Friday, July 27, 2007

The Wikipedia Story

Clive Anderson investigated Wikipedia earlier this week on BBC Radio 4: The Wikipedia Story

He dealt with the usual criticisms ("it can't be relied on; how do we know the expertise of those who edit pages; it's easily vandalised, etc") with the typically incisive mind of a lawyer, and at the same time engendered enthusiasm for what is undoubtedly a laudable project. He visited the UK branch of Britannica to get a view from the establishment side of the encyclopaedia business, and he even elicited a sound-bite or two from renowned internet doomsayer Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and whose broadcast comments reeked of sour grapes.

The radio programme is available as an audio stream here (I don't know for how long - but it will shortly be released as a podcast*):

Download RealPlayer here

Anderson and his interviewees emphasised the essential point about Wikipedia and Web 2.0 - that there is no way this is going to be like a traditional encyclopaedia, nor should it be. We now live in a different information age. By all means trot down to your local library and heft a massive tome from the shelf in order to find out what you want to know. Meanwhile those of us with more pressing knowledge-needs can log on, check out, cross reference and be on to the next item before the traditional researchers have located their bicycle clips.

*UPDATE: The stream and podcast are no longer available, but you can download the mp3 from RapidShare here:


  1. To PaulJ:

    Today's researchers can find valid knowledge in electronic copies of traditional journals that are accessible via the Internet. We do not have to go to the physical library nowadays.

    Further, what use is getting knowledge from Wikipedia when it has not been created via recognised research method?

    There are accepted research methods: experiments (conducted scientifically), focus groups (conducted by experts according to defined focus group protocols), well-constructed, delivered and analyses surveys, and various other approaches developed to answer particular research questions and provide new knowledge on a subject. Such methods also rely on the tacit knowledge (knowledge in the mind) of the authors, who are experts.
    Most people are not researchers and have no understanding of legitimate ways knowledge is created. The approach used by Wikipedia is not a recognised research method. Just because one must cite sources in a wikipedia entry does not mean the sources are high quality. There are high quality sources (eg The Lancet, in medicine) - and very low quality sources (eg, some new magazine with very little quality control, where opinions are published rather than a report of properly conducted research) for publishing knowledge.

    The amount of public ignorance about the accepted methods for developing knowledge is huge. Huge.

    Of course most people do not consult research journals as they are not researchers and do not understand their importance or content. So where can members of the public find knowledge? They can either consult an expert who has already learned what is in significant journals in the filed (eg a doctor) and has substantial professional experience in that area (eg a practising doctor), or they can gain a summary of knowledge in lay terms about the topic by consulting a traditional encyclopaedia developed by experts who have internalised a recognised body of knowledge (eg a doctor, physicist, biologist, etc).

  2. The comparisons between Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are very interesting.

    From a corporate perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in serious trouble. Britannica never thought that an open source product like Wikipedia would seriously challenge the credibility of its brand. They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica's staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. Industry analysis shows that the accuracy of both encyclopedic databases is similar.

    It is interesting that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is developing a new search engine. It is the combination of a) improved search engines and b) the success of Wikipedia that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries and schools are questioning the need to pay to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica when the content is free on the internet. Google even has free direct links to Encyclopaedia Britannica's main database !!

  3. anonymous the first,

    'recognised', 'accepted' and 'legitimate' in this context means, I suspect, recognised and accepted by the academic community and others who question the legitimacy of user-created content. To condemn it on that basis seems somewhat circular.

    I wouldn't suggest accepting the content of Wikipedia (or any other source) without question, and while it may be true that the public is largely ignorant of methods for developing knowledge, this isn't an argument against Wikipedia. The internet has given us new ways of doing many things, and it's up to us to learn to do them wisely.

    Many users of Web 2.0 are familiar with the idea of user-created content, and are fully aware that sites such as Wikipedia can be written and edited by anyone, for the simple reason that they write and edit websites themselves - this is the MySpace phenomenon. They know that what they produce isn't necessarily better than anything else, and therefore view other online content in that light. Web 2.0 is encouraging users who do question what they read, rather than taking things on (possibly spurious) authority.

  4. anonymous the second,

    "Industry analysis shows that the accuracy of both encyclopedic databases is similar."

    The report I heard about was published in Nature.

  5. Being ill-informed and uncertain QUICKLY is nothing new. Wikipedia is just old-fashioned speculation, rumour, and opinion dressed up as something special.

    In the end the whole thing's a gigangic scam for Jim Wales's enrichment.

  6. Anonymous the third,

    "Being ill-informed and uncertain QUICKLY is nothing new."

    This is true. But Wikipedia is something new, and though it's far from perfect, the community aspect of it appears to allow it to evolve and improve.

    It's a resource; you can use it or not as you please. Those of us who do use it should do so sensibly.