Monday, February 26, 2007

Despite ease of use, Wikipedia is still a gamble

Despite ease of use, Wikipedia is still a gamble
By David Ryan

There's no denying the allure of Wikipedia. The Web's premier open-source encyclopedia that anyone can edit is easy to use, it's free, and the selection of information available is seemingly endless.

For instance, if you ever need to know how to say ''I ate my cat'' in any particular language, Wikipedia author ''Ardonik'' has you covered.

''I've had a page like this in mind for a long time now,'' the entry reads. ''However, I thought that it would take several years to do the research, make the phone calls, and send the e-mails required to complete this list.''
But then ''Ardonik'' found Wikipedia, and the quest for translations began. ''Before long, I realized that out of all these Wikipedians, someone, somewhere had to know how to translate 'I ate my cat' into any given language,'' the entry continues, asking, ''Are you that someone?''

If you know, get on it -- perform a Google search and help the cause.
While Wikipedia is good for a cheap laugh (has anyone ever been in a position that they've needed to explain such an occurrence in Polish?), it is one of the problems facing its entire being.

With anyone, anywhere, able to edit it, its credibility is zero. Though the entry for the Revolutionary War is factually correct in saying that it was a war between the United Kingdom and the 13 colonies, it could later state that it was a war between Oompa Loompas and The Monkees.

Stephen Colbert, host of ''The Colbert Report,'' made himself enemies with the online encyclopedia twice over, once for asking for viewers to change the entry of African elephants to say that they weren't nearing extinction, and that their population had tripled. After the windstorm blew over and the article was corrected, Colbert later asked users a second time to change the entry on ''reality'' to say that ''reality is a commodity.'' It was changed within seconds of airing.

Another instance of abuse is resulting in litigation with Josef Silny & Associates of Miami. Pro golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is suing the company after tracing an IP (a computer's Internet address) from a Wikipedia entry on him that changed information on his page to say that he routinely beat his wife and children under the influence of alcohol and drugs. The lawsuit filed says that John Doe, the Wikipedia author who is not yet known, edited the page to say ''Zoeller said in an interview with Golf Digest magazine that he hadn't beaten his wife in nearly five years.''

But with Wikipedia being a constant presence on basic searches on Google and Yahoo, students looking for information can be easily tricked into thinking something ''sounds'' credible, without going any further than the page on the site.
Such was the case for six students at Middlebury College in Vermont. History professor Neil Waters noticed that all of the students incorrectly cited information about the Shimabara Rebellion in 17th-century Japan. According to Waters in a New York Times article, the Jesuits were in ''no position to aid a revolution,'' adding that the few of them in Japan were in hiding. Now the college's history department has banned the citing of Wikipedia as a source for papers.

In a few of my classes, teachers have already stressed not to use Wikipedia as a source, and that doing so would result in an undesirable grade. If you've ever found yourself in a position where a four-page term paper is due within the hour, with five chapters of reading material in your textbook to go over to write it, the online encyclopedia can be an incredibly attractive source of information.

If you have to, go ahead and use it -- just don't cite the information listed on the page. Take it upon yourself to verify the information made available on the page.
Even though I utilize all of the academic features the college makes available on the libraries' Web site (Lexis Nexis, J-Stor, etc) I myself have used Wikipedia as a springboard for sources, pictures and information. On each page, posted materials usually have corresponding links to Web sites, news articles or journal entries where the information came from. Only use information you can verify, citing the more reliable, credible source of information.

The Internet, created to be a global meeting place for ideas and information, is a shaky place. Wikipedia, while a novel idea, is trapped in a world of faceless authors who are free to change, update or delete information in seconds. Its own design is its own flaw.

On the entry for the site itself, the page explains that ''Two scholarly studies have concluded that vandalism is generally short-lived, and that Wikipedia is roughly as accurate as other online encyclopedias.''

It's just too bad you couldn't cite that to your professor.

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