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Humanist Archives: Jan. 24, 2019, 6:29 a.m. Humanist 32.374 - the question on Wikipedia

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 374.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Ken Friedman 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.363: the question on Wikipedia (130)

    [2]    From: Tim Smithers 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.363: the question on Wikipedia (82)

        Date: 2019-01-23 21:38:51+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.363: the question on Wikipedia

Dear Colleagues,

A few short comments may shed light on three recent replies to my notes and

1) James Cummings wrote: "Although Encyclopedia Britannia has been mentioned I
haven't seen much reference to the (now quite dated, I think) comparative
studies which found wikipedia to be significantly more accurate on random
sampling because of its ease of updating."

There has never been a study to my knowledge that found a truly random sample of
Wikipedia articles more accurate than a random sample of articles from the
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. If anyone knows of such a study, I'd like to read

All studies known to me show *selected* articles in Wikipedia to be nearly as
accurate as *selected* articles in Britannica. No study known to me shows
greater accuracy.

James continues, "...on balance I'd rather choose the dumbed-down existence
with wikipedia than the out-of-date existence of any print encyclopedias."

To me, this is not the choice. To speak of a "dumbed-down" reference work
suggests an accurate, up-to-date project that simply suffers from being badly
written. To speak of a print encyclopaedia as inevitably out-of-date suggests
that print encyclopaedias were written ten years prior to the latest scientific

In my experience, relatively few Wikipedia articles draw on current peer-
reviewed literature. Wikipedia is as likely to be out-of-date as any major
reference work. And Britannica, like many reference works, is no longer a print
encyclopaedia. Britannica and many other works are now delivered online, and
articles are updated far more often than was possible when editions were only
available on paper.

Some specialised print encyclopaedias continue to exist. In fields that do not
update as often as technology or the natural sciences, this makes little

But despite the potentially rapid updates and frequent churn that mark Wikipedia
articles, I don't see an advantage to articles in any field that are brought
up to date with incorrect information.

2) Maurizio Lana's reply suggested an ideal solution:

> hi ken,

> i was thinking of addressing your question about the reliability of
wikipedia, when speaking of articles about fascism and Resistance in the recent
Italian history.

> but your reply seems to explain that what you would like is one or more
/solution/ to the problems of reliability of wikipedia. i think that the only
solution is what i was recalling: that is a continuous (continual!) action of
people who (re)build the knowledge content of the articles.

> this is implicit in the openness of the contributions to wikipedia: various
forms of lack of reliability (whole articles or part of articles) which are
original (poor quality of knowledge of the contributor/s) or subsequent
(defacement of previous correct content).

> we need a constant abundant flux of good, correct content in order to
minimize the relevance of bad content. what in turn implies a social
responsibility towards the digital environment we all live in."

In my view, Maurizio is quite right. This would be an ideal solution if
Wikipedia were to work this way. The problem is that it doesn’t happen.
Wikipedia does not show a constant flux of correct content. Once an article
reaches a relatively stable state, the Wikipedia system tends to revert back to
the stable version of the article, rejecting good content and improvements as
well as rejecting problem contributions.

3) Henry Schaffer mentioned the often cited Nature article on Wikipedia, (Giles,
Jim. 2005. "Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head to Head." Nature, Vol. 438, pp.
900-901, 15 December.) The summary he quoted is from an index. The full
article appears here:


The summary is mistaken in stating that "Wikipedia comes close to
Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries."

Giles's article did not compare all science entries. He compared 42 selected
articles in Wikipedia with 42 articles in Encyclopaedia Britannica. The notion
that this was a scientific study published in Nature is an often-repeated but
incorrect myth. Giles’s article was not a peer reviewed study published IN
Nature. It was a speculative foray by a journalist working for Nature. It was
comparable to John Bohannon’s sting project targeting predatory journals for
the journal Science. These differ to the peer reviewed articles for which Nature
and Science are famed. Many of the people who refer to the Wikipedia study seem,
mistakenly, to believe that it was a peer reviewed study published in Nature. It
was not.

Giles's "head-to-head" title was misleading. He did not compare the
encyclopaedias as a whole. Giles's survey compared only 42 articles out of what
was then a corpus of 3.7 million articles in 200 languages.

The sample size was so small that the article gave no valid information on the
reliability of Wikipedia as a whole. The articles in the study were selected
among the larger, more complete and comprehensive Wikipedia articles. These
could not have been a representative sample chosen from amongst all of the 3.7
million articles then available. It’s as if a journalist were to select 42
high performing amateur athletes from the top Olympic teams, and compare them
against professional athletes in the same sports. These athletes would compare
well against professionals. A representative selective of the world's millions
of amateur athletes would not compare well, not even against a selection of
professionals from the minor leagues of any sport.

Some Wikipedia articles are useful. But they change all the time. It’s more
than a matter of broken links. There seems to be no way to hold the content. The
Wikipedia system often interprets genuine improvements as disruptions, with
editors -- and bots -- reverting better states to worse states without reading
the content.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion on the value of Wikipedia. Even so,
the information in some comparative studies is flawed.



Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The
Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in
Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation
| Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Email ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com |
Academia http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I

        Date: 2019-01-23 21:05:47+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.363: the question on Wikipedia

Dear Willard,

I am, I fear, going to be somewhat polemical here.  Not
because I want to be (I don't) but because it's going to be
hard not to be.

Comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopaedia Britannica is, as I
see it, like comparing wild apples to privately and carefully
cultivated oranges.  This is unfair, and indicates a basic
confusion, I think.

Wikipedia is Common, (mostly) built by and for ordinary folk,
not by or for well trained and well practiced researchers and
scholars.  Encyclopaedia Britannica is Posh, built by a well
educated and pre-selected few, and (mostly) used by the
similarly, or, also-wanting-to-be, knowledgeable and

To have the idea that Wikipedia would be better if it were
made to match the reliability of Encyclopaedia Britannica, is
to be ignorant of, or ignoring of, this difference.  Any
suggestion that Wikipedia should be as reliable as Britannica
would be the Posh talking down to the Commoners.

Now, I admit, Wikipedia likes to make its entries look like
the Posh entries of Britannica, but we should not be taken in
by this superficial likeness.  It's natural for Commoners to
want to dress up like the Posh, and, in so doing, occasionally
take-the-piss.  And, I would say, it's _not_ for the Posh to
denounce this, nor complain about it.  Not unless they want to
have some rotten apples thrown at them for being so stuck-up.

If Wikipedia really isn't good enough for what you need,
either don't use it, or start mending it, and get others to
mend it too: lots of others.  This might be a way to
(eventually) have Wikipedia be better, and more reliable, but
it'll never equal the Great Britannica.  Supposing, that is,
that the Encyclopaedia Britannica is indeed as reliable as the
Posh who built it say it is.

Being Common, Wikipedia can be "improved" by any and all who
inhabit the Commons.  Being Posh, Britannica can only be
changed by a very select few, who are also the only people who
can tell if these changes improve it or not.  That's the
important difference.  Things can only be made as reliable as
those making them can judge what it takes to make the
something reliable.  And this, of course, for many things,
takes considerable knowledge and expertise, and a mind that
cares about doing this, and people who appreciate the
importance of doing so.  Posh things are needed for good
research and scholarship, but not all things need to be Posh
to work well enough.

To end: I deliberately chose this way of saying things so that
I could use 'Posh.'  I did this 'cos the Wikipedia [English]
page for Posh is useless: it doesn't explain that Posh is an
acronym, standing for, as I'm sure all here know, "Port-side
Out Starboard side Home" -- the Port side of the ship out to
India, or beyond, was the shady side, and thus the more
comfortable side to have your cabin, and the Starboard side
was the shady side on the way Home.

Like I said, Posh reliability needs sound knowledge and
expertise and disciplined practises.  And doing good research
requires one to dress properly for dinner, know how to use the
different cutlery correctly, and sustain honest well informed
conversation.  Eating carry-out Fish and Chips just doesn't.

Best regards,


PS: Oh, and, yes!  I use Wikipedia too ...  to look up the
size of A4 paper, who wrote the film score for Transformers,
when 1984 was written, what are the first several prime
numbers, what day was Beethoven born.  Stuff like that.

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