Referencing Wikipedia
Posted: 09 July 2007 11:34 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I notice that many posters (is that what we are called?) use Wikipedia as a reference, authorative or otherwise.  I believe that while it is an interesting site; because Wikipedia is written/added to by anyone using the site, it is only a reflection of the wide world’s opinions and beliefs.  It could hardly be called the result of good research.
What do others think?

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Posted: 09 July 2007 11:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The people who wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica had opinions and beliefs as well.  With Wikipedia, the articles are subject to continuous peer review, at least in theory, though I doubt the article on e.g. “the Scropton Tramway” has undergone many revisions. Amateurs often do a much better job than professionals, it just takes them longer.

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Posted: 10 July 2007 12:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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We always used to add ‘the usual caveats apply’ when referencing Wikipedia. It might be as well to do so again.

BTW none of our regular posters would make the mistake of citing Wikipedia as an authoritative source.

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Posted: 10 July 2007 02:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Wikipedia entries will often have links to more authoritative sources.

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Posted: 10 July 2007 06:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Studies that have done random fact checking of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica show no significant difference between the two in correctness. Wikipedia, while a bit dodgy to start, is rapidly becoming a very good and rather reliable reference.

The turning point for me was the flagging of statements in Wikipedia that are not supported by references. You will also see warnings on entries that are questionable. These are great innovations.

Still, I’d be skeptical of Wikipedia entries on topics that are likely to generate controversy (abortion, conspiracy theories, bio of George W. Bush, etc.) and I wouldn’t rely on any portion of an entry that does analysis, as opposed to presenting facts.

And for info on popular culture (e.g., who is Eddie Izzard?), Wikipedia is peerless. It really excels on this stuff. It also gets updated very quickly with fast-breaking news (e.g., deaths of celebrities).

In short, I’d say it is safe to rely on Wikipedia for any purpose that one would rely on any other encyclopedia, i.e., general reference, but not scholarly research or high-stakes questions.

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Posted: 10 July 2007 06:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It could hardly be called the result of good research.

How do you know what research went into a Wikipedia entry? Any form of research can be flawed. This is why peer reviews exist. Remember the research that gave us cold fusion? Wikipedia, at it’s best, is peer reviewed research. At its worst, it’s nonsense spewed by an idiot. You always have to think about what you’re reading but I don’t see any reason to dismiss it out of hand. Don’t you always think about what you’re reading no matter what the source?

...it is only a reflection of the wide world’s opinions and beliefs.

Substitute “a particular physicist’s” for “the wide world’s” and you have a pretty accurate description of theoretical physics. Some beliefs have agreed upon evidence to support them and some do not but most of science is “do you see what I see and do you think it means what I think it means?” Wikipedia works essentially the same way.

Some would argue that opinions and beliefs are inescapable and that every mental process is in some way an opinion or belief, so I’m not so ready to dismiss something simply because it is an opinion or belief. Personally, I’m a pragmatist and I’m more concerned with what works than with Truth. Is Wikipedia Truth? No, but then what is and how would you know it if you saw it?

I think part of the process of questioning other people’s opinions and beliefs is for me to question my own… since you asked.

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Posted: 10 July 2007 09:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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There are numerous problems with citing Wikipedia, but one that I see hardly mentioned is that few people know to cite it by date. You’ve got to tell everyone WHEN you looked at it so that we can go and find the particular editing snapshot that corresponds to your date.

It’d be great if Wikipedia would allow linking to the most current snapshot by date, too, but it doesn’t. You can only link to older snapshots or whatever the current entry contains, in which case if the entry changes it might no longer contain the information you were sending people to read.

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Posted: 11 July 2007 04:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dave Wilton - 10 July 2007 06:17 AM

Studies that have done random fact checking of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica show no significant difference between the two in correctness. Wikipedia, while a bit dodgy to start, is rapidly becoming a very good and rather reliable reference.

Do you have links to those studies, Dave? I remember one such trumpeted very loudly by Wikipedians, that subsequently turned out to have been rather less than rigorous in its methodology. I use Wikipedia as my start point for practically any online research these days, but if the subject is other than popular culture, I tend to skim the article and go for the links. And it’s the links I’d be more likely to cite, especially given the abundant evidence that Jimmy Wales doesn’t particularly care about the standards of accuracy in Wikipedia.

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Posted: 11 July 2007 06:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The most famous, and most reputable, of these studies is the one in Nature, 15 December 2005. The news release describing the article is here.

Britanica’s refutation of the article and Nature’s rebuttal can be found here.

given the abundant evidence that Jimmy Wales doesn’t particularly care about the standards of accuracy in Wikipedia.

I’m not sure this is accurate. The fact that Wikipedia has implemented tools to let users enforce standards of accuracy indicates that they do in fact care. It’s probably better to say that Wales is not particularly concerned about formally enforcing standards of accuracy as he believes that the community will take care of the problem without intervention by him and his small staff. And does it really matter what Wales thinks? What’s important is what the Wikipedia community thinks. If the publisher of Britannica were unconcerned with accuracy, that encyclopedia would be in big trouble. But the nature of Wikipedia is such that what the publisher thinks is quite besides the point. Wales is just one user/contributor out of thousands.

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Posted: 11 July 2007 09:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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To supplement an issue:

It is ... speculated that extra-terrestrial beings exist who may possess writing. The fact is, however, that the only known writing is human writing.

“Writing.” Wikipedia July 2, 2007 <http://www.wikipedia.org>.

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Posted: 11 July 2007 11:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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That is a perfectly true statement.  It seems slightly less silly when presented in its context:

Writing is also a distinctly human activity. It has been said that a monkey, randomly typing away on a typewriter (in the days when typewriters replaced the pen or plume as the preferred instrument of writing) could re-create Shakespeare-- but only if it lived long enough (this is known as the infinite monkey theorem). Such writing has been speculatively designated as coincidental. It is also speculated that extra-terrestrial beings exist who may possess writing. The fact is, however, that the only known writing is human writing.

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Posted: 11 July 2007 12:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I’ve no clue as to how to start looking for a reference to this but I recall reading that someone actually put some monkeys with typewriters and they got hung up on two or three letters and never created anything worthwhile coincidentally. Come to think about it I don’t know if I have every created anything worthwhile at a keyboard.

I have often mused over why persons seem so fascinated by finding something that is uniquely human.

BTW, I went to six years of grade school in a room with part of a set of World Book Encyclopedia. This perhaps set me up for the advent of Wikipedia.  I have enjoyed browsing articles of miscellaneous subjects. It seems a harmless pastime. I believe if I were to reference it I would probably include a mild cautions disclaimer.

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Posted: 11 July 2007 01:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Dave Wilton - 11 July 2007 06:34 AM

The most famous, and most reputable, of these studies is the one in Nature, 15 December 2005. The news release describing the article is here.

Britanica’s refutation of the article and Nature’s rebuttal can be found here.

given the abundant evidence that Jimmy Wales doesn’t particularly care about the standards of accuracy in Wikipedia.

I’m not sure this is accurate. The fact that Wikipedia has implemented tools to let users enforce standards of accuracy indicates that they do in fact care. It’s probably better to say that Wales is not particularly concerned about formally enforcing standards of accuracy as he believes that the community will take care of the problem without intervention by him and his small staff. And does it really matter what Wales thinks? What’s important is what the Wikipedia community thinks. If the publisher of Britannica were unconcerned with accuracy, that encyclopedia would be in big trouble. But the nature of Wikipedia is such that what the publisher thinks is quite besides the point. Wales is just one user/contributor out of thousands.

Thanks for the reply. I respect your view, even though there is a lot of evidence that Wales is NOT just one user out of thousands. But that’s for another place.

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