Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Open letter: Response to ST article "Slice of Singapore on Wikipedia" (1 Apr 2007)

There was a Straits Times article titled "Slice of Singapore on Wikipedia", by Jocelyn Lee (1 April 2007). Check with your library or use a service like ASK! if you are interested in reading the full article. I've posted a summary of the article below. I'm jumping one step ahead by posting this open letter to the journalist:

Hello Joycelyn Jocelyn ,

My name is Ivan, aka RamblingLibrarian to my friends. I enjoyed your story on Wikipedia. I believe the point of the article was to inform people of the "dangers" of using Wikipedia and the inherent dangers of wikis. It's a good thing to raise awareness among your readers -- especially students -- on potential pitfalls of over-reliance on any one given information source.

If I've any "grouse", it's that a more balanced picture could be made about wiki-based information sources. Your story may lead people to conclude that wiki-based information sources are not legitimate.

I'm suggesting that one should not dismiss Wikipedia entries outright. The problem is maybe citing Wikipedia as THE only source (i.e. laziness of the user). It has less to do with Wikipedia per se.

The "danger" of using wikipedia is the same as using any website, where one can be over-reliant on one single source without verifying it with supporting information. How rigorous we choose to exercise this verification process is a separate issue.

Some articles (like this and this one) have suggested that Wikipedia may even be more reliable that traditional sources, or at least there's no conclusive way to prove that wiki-sources are less reliable.

The strength of a wiki is also its weakness, depending on perspectives. You've correctly pointed out that a wiki "allows the Internet community to contribute or modify entries". In a general sense, anyone can modify the wiki's content. Any information verified today might have been changed the next, perhaps maliciously. Another "weakness" is that there is no rigorous vetting process, unlike traditional information sources.

But I'd argue that these are similar issues with website information (just that with websites, access to editing is less open). And for wikipedia, there's a way to cite the specific version of the information (see this post). If one bothers to explore the "history" of the article, one can track the changes to the information -- this feature is not available in most websites. Again, I point out that all information sources requires some sort of verification.

Your story mentions how our national sport hero, Ang Peng Siong, had an entry in Wikipedia. Mr Ang was quoted as saying "At least the history of my life is shared with the generations to come...Hopefully they will be inspired by my story as well".

What soon follows was about one factual error -- the year where his 1982 freestyle world record (50m) of 19.86 seconds was formalised at the 1986 Fina World Swimming Championships, and not 1987 as stated. Then the statement that "Mr Ang's case is just one of many examples of the errors and inaccuracies which have crept onto the site".

I think one error doesn't not make an entry (or source) irrelevant. Frankly, I didn't even know an organisation like Fina existed, or that world records needed to be formalised, never mind the year. And the statement that there are "many errors and inaccuracies" reminds me of my bosses asking me this question when I make similar remarks: "How many exactly, compared to the total?" : )

Sometimes, a wikipedia entry is preferred over what's available from print or online sources. For example, I was looking for the discography for Guns N' Roses (Gn'R). What seems to be official Gn'R sites were terrible as a resource. This one ( is merely a landing page. This is mainly a tour calendar ( and this is more for publicity ( The more relevant sites were these three:

Of the three, I felt the and the Wikipedia entries were better. And between these two, the Wikipedia entry was more comprehensive.

The point was that I've evaluated the Wikipedia entry against other sites (rather than take at face value) and it fitted the context of what I considered as "adequate information".

I hope you don't see this as a rant. As I said, I like what you're doing, to remind your readers about the pitfalls of a wiki-based information source. Ultimately, they have to make an informed choice.

Perhaps as a follow-up story, you could let your readers know that wikis do not equate only to wikipedia. Wikipedia is but a "brand name". The wiki tool has been applied to an information resource listed as encyclopedic entries. Wikis can be applied in other ways, so long the need is to have community-contributed and managed content.

Case in point, i.e. shameless plug, this recent experiment called the Singapore Social Media Directory (background here).

Here's another example of a community-collaborated page, where content is posted by individuals who have content to share, and who don't have the time (or in my case, the technical expertise) to create a website to allow multiple authors or hosting of files or maintaining an audit trial of edits to the document.

Every information tool and resource have their pros and cons. It's not a question of the tool, but how we choose to accept and use that information.

Thanks, and best regards,

Here are highlights from the article in the Straits Times, "Slice of Singapore on Wikipedia", by Jocelyn Lee (1 April 2007).
  • The story starts by pointing out that "local personalities" and "uniquely Singaporean terms like 'kiasu'" can be found in Wikipedia.
  • Cites entry on 50m world record holder, Ang Peng Siong: "The 44-year-old swimming coach was not aware that he could be found on Wikipedia."
  • Also cites an error in the entry (discussed in the Open Letter above).
  • Quote: "Mr Ang's case is just one of many examples of the errors and inaccuracies which have crept onto the site."
  • Quote: "Because of its nature, the website has had its share of significant misinformation and juvenile vandalism."
  • Cites the case (in 2006) of former USA Today editor, John Seigenthaler, being erroneously accused in a Wikipedia entry of being involved in the murders of senator Kennedy and president John F. Kennedy. Wikipedia was forced to tighten submission rules.
  • Cites recent case (in 2007) how the credibility of Wikipedia was questioned again when news of one respected editor was deemed to have misled people about his qualifications.
  • Quotes Dr. Mark Cenite, assistant chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information: "When students are doing research projects, they should not cite Wikipedia as anyone can edit the content there"
  • Ends with a mention of how co-founder of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, has started an
  • alternative called Citizendium (which attempts to introduce greater editorial rigor to entries).

1 comment:

  1. enthymeme7:28 pm

    Wikipedia is a great resource for pointing the clueless in the right direction. Most articles (excepting obvious cases of vandalism or neutrality disputed political issues) are well written, well-sourced, and pleasantly edited for style. As a beginner's tool or a precis of any subject you find yourself coming to there is none better. One example I could give is the wiki article on the Iranian seizure of Royal Navy personnel in disputed waters off the Shatt al-Arab. Searching Lexis and international law textbooks brings one no closer to answering some of the questions I thought central to the incident (e.g., the status of the waterway; protocol for alleged border incursions in maritime disputes; right to consular access in such an event and Convention protections accorded to non-adverse parties in which the Detaining Power is not a party to a conflict.)

    The last two were illumined easily enough by standard texts on the subject, but the first two were specialist questions on which very little has been written in general international law textbooks or Lexis for that matter (very little that was relevant at least). Wiki had skipped my mind until then, but when I did a search for the incident on Wikipedia - my last port of call - naturally there was a page documenting the incident and something I should have consulted from the beginning: it had a carefully sourced section on the status of the waterway citing the relevant treaties in force and commentary from the International Boundary Research Unit at Durham, plus questionable dicta from some less persuasive authorities.

    Comprehensive if nothing else.

    As it happens, no other resource even came close to addressing all aspects of the incident with comparable concision and rigour.

    I believe _most_ (non-hot button) articles on wiki are of similar standard. It is remarkable robust, it is self-correcting, and it has the biggest pool of encyclopedists and the world has ever assembled (every expert on a subject with internet access is a potential contributor). Given that it is editorially self-policing, concerns about editorial rigour may be well placed; even if overblown. For my part I feel that Wikipedia's strengths (opensourcing, self-policing) far exceed the demerits of its editorial structure.

    To be sure, use the resource with caution and a little bit of scepticism, but detractors are missing the point when they overlook how especially helpful the resource can be pointing beginners or users in the right direction with its amalgation of sources and citations (anyone with half a brain can indepedently verify these citations - the point of research, surely).

    The irony is that for journalists, Wikipedia is probably their first stop for background information on any given subject. Journalists google, and googling is only one stepped removed from wiki-ing, as it were.


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