Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wiki -- A flawed and irresponsible research tool?

Update (Dec 8): This topic was covered in two posts (Dec 2 and Dec 4) by Abi at nanopolitan. Abi's is one of the blogs that I check more than once a day. I should have read those posts before putting up this post. Anyway, if this topic interests you, do head over there. The issue is so succinctly put over there.

Update (Dec 9): Uma had also mentioned this episode @ indianwriting. (Dec 4). In particular, she had linked to Seigenthaler's article.

    A great project, a democratic project - and one that can occasionally go wrong,
Uma writes about the Wiki and this incident.

Here's a post by Mandar @ Inc Scrawl.

John Seigenthaler, a former editor of USA Today, has called Wikipedia just that.

The ongoing controversy surrounds a wiki entry on him which had implicated him in the Kennedy assassinations. The entry, apparently, had the following sentences:

    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.
The false information went unchecked for several months (from May 26 to Oct 5). By that time, the information had leaked to several other web pages too. Then the false content was removed, but there was no way "to find out who wrote the toxic sentences".

Seigenthaler writes in his Nov 29 piece in the USA Today:

    I phoned Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder and asked, "Do you ... have any way to know who wrote that?"

    "No, we don't," he said. Representatives of the other two websites said their computers are programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia, never checking whether it is false or factual.

    Naturally, I want to unmask my "biographer." And, I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.

He went on:
    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.

Here's a New York Times article that covered the incident. Here's a report from the BBC.

Finally, what do I think of Wiki? I like it. I like the idea behind it. I even link to entries there occasionally. But I guess it's worth repeating once in a while that there's nothing "authentic" about such entries, whatever that means! (I tend to agree with what Dilip wrote here.) And, I would never view it as a "research tool"! Though, I might use a wiki entry to get references which could be "research tools".

But, Seigenthaler had a pertinent comment:

    The marketplace of ideas ultimately will take care of the problem but in the meantime, what happens to people like me?


At 12:23 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

reminds me of the debate on 'anecdotal evidence' on this blog sometime back.

At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Krish said...

At the best you can consider Wikipedia as a quick (non authentic) reference tool as it contains a huge number of topics. The kind of issues you have mentioned are associated with anything that is based on the concept of freedom. We need to take the contents of Wikipedia with a pinch of salt and it is better to cross check with other sources. Do you know that the Wikipedia entry for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mentioned that Gandhi is the inspiration for their organization? Then many of us took the issue and now it has been removed. Anywhere there is complete freedom, such misuse is going to happen. At the same time, we cannot consider the approach to be flawed. In my opinion, the concept behind Wikipedia is great but we should not consider it as an authentic source of information.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Michael Higgins said...

Hi Anand
"what happens to people like me?"
Did anything happen to him. Did anyone really believe that he might have something to do with either assination? No one would have heard of this accusation if he weren't telling the tale of it.

I can understand his feelings towards wikipedia, but I think the idea of "damage" here is overstated.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Abi said...

Anand: Thanks for this post. I too find the Wikipedia a useful tool that gives me the basics of many, many topics. It does so very quickly too.

I have argued on my blog that:

(a) The problem faced by Seigenthaler is essentially due to the fact that he was an 'obscure topic' [Sorry, John!] that interested only one person: 'that someone' who carried a grudge against him. That's the reason why such a scurrilous attack on him stayed there on WP for a long time.

WP mechanisms ensure some level of fairness on pages that attract a lot of traffic by knowledgeable people, like the page on RSS mentioned by Krish. On such pages, the corrections are indeed quite swift. It is also good to know that they are tightening their norms on who can create and edit their entries.

(c) Problems such as the one raised by Seigenthaler are interesting only because they are so rare. After several years of bright-eyed positive coverage, a little negative coverage doesn't hurt. It only helps the community effort to reinvent itself.

Michael: Why do you say that the "'damage' is overstated"? If the person who wrote that entry wasn't anonymous, wouldn't Steigenthaler sue the **** out of him, turning him into his pathetic bankrupt self? Since when have the American courts accepted 'obscurity of the medium or source material' as a valid defence in libel cases?

Disclaimer: 'he' and 'him', when applied to persons, are applicable to persons of either gender!

At 9:32 PM, Anonymous SloganMurugan said...

Wikipedia is nice for reference but it is nothing more than the H2G2 site (hitchhiker's guide) on BBC but with a seruious face.


Everyone knows that and all of us have been tempted

At 9:45 PM, Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

Disclaimer: 'he' and 'him', when applied to persons, are applicable to persons of either gender!

I don't know, but this sounds familiar...

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Abi said...

Oh, come on Dilip, you don't need to be so coy! When you know where it is from, why don't you say so?

At 5:40 AM, Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

Abi, you mean it's actually from there...? And here I was, scratching my head for minutes on end. Well, seconds on end. Well, half a second.

You others who are trying to indulge in some serious debate here, please carry on. Please excuse Abi and me while we go about our clowning.

At 6:42 AM, Blogger arun said...

See this.Now, Mr. John Whoever,show me in the internet,something remotely similar to this collection!

I agree with the comments that have been made before me.I think the panacea is in authenticity and quality ratings.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Pablo Ares said...


is an interesting post on the Wikipedia (via Memex 1.1).


At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Pablo Ares said...

Hello again,

sorry, I read this after my previous comment. The anonymous author of the Wikipedia enter has been found and lost his job!

CNET's reference

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Niket said...

The answer (to is Wiki a flawed research tool) seems to be an emphatic no, according to this article in Nature

However, an expert-led investigation carried out by Nature — the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica's coverage of science — suggests that such high-profile examples [that highlighted the potential problems] are the exception rather than the rule.

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.


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