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Media turn to experts for evaluation of Wikipedia

The press took another opportunity to ask academic experts to evaluate the quality of Wikipedia articles in their fields last week, while one newspaper actually wondered if Wikipedia's ability to anticipate upcoming events was taking things too far. More discussion of the aborted wikitorial project at the Los Angeles Times also continued to trickle in.

Wikipedia scores 'mixed grades'

The Roanoke Times this week asked college professors to assess Wikipedia articles on their subjects of expertise [1]. The motivation for the study was to consider the 'nagging question' of whether Wikipedia can be trusted, and the results were variable.

Bob Bodnar, a geologist from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, looked at articles on the geologic timescale and organic chemistry. The former was described as 'quite accurate' and 'consistent with the most recent data', while the latter contained useful links to diagrams, which Bodnar had used in preparing teaching materials. Roanoke College political science professor Bill Hill looked up John Taylor of Caroline, Alexis de Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers, and found that each was 'accurate and pertinent, if brief', although he found the de Tocqueville article 'too superficial'. The Times writer noted that de Tocqueville's article has just over 1000 words, while actress Katie Holmes has almost 1900.

Retired biology professor Dave West provided the sternest criticism when looking at an article on naturalist Fritz Müller. Superficially it looked 'detailed and well-researched', but West, who has written a biography of Müller, found the article 'fraught with errors', including an incorrect date of birth and a picture of someone else. The Times journalist alerted a Wikipedia editor, who corrected the image and birth date, and said he would welcome correspondence with Dr. West to improve the article further (an attitude later praised by Jimmy Wales as making him 'insanely happy' [2]). The incorrect details seem to have arisen from confusion with another 19th century scientist, the Swiss doctor and zoologist Fritz Müller.

The article concluded that 'Everybody makes mistakes - even newspaper columnists - and Wikipedia's system for correcting those mistakes and adding information is its strong point', but that 'my problem, as a journalist, is knowing when it's reliable enough'.

Continuing 'Wikitorial' fallout

The LA Times' abortive experiment in applying wiki technology to editorials (see archived story) continues to generate comment. This week, the BBC website took a look at the issue [3]. Pete Clifton, editor of the BBC News website, had earlier suggested that the BBC might one day incorporate wikis in some form into the BBC website, but about 70% of site readers were opposed to this idea. Clifton therefore said that the BBC would be keeping 'a firm hand on the news tiller' for the moment, and recommended Wikinews for readers interested in seeing what wikis could do for reporting. "I'm impressed by the amazing power of wikipedia", said Clifton, "but as a fully fledged old buffer I feel distinctly more uneasy with the same approach to news".

Meanwhile, London newspaper The London Line theorised on why the LA Times' experiment failed [4]. Noting that vandalism is inevitable on any wiki, the paper said that a wiki could only generate useful content 'if the vandals are outnumbered by those who are more publicly-spirited'. The LA Times lacked the community to ensure that this was the case, but the paper cited Wikimedia foundation projects Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikiquote and Wikibooks as examples of wikis with enough of a dedicated user base to be resistant to damaging vandalism.

Mississippi newspaper pleads for less US election coverage

One of the most commonly praised aspects of Wikipedia is that it is able to keep its coverage of current events right up to date. Some people, however, would prefer the odd respite from the continuous updating of time-sensitive articles. The Mississippi Sun-Herald this week issued a plaintive request for a break from U.S. presidential elections [5].

'Didn't we just finish a presidential election?', asked the article, lamenting the apparent lack of any break 'between the end of one nasty, heated campaign and the beginning of the next nasty, heated campaign'. Wikipedia, it noted, already has a 'rather extensive' entry on the U.S. presidential election, 2008, which even goes so far as to list fund-raising timetables and potential candidates.

The author of the article might be relieved to know that Wikipedia has at least refrained from speculating on elections yet further into the future. Articles on the presidential elections due between 2012 and 2028 have all been created, and then subsequently deleted, on the grounds that nothing encyclopaedic can yet be said about them.

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