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Wikipedia, for and against

The Baltimore Sun

Dang, Eric Hartley wants me to be responsible.

In a private note, which he has given me permission to use, along with his name, he gently reproaches me for the rhetorical excesses in my most recent post on Wikipedia. He has something there, as you will see. After quoting his note at length, I will try to present a more nuanced and balanced evaluation of Wikipedia's usefulness and limitations. It will be duller than the previous.

Mr. Hartley:

"To answer your question [Am I expected to believe that the multitudes who consult Wikipedia every day are using it as a jumping-off point for further research?] in a way that won't fit in a tweet, yes. Not every day, but that's exactly what I do if I look at Wikipedia while reporting (or for that matter while indulging idle curiosity on my own time). A significant majority of the articles link to primary sources such as official websites or to mainstream news articles about the subjects.
"It's not much different from the way I use a press release from a police agency as a starting point, knowing that initial reports are often wrong, or a statement from an elected official as a jumping-off point for reporting, knowing that politicians, too, are often wrong.
"I would never cite Wikipedia in a news story. But if an entry there links to a magazine profile or a company website that can then be cited, hasn't Wikipedia in fact served a purpose?
"Of course, I'm a reporter who's trained to analyze information and sort fact from rumor. Do most people use Wikipedia this way? I doubt it. But that alone does not make it a worthless resource that should never be consulted. It can be helpful, used correctly. I know quite a few librarians who likewise use it as a starting, but not ending, point. ...

"You're right in some of your criticisms of Wikipedia. But to dismiss it entirely ('I advise copy editors not to consult it, and I tell me students every semester to stay away from it') is as unwise as it would be to rely on it unthinkingly. If a student or a copy editor consults a Wikipedia entry and resources it links to, enabling him to verify a fact or knock down a falsehood, isn't that a good thing?
"As journalists, isn't our job to gather information from as many sources as possible, weigh the reliability of it and synthesize it into some approximation of reality?
"I say this with respect for you, but the argument seems unworthy of you. You write intelligently all the time about the folly of relying on inflexible grammatical rules (or myths). Isn't 'Never use Wikipedia' just as inflexible a rule? You're denying yourself — and those who follow your advice — a massive and useful resource."
To be fair, Chris Prince and gfharboe (before the latter succumbed to tetchiness*) gave measured and reasonable responses to my impertinences, and you should attend to their comments. 
And in the past, when I have had occasion to consult Wikipedia in certain areas, such as history or science, I have found articles that appear to have been written by knowledgeable people. I have also consulted Wikipedia from time to time for its pop culture entries, which standard references do not duplicate. (Though I treat the latter category as I do the Urban Dictionary, as suggestive but not authoritative). Obviously, serious people have put a great deal of effort into Wikipedia, and there is a wealth of information there. 
There is also justice in Mr. Prince's suggestion that I am looking for something that Wikipedia does not purport to be. As a working editor, on deadline, I do not have the leisure to duplicate the research of articles to see whether the answer I seek there is reliable. For the people who use Wikipedia as a starting point for research, examining the underlying sources, it must indeed be useful. 
That concedes as much as I'm preparted to concede. 
I doubt seriously that most people use Wikipedia as a starting point; I suspect that they use it as they would an actual encyclopedia, as a basic, one-stop reference. That would explain why Wikipedia material turns up in reporters' stories and students' papers so frequently, why people unashamedly cite Wikipedia as the source of their information. 
As to the contention that Wikipedia is at least as reliable as other references, I'll concede that the Encyclopedia Britannica, say, is not free from innocent errors. But I don't see the Encyclopedia Britannica being exposed as having published bogus or mendacious information, and that cannot be said of Wikipedia. 
I was suspicious from the start at the naive notion that the multitude of contributors would prove to make the enterprise self-correcting, and it did not take long for bad information and dishonest intentions to crop up. (People lie, I was reminded more than once in these exchanges. They do. And they do so on Wikipedia.) 
I remain unpersuaded that such editing as is done for Wikipedia is adequate for the purpose. And the Roth business is an example. I was not party to the exchange between Roth's interlocutor and Wikipedia's editor, but the available account, so far not contradicted by Wikipediasts, would bear an understanding that the editor, instead of taking the complaint seriously, sent the interlocutor off with the remark that writers' statements are not reliable, made no effort to ascertain the validity of the complaint, and did not explain to the interlocutor how Roth might go about making his case. Instead, we have people commenting that everything is swell because it all worked out for the best in the end. Yes, because Philip Roth was able to use The New Yorker as a platform.
So now, Mr. Hartley, you have your balance. And it yields pretty much the same conclusion as before: I have given up on using Wikipedia, because I cannot rely on its accuracy for my purposes, and I advise my fellow copy editors and my students that it is not to be trusted. 
*I will pass over without comment on the responses from people who display the humorlessness of True Believers the world around.


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