Wikipedia: A Historical Document?

Does Wikipedia Tell the Whole Story?

As Rosenzweig puts it, 'Wikipedia itself rather grandly traces its roots back to ‘the ancient Library of Alexandria and Pergamon’ and the ‘concept of gathering all of the world’s knowledge in a single place’ as well as ‘Denis Diderot and the 18th century encyclopedists”. Is Wikipedia then, despite its open source origins, a historical document? What are the possible implications of using Wikipedia instead of other, more traditional, sources?

Rosenzweig spends a lot of the article comparing Wikipedia to other encyclopedias. He comes to what some may consider a shocking discovery that the number of mistakes in Wikipedia’s articles are only slightly more than the Britannica or Encarta. As a result of their commitment to verifiability and without bias articles, and because there are literally thousands of editors, the nature of open source makes it possible for a largely accurate account of events, people and other subjects. At the same time, there are clear problems with the nature of open source contributions to an encyclopedia. Obviously, Wikipedia has received some widespread criticism, from a scandal regarding Seigenthaler’s article, to its liberal standpoint spurning conservapedia.org, to a more internal criticism with its decision to only include verifiable documents and original historical research [1]. The nature of open source means that the articles depict a majoritarian standpoint of a particular place in history. Because, by nature, extremists are more likely to spend more time posting on the issues that are important to them, a neutral position may not be possible [2].

While I find the comparisons between Wikipedia and Britannica interesting as a starting point, I think its important to note the limitations of this approach. Britannica has its roots as the at home encyclopedia, used as a reference to verify facts. Wikipedia has now found a place in academia, used by students as the main source for the beginnings of research. Because it is used as a source by other search engines, and is frequently one of the first sites returned from search engines, small errors are often replicated outside Wikipedia, reinforcing the particular standpoint of Wikipedia authors. Additionally, the Nature study referenced by Rosenzweig is considered contreversial. The Guardian reports that the study presented only fragments of Britannica articles, as well as including articles from Britannica's child encyclopedia and Book of the Year. The Guardian notes, "In one case, for example. Nature's peer reviewer was sent only the 350 word introduction to a 6,000 word Britannica article on lipids - which was criticized for containing omissions."[3]

These problems do not deny the importance of Wikipedia. Its access to free information across the world is clearly a step towards a more communitarian model of information. Perhaps collaboration with academics, or a lift on the original research, or even a sister site with academic reviews or original research could resolve many of the issues now associated with Wikipedia.

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