Every once in a while in the blog world, some mildly controversial topic will come along and kick up up a mini-storm of opinions. One of the latest is over Wikipedia, a project encouraging open participation in building an encyclopedia-like reference resource.

The way Wikipedia works is this: One goes to the site to read an article on a subject such as Grenada, much the way you would do with Encarta or the Britannica site. The difference lies in what you can do afterwards. If you see an inaccuracy, or if you have more information to add, you can make a change to the article yourself which will appear to the next person who comes along.

While it sounds chaotic to have users be able to make changes, the overall effect is a peer review of each article, with the reviewers able to make corrections themselves. In a Darwinesque turn, information that survives tends to be the fittest. However, since the Wikipedia is a valuable commons for its users, there is more of a sense of cooperation towards a goal rather than the sort of competition that might destroy such a project.

The recent controversy stems from the difference between this form of knowledge gathering and the more usual appeal to authority produced in encyclopedias, with experts commissioned to write about the areas of their expertise. A newspaper columnist quoted a local librarian as saying Wikipedia was a good example of an “untrustworthy” source on the Internet. As you can imagine, geek anger soon took flight at the idea a beloved project could be untrustworthy.

While many just seemed angry, some recommended useful tests that seem to prove the utility of Wikipedia’s structure. Change some information to something wrong, and see how long it took to be fixed. The experiments so far indicate not very long at all, even for more obscure changes. (I get the impression Wikipedia information lends itself to a sense of stewardship, so when you make an incorrect change on a Wikipedia page, quite often it’s the equivalent of moving someone else’s lawn gnome. It will get moved back when the owner of the house comes home.)

Having said all of that, I’ll say this. I find Wikipedia to be a very useful tool, and quite accurate. However, I can sympathize with the librarian, because I can only recommend it as a student research tool with reservations. Look at what happened when people tested it with inaccurate information. The information was fixed…at some point in the future…and was inaccurate for as long as that took. I’d hate to be the student who plagiarized their school paper from those pages on that day. 😉

Also, much as there is a value to making sure your experiments are repeatable — keep your data, tell people what you did, make the instruments available, etc. — there is a value to making those appeals to authority repeatable as well. It doesn’t do you much good to use a sole source that may have changed radically by the time your reader looks at it.

So, the solution? It will be a hard one for a lot of students: Never just use a single source. Wikipedia is valuable because it is mostly accurate and current, but it should not be the sole source for information. (If you read much, you’ll realize the same thing applies to print encyclopedias as well. That’s why publishers produce errata sheets.)