By the time you have finished reading this article, there will have already been over two additions and changes made amongst Wikipedia’s 1,675,968 entries. And that is only when accounting for articles written in English.
But how many of these entries are to be trusted? A recent incident involving a major editor on the site has raised some eyebrows, and has attracted much attention to the website as a reliable source of accurate information.
In March 2000, Wikipedia began as Nupedia.com, an online encyclopedia founded by Jimmy Wales. The site’s primary contributors were experts in their fields. The following January, a supplementary site, Wikipedia.com, was launched, and it allowed open access to its information databanks. By 2003, Wikipedia.com had far surpassed its sister site in entries, and Nupedia.com was abandoned. The website now boasts over 75,000 active contributors working on more than 5,300,000 articles in more than 100 languages. However, with so many users and contributors, some believe that the information on the site must be “used with caution,” said Lisa Boyd ’09.
Boyd, a research assistant at one of Cornell’s neurobiology labs, said that she had used the site in the past “for things in the news I’d been talking about with friends and wanted background information on,” and that, when it came to papers for her coursework, “it helps in giving you ideas of where to proceed.” Varun Parthasarathy grad said that in researching a new topic, he would always supplement background knowledge from the website with “more credible publications.” Both students stated they would never cite the website as a reference in their work.
The most recent incident reported involving the site surrounds one of its major editors, Ryan Jordan, who until last week, was known primarily by the online alias, “Essjay.” He was discovered to have edited articles on the website under false academic credentials, which included a PhD. in theology, among others. Sandra Ordonez, communication manager for Wikipedia.com, released a statement regarding the matter: “We regret what has happened and do not condone the duplicity of academic credentials in any way…experts are respected as people that know the reliable sources, so lying about credentials causes community outrage.” When asked about possible legal action to be taken against Jordan, Ordonez stated, “The Wikipedia Foundation is not taking any legal action against Jordan.”
Considering the copyright licensing protecting most of the site’s information, legal action from any party seems unlikely.
Prof. Ross Brann, Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies, said, “Scholarly literature is vetted, meaning that other scholars look at it before it is published. The work is sent to others to critique, and then it is decided whether or not it should be published.”
In contrast, in articles on Wikipedia.com, he said, “This [process] is completely removed…They could make up your life if they wanted to.” When asked about his opinion of Cornell students’ use of the site for their work, he said, “it has no place in the University,” and with regard to reactions to the recent incident, the professor said he would “be shocked if the academic community’s opinion has changed…this scandal is irrelevant. It’s a non-issue.”
Responses from Cornell students to the controversy varied. Daniel Priver ’09, said that his opinion had not changed since finding out about the “Essjay affair,” and that, insofar as his academic studies are concerned, “[He has] never cited it for anything because its not guaranteed to be reliable.” Parthasarathy, who after having been informed of the incident, also was “not really affected.”
“I don’t know where they get this information, but it’s there!” he said.
While students at Cornell may continue to use Wikipedia.com as an accessible, and, perhaps more importantly, free information-database, the controversy over Wikipedia’s reliability as an “online encyclopedia” continues to be unabated outside the student body.
Since the site’s January 2001 inception, at least one study has been conducted to test exactly how well the hundreds of thousands of web-pages, articles and other sources on Wikipedia.com match up to its leading, printed alternatives. According to an article published by BBC News, the 2005 test revealed mixed results from reviewers who read four of the site’s scientific articles and who then juxtaposed them with comparable, scholarly entries found in a well-established encyclopedia. While both sources reviewed had several factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements (162 and 123 in Wikipedia and the printed encyclopedia, respectively), entries on the website were criticized in particular for their often poorly-structured and confusing content.
Despite whatever downsides the site may or may not have, they do not seem to have affected its patronage, even after the recent “Essjay affair.” Perhaps this is because of people like Parthasarathy, who said, “Maybe sometime it has false information, but it usually has the information I’m looking for.” Whatever the cause of its growing popularity, the site seems to have acquired a niche in the online world that, for now at least, is here to stay.