An American Editor

August 21, 2015

Worth Reading: Is Wikipedia Reliable?

Need to know whether a “fact” is really a “fact”? A lot of editors turn to Wikipedia. Is that what an editor should do?

A recent study, written by Adam Wilson and Gene Likens, regarding Wikipedia’s reliability was published August 14, 2015 in the journal PLoS ONE and is well worth reading:

Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale

I admit I rarely look at Wikipedia and have never been comfortable with crowd-sourced “research”, but I attribute that to a generational hangup. Yet perhaps there is some reason to be cautious.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

11 Comments »

  1. I use Wikipedia heavily, and love it. But I do not consider it a primary resource. It’s an excellent starting point for tracking down the answer to most any question. If I just want a general idea about something for personal reasons, it’s usually adequate. When I truly need to know something for work or making a decision, though, I’ll verify the information through multiple other sources.

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    Comment by Carolyn — August 21, 2015 @ 5:58 am | Reply

  2. It’s what the OUP does:
    http://gizmodo.com/oxford-university-press-plagiarized-wikipedia-now-who-1724538623

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    Comment by Nate — August 21, 2015 @ 6:42 am | Reply

  3. Back when Encyclopaedia Brittanica existed, a comparison was made between it and Wikipedia. Wikipedia came out better, with fewer errors. Of course, the more contested the topic, the more likely it is that there is a behind the scenes editing war — but you can also look at the page edits if you believe that may be the case, and the sources at the bottom of the page are useful as a stepping-off point. Anyone who looks at ANY site expecting “the final truth” deserves to be disappointed.

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    Comment by L McPhee — August 21, 2015 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  4. I rarely use Wikipedia for real research. Many publishers do not consider it trustworthy for fact checking in the educational publishing field. I will look at certain answers for something real quick, but in general, I want some proof that the content is legitimate.

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    Comment by Caryl Wenzel — August 21, 2015 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  5. I don’t trust it, and I often limit my searches online by adding (in Google) -“wiki.” If I’m researching something obscure and pull up nothing but Wikipedia, I might look at an article’s references and follow those links.

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    Comment by Katharine Wiencke — August 21, 2015 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  6. I agree with most of the above comments. I may read it, but I rarely rely on it for factual accuracy. The fact that anyone can post/edit anything on it
    is disastrous from a journalistic standpoint and for reliable publishing.
    Case in point: We (ICS Publications) are the English-language publisher for the collected works of Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), 1891-1942. Someone pointed out to me that the entry for her parents is laughable — it lists Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a still-living married Melkite Catholic priest! McCarthy has a connection to her because the cure of his daughter was used on behalf of Stein’s canonization. But any thinking editor/poster would have to wonder how a living 21st century person in his 50s could be PARENT of a woman born in….1891, if for no other reason questionable!
    Unfortunately, we’ve tried numerous times to correct, get entry fixed, send corrections. Nothing.
    Just more proof, if needed, Wikipedia may be OK for some quick factoids but even then is NOT reliable!
    Keep using those multiple sources!

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    Comment by Patricia Lynn Morrison — August 21, 2015 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

    • @Patricia Lynn Morrison, my guess is you’re referring to this passage: “The miracle which was the basis for her canonization was the cure of Teresa Benedicta McCarthy, a little girl who had swallowed a large amount of paracetamol (acetaminophen), which causes hepatic necrosis. Her father, Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, immediately rounded up relatives and prayed for St. Teresa’s intercession.”

      My reading of the second sentence is that the writer meant to identify Rev. McCarthy as the father of Teresa Benedicta McCarthy, but used a vague pronoun that might lead some readers to think he is being identified as Stein’s father.

      That being the case, it’s easily rectified. I’ve changed the sentence to “The young girl’s father, Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, immediately rounded up relatives and prayed for St. Teresa’s intercession.”

      Does that solve this particular problem?

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      Comment by ldaviseditor — August 21, 2015 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

      • Yes, that certainly clarifies it. It doesn’t, however, correct the inaccurate listing in Wikipedia — which we’ve been trying unsuccessfully
        to correct for months! Also, even though the reference to McCarthy is understandable from the quote you cite, anyone putting a bio blurb
        on Wikipedia should have done their due diligence to find and list Edith Stein’s parents correctly, not rely on a second-generation source
        like that mentioned.
        I find Wikipedia sloppy and factually dangerous!
        Thanks for taking the time to note the possible source quote that caused the confusion.

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        Comment by Patricia Lynn Morrison — August 21, 2015 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

        • I’m not sure what you mean by an “inaccurate listing,” but if you can provide a URL to the page that is in error, I can take a look.

          I’m looking at the article on Stein, found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Stein. The passage I noted and corrected was the only one in this article that referred to Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. Therefore, I did not note “the possible source quote,” as you put it; rather, I clarified the actual content of the Wikipedia article. It wasn’t even an error, in the strictest sense, but a vague pronoun that could cause the sentence to be misunderstood.

          For what it’s worth, the only reference in the article to Stein’s father can be found under “Early life”: “Though her father died while she was young, her widowed mother was determined to give her children a thorough education and consequently sent Edith to study at the University of Breslau.” Neither of her parents is named.

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          Comment by ldaviseditor — August 21, 2015 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  7. I do use Wikipedia to check a fact, though it’s not my only stop. Of course, the very fact that I’m turning to any source to check the fact in the manuscript suggests the BS detector is already armed and scanning! So if the content of the Wikipedia article seems dubious, I’m looking for the citations and, wherever possible, following *them* up. I find it useful as a starting point.

    A recent copyediting experience served to point out a couple of weaknesses with Wikipedia.

    In a book about ice hockey, the author wrote that the Chicago Blackhawks, a team founded in 1926, had gone through 18 different coaches in its first 18 seasons. I’m a hockey history buff, so I knew the original owner of the Chicago team was a meddler given to firing coaches on an impulse, but that number still seemed high.

    So I pulled a number of sources from my bookshelves, consulted official sources such as the team’s website and that of the National Hockey League, and even looked at a Wikipedia article listing all the coaches of the Chicago Blackhawks. I found that my sources (the Wikipedia page included) agreed the number was 13. So I queried the author.

    A couple of weeks later the file came back for cleanup. The author had responded that her research yielded the number 18, and she included a citation referencing a book published in 2000. The formatting of the citation resembled those found in Wikipedia articles, and with that in mind I was able to quickly find a Wikipedia page about the first owner of the Blackhawks, containing the erroneous fact and the very same citation.

    So my first observation is that Wikipedia — like many other sources — is capable of propagating errors that have been previously published. And because this particular error was supported by a citation, I suspect it was able to go unchallenged.

    My other observation is that Wikipedia is such a sprawling resource that it’s entirely possible to find articles with contradictory information on the same subject. Here we have an instance where contributors to one article had done their homework and provided accurate information. But unless one is aware of the article about the owner, one can’t correct the error.

    What also troubled me about this instance, though, is that the author seemed content to rely on a single source for a fact. And reliance on the single-sourced “fact” when presented with what I thought to be a compelling list of reliable sources to the contrary. All I could do was take note of the difference of opinion in my memo to the managing editor, and report that I had reluctantly stetted the error in deference to the author’s inalienable right to be wrong.

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    Comment by ldaviseditor — August 21, 2015 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  8. As Carolyn said, it’s an excellent starting point. If I edited academic work, I’d probably be more careful, but for fiction I find it’s great for verifying place names, brand names, etc. And usually you can track from there to a primary source website, so I find it’s great🙂

    Like

    Comment by Anne Victory — August 24, 2015 @ 3:46 pm | Reply


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