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Home > Publications > Quill > How does Wikipedia measure up?


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
How does Wikipedia measure up?

Wikipedia, a user-edited, free online encyclopedia, is a major resource for journalists, students, researchers, writers, casual readers – but because anyone can edit the content, the common mantra when perusing its content is, “Don’t trust what you read.”

Is that really true, though? The flipside to anyone being able to edit is that anyone can also fix mistakes, that every article has millions of eyes to pick through inaccuracies.

Quill gathered together a panel of “experts” to read through five random Wikipedia articles and gauge the accuracy. The conclusion? Mostly accurate, yes — but not as a primary resource. Read on to learn how the articles on a math term, Harry Potter, Boy Scouts of America, the Society of Professional Journalists and Nick Carter scored on accuracy, readability and usability.

Ramsey’s Theorem

Like much of the mathematical content on Wikipedia, the article on Ramsey’s Theorem is a mixed bag.

Accuracy of content

The article appears to be mathematically correct. I don’t mean that I can vouch for every supposed fact stated in the article. Instead, I mean that I did not detect any flaws in the mathematical reasoning in the article. I don’t rule out the possibility that the article incorrectly quotes some “facts” that it states but does not prove.

Authorship

The quality of writing is mixed, due to mixed authorship. Some sloppiness and poor style can be found. Setting aside the occasional poorly constructed sentences and paragraphs, the important questions about the writing are: What will the article convey to someone learning the subject for the first time? Will the reader be able to follow the mathematical arguments? Will the reader get a correct sense of the broad ideas underlying the subject? I suspect that the answer to the latter two questions is negative. I’ll support my suspicion with some examples:

The second paragraph fails badly in its apparent goal of conveying the broad idea behind Ramsey’s theory. At least two mathematical symbols are used in the article without being defined. (These are symbols that the typical reader may not be familiar with.) Third, in the proof of the theorem, the uninitiated reader may not make the leap from what is actually proven (a “bound”) to what is asserted (the “existence” of something).

Usability

Good writing is a part of scholarly quality, but more importantly, scholarly quality is about respect for the truth. A Wikipedia article, just like a newspaper article, needs proper citations as well as correct facts and/or disclosure of uncertainties regarding any asserted “facts.”

In mathematical writing, correct facts and/or disclosure fall under the heading of mathematical correctness. But the issue of proper citation is still important. In the Ramsey’s Theorem article, I am not aware of any problems with citations of mathematical facts. But I am disturbed that the famous mathematician Paul Erdös is quoted, with no source indicated for the quote. I have heard a similar quote from Erdös, phrased completely differently. Is there an authoritative source for the quote? Would it be better to describe the quote as something Erdös is reported to have said?

Conclusion

Despite its flaws, the Ramsey’s Theorem article is a positive contribution to the world’s store of knowledge. Although I would not recommend the article to a student learning Ramsey theory for the first time, someone who finds the article by themselves will probably learn something. I use Wikipedia regularly to look up mathematical facts. But I try to be careful: Although most of the math on Wikipedia is probably correct, I would never trust Wikipedia for something really important unless I could verify it independently.

— Nathan Reading, Department of Mathematics, North Carolina State University

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter books have become a pop culture staple. As of June 2008, more than 400 million copies have been sold worldwide. This means a lot of media coverage and a large Wikipedia article that has probably been picked over by 400 million fans.

Accuracy of content

The content is very thorough and mostly accurate, but there were some statements that could possibly be viewed as subjective. For instance, the article refers to Lord Voldemort, the antagonist of the novels, as “a fascist Dark wizard obsessed with racial purity.” The phrase “racial purity” is strange, since it’s “magical” purity that concerns Voldemort; he doesn’t like magical and nonmagical folks to mix. Plus, calling him “fascist” is odd, and the capitalization of “Dark” is unusual, as well, since “Dark” is not a proper noun in Rowling’s manuscripts.

Authorship

The writing on this article is nice, if a bit superfluous, with words like “eponymous” and “subjugate.” Then again, the majority of people reading this article would probably enjoy the literary twists. The article does a great job of breaking up an intricate plot, though, and bringing it down to the most important details.

It outlines the first three books in the section “Introduction to the wizarding world” and the last four books in “Voldemort returns.” Considering every book is over 300 pages, and most of them are over 600 pages, condensing this content down into a readable format is praise-worthy. There is also a section for “Supplementary works,” for the charity books.

Usability

This is a very manageable guideline for the mammoth books. If you were using it to write a short article about something Harry Potter — say, the next movie release — it would provide enough background that you could write about the movie without embarrassing yourself in front of the millions of fans. It’s also presented in an easy-to-follow way, as the subheads help guide. There’s a summary section, a “Theme” section, a history section, even a translation section. It’s a good rudimentary article.

Conclusion

The article reads smoothly, cohesively and informatively. It doesn’t offer anything new for the hardcore fan, but for a journalist who needs a little Harry Potter 4-1-1, it’ll be an invaluable guide.

— Amy Guyer, Harry Potter reader of eight years

The Boy Scouts of America

The Boy Scouts of America has come a long way from its beginnings in 1910. Today, as a group that is touted as the largest youth organization in the United States, the BSA is nearly ingrained as an American tradition on par with baseball and apple pie. If the BSA is really as large (both in membership and in the psyches of citizens) as this claim purports, it follows that its encyclopedic references are similarly behemoth. In terms of Wikipedia, this is true.

Accuracy of content

Covering everything from the organization’s origins to current membership statistics, the article is exhaustive in scope yet provides a digestible overview of the organization.

One of the reoccurring criticisms of Wikipedia is the validity of content provided by unvetted site users. As much of the content in this article is mined directly from the Boy Scouts’ national Web site, it’s difficult to question the accuracy of the material. However, consider that any organization, be it business or nonprofit, presents itself in the best possible light on its Web site. Therefore, it’s not surprising there is only passing reference to the high-profile discrimination claims that have been made against the organization. (Note: There is a separate Wiki article called “Boy Scouts of America membership controversies” that details such issues.)

Finally, it was surprising to discover the article’s omission of the highly suspect story of how BSA founder William Boyce initially encountered the Scouting program in England. This story, steeped in obvious folklore, is recounted in many BSA circles, including its handbook for youth. However, the legend (and it really is just that) is not recounted in the article. In fact, the section on the BSA’s origins is relatively brief.

Authorship

One of the other critiques of Wikipedia is the presence of multiple authors for any given article, leading to questions of writing style cohesiveness, among other concerns. The BSA article does well not to obviously mix writing styles, assuming multiple authors. It’s not a stretch to say the article, or at least large portions of it, was written by people with a long, educated history with the BSA, even paid professionals in the national office.

Usability

Those looking to Wikipedia content for general information about the BSA will find a plethora of information. This is true for people writing introductory academic pieces as well as parents or youth interested in becoming involved with the organization. However, for in-depth research, both of a scholarly and journalistic nature, the BSA article should be used for quick reference, never as a primary source.

For example, membership statistics in the article, although garnered from the BSA office, can be misleading. How many youth are double counted when they are registered as both Boy Scouts and Venture Scouts, which is possible? Do membership statistics account for the presence of fraud by a few untrustworthy professionals, who have, in the past, registered fictitious troops? This information will not be reported by the BSA on its Web site, and is therefore lost in the Wikipedia article.

One strength, however, in terms of usability, is the presence of numerous correlated Wikipedia articles on the BSA. These tend to be less general and focus more on one thematic topic, such as noteworthy Eagle Scouts or controversial membership policies, and seem to use more sources external to the BSA.

Conclusion

Although the content of the article is certainly encyclopedic in nature, the reoccurring assessment of Wikipedia as a credible reference source remains. The article is a good beginning for journalistic or scholarly research on the BSA, but writers should reference the site with caution and use the article only as a jumping-off point for more in-depth, credible and objective sources of information.

— Scott Leadingham, Eagle Scout, former BSA camp program director

Society of Professional Journalists

What better Wiki article to critique than our own organization? After all, when you Google “Society of Professional Journalists,” it’s the fourth hit, after variants of our own Web site.

Accuracy of content

While the content is accurate, the spectrum of content is a bit baffling. Why mention that “the organization helped foster the creation of the American Reporter, the first electronic Internet-only newspaper” and not our annual conference or helpful programs?

Authorship

The meagerness of the article aside, the writing is mixed, with very short, bare-bones sentences. There is also this strange bit: “the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards, which honour excellence in journalism.” “Honour” is the British spelling; why would our American journalism organization, based on First Amendment Constitutional rights, have a British spelling?

Usability

This article is pretty pointless. It gives someone a brief idea of what we are, but not enough to write about it. I wouldn’t want someone using this to write a paper about our organization. It doesn’t offer anything worth knowing. Maybe we’ll beef it up after this issue goes out.

Conclusion

While there are no real untruths in this article, it doesn’t accurately represent the organization. Fortunately, Wiki is a user-run site and we can go in and help it better represent our organization.

— Amy Guyer, Quill Managing Editor

Nick Carter

Nick Carter is a member of the Backstreet Boys, a music group that spearheaded the teen pop craze of the late ‘90s/early 2000s. With sales of over 75 million worldwide and a devoted fanbase, the group received a great deal of media coverage and had an audience to pore through it all in the years before Wikipedia was established.

Accuracy of content

The content is oddly thorough in some regards and sparse in others. Pointless trivia is mentioned early in the article (a split-second appearance as an extra in “Edward Scissorhands”, for instance), while the most iconic period of his life, his time in the Backstreet Boys from 1998-2001, is glossed over in two paragraphs. There is a remarkable lack of citations in the first half of the article and some notable misinformation — an inflated number of records sold worldwide, and incorrect details about the Backstreet Boys’ formation.

As the article moves on to incidents that occurred after Wikipedia was established, the accuracy and citations measurably improve, although they’re still poor relative to other Wikipedia articles. The article is also distinctly biased. It takes care to mention women Carter’s been linked with (many of which are mere rumors), but fails to cover his known arrests.

Authorship

The writing is equally scattered, running from oddly conversational (“Look for him, he’s the kid on the slip and slide.”) to formal (“It is said that in several auditions, Nick met AJ McLean and Howie Dorough...”). The tenses throughout the article are inconsistent, and sentence structure is often awkward. While following a mostly chronological order, the general structure of the biography section is still disorganized, with confusing subsections and inexplicable condensations.

Usability

This is an awkward guide to Nick Carter. The very basic details (date of birth, appearance) are accurate, but as a guideline to his career, it is overall rather misleading. Furthermore, someone looking for a brief synopsis would have a difficult time weeding through the irrelevant details.

Conclusion

The article is disjointed, placing unnecessary emphasis on odd trivia while getting more important facts wrong. The writing is also shoddy, and the clear bias that is apparent inspires distrust as to the accuracy of the entire article. All in all, a disappointing overview.

— Sabrina Sharif , Backstreet Boy follower of 10 years

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