propagated across the Internet.

In November of 2005, Seigenthaler authored an opinion piece for USA Today. He pulled no punches:

I had heard for weeks from teachers, journalists and historians about “the wonderful world of Wikipedia,” where millions of people worldwide visit daily for quick reference “facts,” composed and posted by people with no special expertise or knowledge — and sometimes by people with malice….

And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.

When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of “gossip.” She held a feather pillow and said, “If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That’s how it is when you spread mean things about people.”

For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.

The Siegenthaler controversy was a low point for Wikipedia, which had garnered a huge online following throughout the world. It exposed how its greatest strength - that anyone can contribute to the encyclopedia - was also its greatest weakness. Because Wikipedia isn’t edited by “experts” and could be changed at any time, critics argued, it was inherently flawed, unworthy of public consumption. The Siegenthaler case demonstrated just how badly things could go wrong.

Around the same time as the Seigenthaler kerfuffle, another series of events was playing itself out in Stillwater, Minnesota. A young man had arrived at the local high school seeking to enroll in classes. With a classic upper-class English accent, he identified himself as 17-year-old Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, 5th Duke of Cleveland, recently arrived from the UK. He toured the high school on several occasions with administrators, asking the staff and students to address him as “Your Grace.”

Students from the school newspaper were skeptical. They began researching the Duke of Cleveland on the Internet. Soon, they discovered a Wikipedia entry about the title. The Wikipedia entry noted that the title had been extinct since the Victorian Era. As they dug deeper into Wikipedia, they examined the entry’s edit history and found a previous version of the page that included a sentence about Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV being the new Duke of Cleveland. This sentence, posted by an anonymous user, had been removed by vigilant Wikipedians, but the site’s virtual paper trail reaffirmed the students’ doubts about this mysterious visitor’s identity.

The students made a major breakthrough when they discovered yet another page on Wikipedia - an entry concerning Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV. The page had been created by a person named Joshua Gardner. The students researched the name in various databases, until they found a picture of him. Gardner, it turns out, was the young man who had visited the school as Caspian James. To make matters worse, they found him in an online database of sexual offenders. Thanks to the students’ research, Gardner was arrested for a probation violation. He is now serving an 11-month stint in jail.

Here we have a study in contrasts. On the one hand, Wikipedia was used to malign the good name of a respected journalist, exposing flaws in the encyclopedia’s editing procedures. On the other hand, those very flaws caused Joshua Gardner to leave a virtual paper trail, eventually exposing him as a fraud. Does on incident cancel out the other? Not exactly, but it demonstrates the enormous gray area that exists regarding Wikipedia’s reliability.

Take the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example. The science journal Nature asked a group of scientists to compare 42 topics contained in both Britannica and Wikipedia. The results found 162 errors in Wikipedia, while 123 appeared in Britannica. Both sources, as it turns out, were flawed. Britannica has aggressively attacked the study as biased, and frankly, it wasn’t exactly the most scientific study that could have been conducted. Far from it. Nonetheless, serious errors were found, demonstrating that no single source of information is perfect. Wikipedia has its flaws, but so do all other online information resources.

Is it simply a matter that these online resources are inherently less trustworthy than offline resources? It’s tempting to make that argument, but the facts suggest otherwise. We live in a world where anyone can use publishing-on-demand to distribute their own books, devoid of any fact-checking or peer review. Even big-name publishers aren’t immune from blowing it: James Frey got away with publishing A Million Little Pieces and passing it off as a memoir until it was exposed as fiction.

So what is an educator to do? Do we dismiss Wikipedia as a dubious hodgepodge of hearsay, or embrace it in a way that makes it educationally relevant? It’s far from perfect, no doubt, but does that mean it has no educational value? Can a resource that struggles with reliability serve a valid educational purpose? What do you think?

To be continued…. -andy

Filed under : Wikis

Responses

1. That Seigenthaler story is very old news.

2. While, no doubt, many Wikipedia articles are not accurate, but is …

a. Newspapers
b. People magazine
c. The evening news
d. George W. Bush
e. AL Gore
d. Ann Coulter
e. Michael Moore

Come on: Wikipedia is as accurate, or more so, than anything else in life. It’s a great resource and let’s leave it at that.

“Can a resource that struggles with reliability serve a valid educational purpose?”

You bet. How about if we use it to teach critical thinking skills? Or perhaps how to triangulate information from a variety or sources to address the issues of validity, reliability, and bias?

There are huge educational benefits to wikipedia that go beyond the facts in any single article.

I never suggested that Siegenthaler was “new” news. But it remains one of the best examples of the challenges faced by Wikipedia.

The point of this series of articles is to talk about Wikipedia, the criticisms against it, and the ways it can be used educationally. The target audience of this blog isn’t Wikipedians - it’s educators who are struggling to understand Web 2.0 and how it can be used in the classroom. So what may be old news to some won’t be to others, and even if it is, it’s still illustrative of the challenges that educators face when trying to figure out how to use Wikipedia in the classroom. -andy

Im an elementary school librarian. The issue of Wikipedias reliability is critical for me, and I think its helpful to compare it to the typical nonfiction book found in a school library.

The book was presumably written by someone with some level of expertise in the subject. The books publisher presumably verified this as it has a stake in producing reliable books to build trust in the marketplace. The book was probably reviewed in one of the journals that review childrens literature. And the school librarian chose to buy the book, based on reviews or recommendations or seeing the book in another library, and evaluated the book after it was received. All these layers of accountability in the traditional book publishing model help ensure (but of course dont guarantee) reliability.

Wikipedia lacks these layers of oversight. One can check the history of an article to see who wrote various parts, but information about these authors is limited to what they choose to reveal or claim about themselves. I dont think Wikipedia asks for transcripts to verify college degrees, for example! Often authors dont provide any evidence of their expertise in editing a particular article.

So why on earth would I want students to use Wikipedia, when they can use a book or online editions of World Book or Britannica instead? Granted Wikipedia has much more information on pop culture than a traditional encyclopedia, but we dont typically research pop culture in schools anyway.

As a teacher I am much more interested in finding ways to have students make their own wikis to help them collaborate on projects and share their learning, than using Wikipedia as a source of information. But in the case of a student wiki I would put myself in the publishers role to monitor accuracy and reliability.

The thing I like most about wikipedia is that it continually forces people to question notions of accuracy, reliability and the like. For that reason alone it should get our highest praise. I’ve been bothered all my academic life with the wild errors and mistakes I find in peer reviewed and published texts and articles; some innocent and some not, some lazy and some out of date. Wikipedia makes the process more open, accountable and when we see a problem we can fix it. If we want reliable, we give up accurate. To rely on something is to give up personal responsibility, and when you give up responsibility you’ve given up control over yourself. Personally, I think that wikipedia shouldn’t allow anonymous edits for obvious reasons, or rather that all anonymous edits must be vetted before going public with other safeguards so that people can be held accountable for what they say. That is just because as an educator I think that we not only have a right to public utterances, but a responsibility to what we say.

Wikipedia’s strengths are also its weaknesses - it is dynamic and no more credible than a digital photograph or an individual author. Does Wikipedia lack rigorous “peer review” - yes, but as is the nature of literature and science, it is subject to ongoing falsification and correction. It is not a thick tome of pulp and ink gathering dust on a shelf. A good source? - as a starting point, not an end point.

I think that’s key, and it ties in to what Tom Hoffman wrote. I love Wikipedia as a point of departure for exploring a subject. Would I use it as my only source? Never. Would I trust sources that cite it heavily? Probably not. My wife once told me about a documentary proposal she was fact-checking for a cable tv network. The documentary’s producers sent her their notes, and almost all the sources cited were wikipedia pages. Needless to say, she and the channel were not happy about it.

John wrote:
Wikipedia lacks these layers of oversight. One can check the history of an article to see who wrote various parts, but information about these authors is limited to what they choose to reveal or claim about themselves. I dont think Wikipedia asks for transcripts to verify college degrees, for example! Often authors dont provide any evidence of their expertise in editing a particular article.

I’ve blogged about this issue before. It’s always bothered me that Wikipedians can edit things anonymously or as an alias, as it makes the entries they edit less transparent. Some wikipedians are very good about putting their bios and qualifications on their personal pages, but most don’t. Then again, I must confess that I work on entries that aren’t my area of professional expertise, but are of a personal interest to me. Does that mean I should recuse myself from editing pages for which I lack an academic degree? Tough call.

In the past I’ve played around with the idea of having Wikipedia incorporate a ranking system like eBay or digg.com, where people can vote on entries and wikipedians based on their perceived accuracy. The only problem with this is that politically charged entries would attract positive feedback from supporters and negative votes from detractors, neither of which would help sort out the accuracy of the entry. Are there other ways that might be better at raising their accuracy?

I’ve posted on the other Wikipedia thread, and will continue my thoughts here. WP has safeguards that others (like Encyclopedia Brittanica) don’t. While it’s true that you don’t need to be an expert to post, you would be wasting your time (and the time of others) to post in a field where you are not an expert. Your entry will eventually be discarded by others if incorrect, or perhaps the entire page tagged as under review, etc.

EB relies on “experts” whose word seems beyond reproach, even though the number of errors in EB are comparable to those in WP. I analogize these two sites with the pedagogical shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” much discussed in recent years. Whereas students (and worse: teachers) may view EB as the “first and last word” on a topic, oftentimes delving no further than EB for information, WP acts as fertile ground for further exploration and “learning, unlearning and relearning” as Toffler suggests.

This is the time to question authority, and question the way students learn and teachers teach. Facilitating learning rather than dictating answers meets the needs of 21st Century students and schools. Yet the old guard very reluctantly gives way. My own district bans WP for whatever reason. It becomes an issue of control more than anything else. Although in a sense WP is constantly peer reviewed, it is reviewed by the “everyman” rather than someone committed to academia.

How atavistic are academic credentials? Well… who has a phd. in plumbing? I’m sure they exist, but for some solutions I’d really prefer a master plumber’s say on something, and am more than willing to take a look at a WP page by him or her. The same info will never make its way into EB. I prefer the thought that millions of contributors to the eternal Platonic dialogue and search for “truth” over the “I am the expert” approach we (of my generation) grew up with.

I remember when in my curriculum and instruction class I had the audacity to challenge the professor on an assignment. I was rebuffed by her, and even though a number of students backed me and my opinion, she was the professor and we were to follow her orders. I continued to rebel and did the assignment in my own fashion, receiving a C+ as my reward. However, I felt that I had accomplished something more than what really amounts to a meaningless grade. I stood up for my beliefs rather than sitting passively by and accepting what was dished to me.

NCLB emphasizes learning “stuff” and I hear educators bemoaning it nationwide. Perhaps if they took a more active WP than passive EB approach to their profession, they might enable change.

Now all media has flaws. While traditional media’s flaws are hidden in respectability, and the inputs into are held by a few elite journalists, publishers and corporations who say they police it properly. However things loke Spin Doctors and press releases show that even then there is a system for this system to be gamed by the savvy. Special Interests input into textbooks, encyclopedias, and the news is all too common, but by its nature it is hidden. As well as the major corporations ensuring that the news does not go against their interests.

Wikipedia flaws are real, but the gatekeepers are not the elite, but anyone, and influence is not measured by money, but by time. It also cites it’s sources to allow independent confirmation of anything it covers, and lack of sources should be noted as meaning the information is inaccurate.

I would prefer a system that is transparent in its flaws and one that encourages independent verification to one in which undue credence is given based on experts which often can not even agree as to what the facts are.

I would in fact encourage students to actually investigate and correct pages on the wikipedia as a class exercise to both understand how it works as well as ensure that it follows scholastic standards. The educational system does use it, and they really are in a good position to take over policing of it for the benefit of all humanity.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]