Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.
This is the statement published on the website of the Florida based, non-profit-making Wikimedia Foundation Inc., the parent organization of various free-content projects, including Wikipedia – the award-winning free online encyclopaedia. Wikimedia’s aim is to provide free knowledge to everyone throughout the world. To achieve this, it relies on public donations to run its wiki-based
Wikipedia, founded in 2001 by American Jimmy Wales, allows anyone with Internet access to edit its articles. The assumption is that this so-called “open source” content is just as valuable as information from professional sources. In a personal appeal, Jimmy Wales says “Wikipedia is based on a very radical idea: realization of the dreams that most of us have always had on what the Internet can and should become. Thousands of people, from all over the world and from all cultures, working together in harmony to share clear, factual, unbiased information… a simple and pure desire to make the world a better place.”
Sabotage or stupidity?
Wikipedia, now available in over 100 languages, has become a very popular research medium. By 2005, within five years of its launch, it had become one of the world’s top 30 websites, with almost 4 million entries. But just how accurate its free content actually is has been brought into doubt by totally misleading articles published on its website. For example; in the publication ‘USA Today’, publicist John Seigenthaler severely attacked Wikipedia for an anonymously written article posted on the website for four months that linked him to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. The article based on Wikipedia information also spread to other websites. Because of the anonymity guaranteed by Wikipedia, the author of the article in question remains unknown. The New York Times has apparently banned its reporters from using Wikipedia as an information source. Is Jimmy Wales’ idealistic dream of a free encyclopaedia for every individual on the planet realistic. Or will it be shattered by saboteurs or sheer stupidity?
The acclaimed natural-science magazine “Nature” published the results of a comparison of Wikipedia’s “amateur” information with the professional information contained in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 42 natural-science topics were chosen and scrutinized by experts. The result was that they found 162 mistakes in Wikipedia, but also 123 in Britannica. Despite the relatively limited random test, “Nature” considers Wikipedia’s information to be surprisingly accurate. “The number of mistakes in a Wikipedia natural-science entry is not substantially larger than in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is considered to be the leading work of reference.”
Whenever errors are mentioned, Wikipedia fans maintain that these have long been corrected. The appraisal by “Nature” and similar quality assessments are of limited use because of the constant changes. Wikipedia is an on-going exercise and mistakes are quickly rectified - but new ones are constantly being added. Articles quality also varies considerably. Because it is impossible to guarantee top quality in each individual case, some people consider Wikipedia to be unsuitable as a work of reference. However, the results of “Nature” tend to show that Wikipedia can be valuable, providing some caution is used.
Anonymity a weakness
Anyone creating a Wikipedia article must now register, but this merely takes a few seconds. All that is required is a user name and password. Many authors identify themselves but quite a few do not - such as the one who created the bogus Seigenthaler posting. True accountability is still lacking and Wikipedia’s inherent weakness is anonymity. But that is likely to change.