Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Do Wikis Work?

Nature has examined the efficacy of Wikipedia (actually, accuracy would be a better word). Compared to Encyclopedia Britannica, wikis fair quite well when it comes to science articles:
"The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three."
Wikipedia often gets a lot of bad press for the gross errors -- such as people editing their own entries with alterior motives or providing misinformation -- but the Nature study revealed four major errors from each encyclopedia in the 50 entries examined. Nature sent out unlabeled entries from both Britannica and Wikipedia to experts in fields relating to the entries; these entries included Australopithecus africanus, Cambrian explosion, Dolly, Kin selection, Ernst Mayr, Mutation, Punctuated equilibrium (these are the entries that would probably interest regular readers of this blog).

One major complaint about wikis is not the content, but the manner of presentation:
"Editors at Britannica would not discuss the findings, but say their own studies of Wikipedia have uncovered numerous flaws. 'We have nothing against Wikipedia,' says Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications at the company's headquarters in Chicago. 'But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written. There are lots of articles in that condition. They need a good editor.'"
The article seems to suggest, however, that the wikis don't so much need editors, as more experts writing articles. While armchair scientists may have some knowledge about a particular field, the experts would be able to add an extra dimension that people outside of the research community lack. I can see the Wikipedia entries being more akin to informal reviews that are distilled for the general public.

Nature also has a short report on this story.


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