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<nettime> More Wikipedia
Andres Manniste on Fri, 23 Dec 2005 21:46:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> More Wikipedia

I'm just sending the link to the "Nature" article on Wikipedia.



Nature 438, 890 (15 December 2005)  | doi:10.1038/438890a

Wiki's wild world

Researchers should read Wikipedia cautiously and
amend it enthusiastically.

Sometimes the stupid-sounding ideas turn out to be the ones that take off. Almost
five years ago, a free online encyclopaedia known as Wikipedia was launched. To
those familiar with the peer-review process, the premise behind the new
publication seemed crazy: any user, regardless of expertise, can edit the entries.
It sounded like a method for creating garbled and inaccurate articles, and many
critics said so.

Fast-forward to 2005, and some of that criticism is looking misplaced. Wikipedia
is now a huge reference source, with something approaching a million articles in
the English version alone. It's true that many of its entries are confusing and
badly structured; some of them are badly wrong, and sometimes the errors are
deliberate. After the discovery of an outrageously false description of John
Seigenthaler, a former editor of The Tennessean newspaper, Wikipedia's publishers
introduced registration in an attempt to discourage (though it cannot prevent)
"impulsive vandalism". But as an investigation on page 900 of this issue shows,
the accuracy of science in Wikipedia is surprisingly good: the number of errors in
a typical Wikipedia science article is not substantially more than in
Encyclopaedia Britannica, often considered the goldstandard entry-level reference
work. That crazy idea is starting to look anything but stupid.

So can Wikipedia move up a gear and match the quality of rival reference works?
Imagine the result if it did: a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date reference
work that can be accessed free from Manhattan to rural Mongolia. To achieve this,
Wikipedia's administrators will have to tackle everything from future funding
problems -- the site is maintained by public donations -- to doubts about whether
enough new contributors can be found to increase the quality of the mushrooming
number of entries. That latter point is critical, and here scientists can make a
difference. Judging by a survey of Nature authors, conducted in parallel with the
accuracy investigation, only a small percentage of scientists currently contribute
to Wikipedia. Yet when they do, they can make a significant difference.
Wikipedia's non-expert contributors are, by and large, dedicated to getting things
right on the site. But scientists can bring a critical eye to entries on subjects
they study, often highlighting errors and misunderstandings that others have
unintentionally introduced. They can also start entries on topics that other users
may not want to tackle. It is no surprise, for example, that the entry on =91spin
density wave' was originated by a physicist.

Editing pages is not always straightforward, as some users may disagree with
changes. In politically sensitive areas such as climate change, researchers have
had to do battle with sceptics pushing an editorial line that is out of kilter
with mainstream scientific thinking. But this usually requires no more than a
little patience. Wikipedia's users are generally interested in the reasoning
behind proposed changes to articles. Backing up a claim with a peer-reviewed
reference, for example, makes a world of difference. Naturewould like to encourage
its readers to help. The idea is not to seek a replacement for established sources
such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but to push forward the grand experiment
that is Wikipedia, and to see how much it can improve. Select a topic close to
your work and look it up on Wikipedia. If the entry contains errors or important
omissions, dive in and help fix them. It need not take too long. And imagine the
pay-off: you could be one of the people who helped turn an apparently stupid idea
into a free, high-quality global resource.



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