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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, ISSN 1751-598x, Volume iii, Volume II, 10th January, 2011.

The perils of Wikipedia,
an educator writes

by Leo Enticknap*

The American playwright Wilson Mizner once famously quipped that the appropriation of one source is plagiarism, but two is research. It seems likely, therefore, that he would have been alarmed by the growth and ubiquity of Wikipedia as a reference source: not only might Mizner describe many who use it as plagiarists, but with the added twist that they don't even know who they are plagiarising.

Since its launch in 2001 Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest and most heavily used sites on the World Wide Web. It is based on the "wiki" principle, drawn from Polynesian culture, which holds that treating everyone as intellectual equals will enable a self-correcting knowledge base. Anyone can create or edit entries on the site. The theory goes that if an article appears that is inaccurate, biased and/or misrepresentative of its subject, others will eventually revise it based on the site s mantra of "neutral point of view" (NPOV). The creation and editing of content on Wikipedia is anonymous: those doing so are not required to reveal their identities, and the overwhelming majority choose not to.

In short, any given Wikipedia article could be primarily the work of one of the world's foremost experts on the subject, or of a misguided amateur putting into practice the axiom that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Wikipedia's voluntary, not-for-profit ethos (it is almost unique in being both free and without advertisements) and its subculture of rules and conventions such as the 'five pillars', tags, reverts, NPOV and other such jargon gives the site an air of authority and neutrality. The Wikipedia search bar is now integrated as standard into many web browsers, and an increasing proportion of the population implicitly trust it as a standard reference work.

But although they try hard not to draw attention to it, Wikipedia's own management admits that its content should not be regarded as definitive. Its own arbitration committee states that in settling disputes between contributors it does not rule on the factual accuracy of the disputed content1. In other words, conforming to the site's elaborate and convoluted etiquette is considered more important than producing comprehensive and accurate articles. Many self-styled Wikipedians cheerfully admit on their personal pages that they have made changes on topics ranging from particle physics to Herodotus, despite having no professional credentials in relation to either.

Between 2003-05 I became increasingly concerned about the extent to which my undergraduate students were basing their written coursework essays on Wikipedia articles, in many cases not reading substantively any further beyond them, and not questioning the accuracy, scope of coverage or emphases therein in any meaningful way. I therefore devised an experiment. I wrote a Wikipedia page from scratch on a relatively obscure subject (a piece of film industry legislation passed in the early twentieth century), and then set a group of final year undergraduates an essay question based on a related topic. I had inserted one deliberate factual error into the article - a relatively trivial one that would be unlikely to undermine anyone appropriating it in an argument or thesis, but an error nonetheless. Anyone who bothered to read any of the items cited in the page's bibliography would have been able to identify the error (or at least, discover that the two sources contradicted each other).

64 out of 67 students who cited the figure gave the deliberately incorrect one I'd put on the Wikipedia page. Just over five years after I created that page the error remains. No-one has corrected it. Various 'Wikipedians' have edited the page in the meantime, in one case introducing several grammatical errors and in another making a series of unsubstantiated and widely disputed - by academics who have carried out research in this area - assertions as to the legislation's long-term effects.

In his recent book The Cult of the Amateur Andrew Keen argues that the emergence of the Internet has invoked the law of unintended consequences by sidelining the value of the professional, as it enables the amateur to assume an unwarranted impression of authority. "So while the professionals - The editors, the publishers, the scholars - are certainly the victims of an Internet that diminishes their value and takes away their jobs the greater victims of all this are us, the readers of Wikipedia and of the blogs and all the 'free' content that is insistently reaching out for our attention."2

My experiment, and the fallacious ethos embodied by the whole Wikipedia idea, are a powerful vindication of Keen's position. Students, professionals and the public no longer feel the need to consult trusted sources that carry a guarantee of, if not total reliability, then at least a base level of credibility, such as peer reviewing or the professional reputation of an established expert. Instead, they prefer the anonymous amateurism of the self-styled "Wikipedians", and the illusory level playing field that they have created. If this goes without more systematic and robust challenge than my small scale experiment then ultimately our culture and society will be permanently impoverished.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia
#Rules_and_laws_governing_content, retrieved 1 October 2010.
2. Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today's user-generated media are killing our culture and economy, London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2008), p45.

*Leo Enticknap is a lecturer in cinema in the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds. His principal research interests are the history of audiovisual technologies and archival film restoration. His book, Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital is published by Columbia University Press, and his forthcoming monograph, Film Restoration: The Culture and Science of Audiovisual Heritage is scheduled for publication by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011. For more information, please see http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/staff/leo and www.enticknap.net.

Commissioning and copy editor, Helen Gavaghan.
In the illustration of angular momentum which I created for this issue I inadvertently misspelt wikipedia as wikipaedia. This was an error by me noted only after prepublication made it too late to correct. No insult was intended to anyone. HG.

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