Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Wikid Stupid

Recently I was foraging for new online images to use in a lecture, and, as so often happens, I ended up on a Wikipedia page. On this particular page, some of the information for a rather basic scientific topic was incorrect to the point of being bizarre.

Did I correct it? No, I did not. Once upon a time I would edit incorrect information that I encountered on Wikipedia science pages, but a couple of years ago I gave up because every time I deleted or altered an obviously incorrect statement from an entry, the incorrect information would reappear very quickly. Additional attempts to edit the incorrect information always met with the same result: the incorrect statements reappeared.

These unfixable entries do not concern controversial topics or even matters on which there is some reasonable uncertainty. The entries I am discussing do not even involve popular topics of interest to non-scientists (e.g. penguins, planets). I am talking about basic facts that you would have to be aggressively ignorant to believe, much less to re-assert after being corrected. I only made changes on pages that were directly related to my research specialty.

This is not an anti-wiki rant. I think the concept is excellent, and surely Wikipedia overall provides more useful (and correct) information than not. I sometimes wonder, though:

Who are these people who create incorrect science entries and refuse to let them be improved/corrected?

Surely that goes against the wiki philosophy? When I look at the list of changes for pages I have been unable to correct, I can see that there is a rather small group of people 'guarding' these entries.

Ideally, my students would be able to look at a flawed Wikipedia entry on a topic we have discussed in the course, and see the errors. I haven't done that yet as an exercise, but it might be interesting to try.


Anonymous said...

Wikipedia suffers from severe inertia. I'm a very active editor and have found that making substantial changes to articles is nearly impossible when there is an "old guard" already in place. After spending nearly two weeks of this past summer attempting to rewrite the article on Buddhism, I gave up.

I don't blame individual editors for this; the nature of the wiki, in this case, seems to discourage contributions. Frankly, the vast majority of edits that I deal with personally are negative ones, whether they're outright vandalism or test edits or just plain wrong. Of over 8K edits that I've made, at least a thousand of those are reversions of vandalism, the introduction of errors and other edits that decrease the quality of articles. At a certain point, it's so frustrating that it's tempting to just freeze articles in time. They won't improve, but they also won't deteriorate.

Anonymous said...

I've had the same experience with my corrections being reversed back to incorrect information.

What was even worse was when several scientific pages I heavily contributed to were flagged for deletion for being "too detailed -- this is a general encyclopedia." (The pages in question, while specific to my subdiscipline, were far less detailed than some highly informative wikipedia pages on statistics. What they were was heavily referenced, including many links to open access full-text articles) Luckily, a few of them were resurrected on Citizendium. I am not sure Citizendium is the answer, but there is a bit too much democracy in wikipedia. Since it's designed to be an infinitely expandable encyclopedia, why should anyone care if certain sections (cough, comic book history) are more detailed earlier in the process than other parts?

The real problem is that wikipedia has replaced all other forms of research for students, or is at least the first place they look. I received an email from a high school student asking for a summer research position, and every scientific word was a link to wikipedia page. As in, I am interested in working on [link to organism name], specifically [link to species name]. I guess the student was trying to impress me with his research. I took the opportunity to highlight the incorrect parts of the linked entries in my reply to the student... hopefully it will have some impact on him and he'll tell his friends that you can't trust every chapter and verse in wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

Could you maybe point us to one of these pages, without compromizing your anonymity?

I think that you have enough readers to try some experiments with wikipedia

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia is an opinion poll, nothing more.

Janus Professor said...

When grading lab reports, my husband will check the bibliography for wiki-references. Any infractions lead to points deducted, which, hopefully, has a direct impact on how the student views wiki-sources.

Anonymous said...

I think that the idea of having students find errors in wikipedia entries is a great one. That would teach both the material, and the flaws in that type of reference site.

Also, shouldn't there be a way to appeal so that correct information is allowed to remain? That someone can just as easily change corrected information seems just wrong. Perhaps someone should start a website pointing out errors on wikipedia. You could read an entry and then check the "watchdog" site to make sure what you read was accurate.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Nicholson Baker wrote a very funny article for the NYRB last week, in which he discussed some of the Wiki abuses. I enjoyed the temporary entry on "bedbugs" before it was reverted:


Anonymous said...


there's a page like this for all 150 pokemon. i can think of no better way to discredit Wikipedia than to share this information.

mentaer said...

After taking part on at least one discussion where wiki admins came with the argument of "non-relevance" for a complete article (not mine fortunately). I started to rewrite only small portions of wiki text when I see errors in it. But then I never check back if the changes are "accepted". So I can't blame myself not having tried too improve "the world".

However, I found it in the last time interesting to check the discussion entries for a wikipedia page, as this may contain some hint on missing information and problems

Anonymous said...

Obviously different fields are different.

I continue to be impressed by the high quality of most Wikipedia entries in math and physics topics, and I often point my students to these topics, either to clarify lecture points which didn't go well, or as starting points for term-project research.

I always warn students to beware of Wikipedia (and any other source) on "controversial" topics, eg anything to do with current political issues, or anything with significant "passionate believers" (eg creationism or "intelligent design"). But for "non-controversial" topics in math & physics I find the median Wikipedia entry, and even the lower 10th percentile, to be pretty good. I'm sorry to hear things are so much worse on other topics.

-- Jonathan Thornburg,
School of Mathematics, University of Southampton (UK)

Anonymous said...

I think your idea of having your students participate in an activity where they find incorrect entrees in a Wikipedia article is an excellent idea. High school students should also have to do this activity so they don't fall into the wiki trap as they go forward in their education.

I guess Wikipedia is the new Google to find general information on various topics? But it's much harder to change Wikipedia into a verb like Googled has become. :)