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Wikipedia

According to an article that was posted yesterday in NY Times blog [1], Wikipedia is the fifth most popular web site with more than 330 million visitors per month. That’s a really impressive accomplishment for a community edited encyclopedia.

I am really happy that there are so many people who will take the time to check an article in an encyclopedia, even if we are talking about articles without editorial supervision from an expert [*]. Most of those visitors would never open an encyclopedia in the “pre-internet” era, or even spend the money to own a good encyclopedia. I believe that such practices are beneficial to a community as a whole and wikipedia is a great example of how internet is helping in the faster spread of knowledge.

But what happens when the habit of relying solely on wikipedia articles for accumulating knowledge on a specific subject becomes a norm? During the last years, I have been seeing more and more students in my university and people that I work with in the industry referencing wikipedia as their sole source for writing a report or even making decisions. So, as I was reading the NY Time’s article,  I remembered a very interesting article that I have read in Communications of the ACM, entitled “Why you can’t cite Wikipedia in my class“:

The online encyclopedia’s method of adding information risks conflating facts with popular opinion….

[*] In the case of popular articles, the editing process will reach an equilibrium after some time, resulting in an article which is sufficiently close to what most people would want to know about the subject.

Edit 1:  Some interesting articles on wikipedia statistics and a different view of the problem with the editorial process [2], [3], [4].

… The often mentioned reasons for decay are:

  1. the rules and guidelines for contributing become more and more elaborated, the learning curve worsens, occasional contributors are scared off, recruitment slows down
  2. contributions of newcomers and outsiders are often reverted by article’s “shepherds” or just random passers-by, thus contributing to despair; arguing with anonymouses on the Internet is generally a miserable activity busy people try to avoid
  3. all trivial topics are already covered; due to the “no original research” policy, significant coverage in the mainstream press is necessary to prove a contribution’s notability; thus, much less topics might be covered in the future …
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