Friday, August 04, 2006

Is there really a "problem" with using Wikis as information resources?

Just read this post by David Weinberger, on "Why believe Wikipedia?":
Simply by appearing in the Britannica, an article has credibility. But that's not true for Wikipedia because you might hit an article a moment after a loon has altered it. Yet, Wikipedia has (and deserves) credibility, in part because of its willingness to acknowledge its fallibility.

To understand the controversy surrounding Wikis, read this post by Ram Mohan on "The problem with Wikis" (I found the explanation clear and concise, and previously cited it at this Yesterday.SG post).

Some librarians feel that a resource like Wikipedia should not be cited as part of an answer to a customer (in response to their information enquiry). I'm not saying their concerns have no basis. I'm just saying that to discount a wiki entirely without first accessing the value of its content would be foolish. Unprofessional, even.

Sometimes, the wiki entry is even more comprehensive and better articulated that so-called "authorative sites". Sometimes it could be the only resource you can find on the Internet.

I think the unsaid worry among some librarians in citing a wiki entry is that the between the time you verify the content and the time the customer views it, the entry might be changed.

My view is that when librarians respond to an advisory or reference question, it is Okay to cite a Wikipedia entry -- provided we have done our due diligence in the usual verification and crosschecking of information.

We should not cite the wikipedia entry as the only information source. Our response should also be supplemented by other resources and references -- books and other published articles.

Most important, we should alert the customer to some known issues with wikis (i.e. a kind of advisory in itself), and let the user make their final informed choice with regards to the information available.

The Wikipedia today is a slightly different animal from its first incarnation. I suspect that as its popularity grows, its administrators also recognise an increased social responsiblity to maintain some form of standards. If you've read David Weinberger's post and seen the various "warning lables", you'd understand what I mean.

Also, there are these strange creatures known as "Wikipedia Administrators", to keep Wikipedia "safe", like this one (thanks to Kevin for a very interesting interview).

So to answer my own question: No, I don't see a problem with using information from Wikis as part of our response to users. It's only a problem if librarians/ users cite it without due diligence and professional judgement.

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  1. Thanks for bringing this up Ivan. It's important for us to fully understand something before being critical about it.

    Here's the definitive article from Nature journal comparing the accuracy of Britannica vs. Wikipedia. As you can see, the inaccuracies found in both is comparable, which is great news for Wikipedia which many think is more inaccurate. Don't forget that Wikipedia's ability to be updated more frequently also makes it more relevant than Britannica under certain situations. See

    Also, librarians should take responsibility to learn more about a new technology before dismissing it. It's almost criminal not to know that we can cite specific versions of a Wiki page, which means even if the page has been updated, the appropriate permalink will bring you to the EXACT page you cited.

    Finally, to add more usability to Wikipedia articles in research, the founders have recently added a "Cite this article" button on the left toolbar. This give you citations in MLA, APA and so on.

    As always, Wikipedia is a great place a starting point to your research, not a place to end it.

    BTW: For beginners, you can listen to an interesting radio interview introducing Wikipedia here:

  2. Hi Kevin, thanks for comments. I have to admit I didn't know that wiki allow users to cite specific versions. "Almost criminal"? LOL, ah you make it sound so serious even I'm scared! heh heh. Actually it's not just librarians who have to "take responsibility to learn more about a new technology before dismissing it". I'd say everyone ought to do it. But I take your point -- GENERALLY SPEAKING, information professionals have a higher responsibility in this regard.

  3. the way i see it, wikipedia is a starting point. just as looking for something on google can turn up garbage, wikipedia can turn up garbage, too. but we need to use our judgment with google, why can't we do the same with wikipedia? and yes, britannica has some pretty good garbage, too =)


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