Yesterday's BBC News reported on a study to test Wikipedia's accuracy.
Two recent scandals have given rise to issues of credibility about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is manned by volunteers. Questions were raised as to whether it was as trustworthy a source as, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica.
As a result, the "British journal Nature examined a range of scientific entries on both works of reference." Nature conducted a peer review of the scientific entries in Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. "The reviewers were asked to check for errors, but were not told the source of the information." (BBC)
The results were somewhat surprising. "'Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia,' reported Nature."
"But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements." There were 162 such mistakes in Wikipedia and 123 in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
One of the complaints about Wikipedia was that entries were "often poorly structured and confused."
The Encyclopedia Britannica refused to comment on the study, although they did take a potshot at Wikipedia, saying that the open source encyclopedia had lots of poorly written articles and needed a good editor.
For his part, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, seemed encouraged. Nature quoted him as saying, "'We're hoping it [the study] will focus people's attention on the overall level of our work, which is pretty good.'"
Frankly, I was surprised. I was raised to regard the Encyclopedia Britannica as the gold standard by which other informational sources could be judged. To hear that there were four "serious" science errors in it came as a bit of a shock.
In thinking about it, I find myself wondering if science is changing at such a rapid rate that it makes it difficult to stay on top of the entries. Which, of course, leads to the question: What about the other categories beyond science?
I've said it before and will say it again. Wikipedia is a great place to START your research, especially when you don't have a clue as to the terms you'll need for a broader search.
Jimmy Wales himself was recently asked whether students and researchers should cite Wikipedia. His response: "No, I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either -- the error rate there isn't very good. People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level." (BusinessWeek Online)
Take that, Britannica.