Wikipedia in perspective
By Leigh Scaggs, Boyd County Public Library network administrator
I love Wikipedia and use it regularly, but I use it with a distinction I see many people not making. Wikipedia is a great source of quick information and a relevant starting point to gain a general understanding of a subject before digging in to do some serious research. But many people are confusing the quantity of information available in Wikipedia or the fact that it often comes up at the top of a Google search results page as an indicator of its being an authoritative source.
The problem with Wikipedia is that anyone can edit the information at any time. Now, to be clear, most of the errors are discovered and corrected quickly but some do remain unnoticed for some time. To give them their credit, the information available is much more accurate than it was when it first began in January 2001, but if you are going to use it as a source for research, look for the bronze star in the top right corner of the page to indicate you’re looking at featured content. Featured content goes through a thorough review process to ensure it meets Wikipedia’s highest standards.
Over the years I’ve run into more than one article with wrong information and derogatory information about people or organizations by contributors with agendas. While a lot of it was obvious or humorous, some of the hacks have been serious and less obvious.
An example of a humorous bit of Wikipedia vandalism was the article on the First Law of Thermodynamics which stated that the First Law of Thermodynamics was that you do NOT talk about thermodynamics.
On a more serious note, John Seigenthaler, a respected journalist, had his Wikipedia article changed to state that he’d been directly involved in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers John and Bobby (for whom Seigenthaler had worked) but nothing had ever been proved. The statement had remained in the article for over four months.
There have been times when an editor has worked themselves up into the upper echelons of recognized Wikipedia authorities. Legolas2186 was an editor who’d received many awards for his tireless contributions and diligence and had made over 36,000 edits to Wikipedia over five years. Eventually, it was discovered that Legolas2186 had built his career on false sources, lies, and quotes he’d made up for the article.
During the British investigation into their phone hacking scandal, Lord Justice Brian Leveson copied a fact from Wikipedia into a major judiciary inquiry. Quoting Wikipedia, Justice Leveson referenced 25 year old Californian Brian Straub as the founder of a major British newspaper, The Independent, which was founded in 1986 before Straub was even born. Straub claims that a friend, while they were in college, had plastered his name all over Wikipedia, including having him listed as the founder of Coca-Cola at one time.
Use Wikipedia. Enjoy it. I do. But once it comes time to find facts you can count on and pass along to others, push a little further into the sources quoted and whether or not they’re authoritative. If you need more information on authoritative sources, stop by the library and visit with our information specialists who can help you evaluate your information and point you to information you can rely on.