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Saturday, July 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Getting Started

Wikipedia a lesson on verifying research

Special to The Seattle Times

A month ago, I wrote a column on Wikipedia (Getting Started, June 3), the online encyclopedia that anyone can add to or edit, and many of you responded to add to or edit what I wrote.

I expected you would, but figured some of your e-mails would relate personal experiences with submitting articles to Wikipedia. Instead, most of you wrote about what you thought was wrong with Wikipedia.

Greg Rider noted that some colleges and many teachers have banned Wikipedia as a research tool.

He also linked me to the Encyclopedia Britannica's (scalding) response to a study the journal Nature did, which concluded there's little difference between Wikipedia and Britannica regarding accuracy. In sum, Britannica claimed that almost everything about the journal's investigation was wrong and misleading (corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf).

Another interesting link Rider offered took me to an article distributed by Knight Ridder Newspapers written by high school senior named Elaine Wang. She began by remarking that her English teacher hates Wikipedia, so she did a little experiment to determine its reliability (www.sunherald.com/mld/sunherald/living/14257422.htm).

She used the easy Edit this Page option to insert false information into several articles and watched how long it would take for them to be corrected. (After about a week she corrected any false information that hadn't been corrected by others.)

The insertions ranged from easily recognizable untruths, such as James Madison was the first president (corrected in 2 minutes), and Costa Rica is a commonwealth of the United States (corrected in 10 minutes), to less obvious errors such as Edna Ferber wrote a book titled Chrome Grey (not corrected within a week), and the chemical formula for dimethicone is (CH3)3SiO[SiO(CH3)4]nSi(CH3), which took 32 hours to correct.

Wang concluded that easily recognizable facts generally are corrected rather fast, while lesser-known "nuggets of knowledge" aren't noticed by most readers. She advised people using Wikipedia to check facts with other resources, and check Wikipedia articles over time because "you never know when a goofball like me might be posting."

Melanie Boaz, a high school English teacher from Mukilteo, noted that her students love Wikipedia for its ease of use, broad coverage of current pop-culture topics, and generally accessible style. But Boaz doesn't allow it as a source for research papers.

Why not? It's not completely reliable. Boaz knows of some students who submitted an article they made up that's still posted on Wikipedia. Though that prank may have been harmless, some articles have included false information that can be harmful to certain individuals.

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Thank goodness the harmful examples are few. If personal attacks become more common, it could be the demise of Wikipedia, and the failure of a Web project that's truly unique.

Unique? Wikipedia enables people from around the world of all ages and races, as well as educational, professional, and economic levels to help build a shared knowledge base. I think that's a worthy project. Certainly it's a whole lot better than becoming involved in online gambling, violent arcade games, or other unsavory Internet activities.

Interestingly, a parent offered another perspective. Ray Baker wrote that his son was doing a school report on salmon and used Yahoo! to search for information. "I was shocked by how many porn sites use normal everyday words as keywords, so a search will pick them up," Baker said. After that, his son used Google to search, and one of the articles listed was in Wikipedia.

The article was well-written, Baker said, and the included outside links made it a valuable resource. He continued, "In my opinion, Wikipedia should be used in every school. Yes, some articles are not the best, but for the most part, it provides a wealth of information and is constantly being updated — proof that 'open source' projects work and work very well."

Corbin Simpson, a registered Wikipedia editor, said it's understandable that scholars and schools may want to discredit a source written by thousands of anonymous editors. But, he said, there's no such thing as a "perfect source."

"I think that a community of Wikipedia's size, with hundreds of dedicated encyclopedists and unlimited peer review, can generate a source of greater authenticity than any government or closed academic setting could ever hope for," said Simpson, also a computer technician and administrator at a high school. "Eventually, I hope that schools will see the potential inherent in Wikipedia's model and come to trust the knowledge of hundreds of strangers."

Walt Crowley, co-founder and executive director of HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history, noted in an e-mail, "The reliability of published knowledge is premised on the expertise of its authors and the quality of their evidence, which can be independently examined and evaluated. Without this, all is mere rumor and opinion."

He added, "The HistoryLink staff and contributing experts have prepared more than 4,200 original, sourced, footnoted and vetted essays on local and state history. Our articles are bylined and dated, with updates and corrections noted, and our trustees and advisers are named. We maintain an active and prompt feedback system by which HistoryLink visitors can — and do — comment on its content and indicate any errors of omission or commission for review and remedy."

His points are significant.

So then, should Wikipedia be allowed in school? Frankly, I think teachers should use it as a source for helping students see that everything on the Internet, and everything in print, is not always correct. Many kids believe that reference sources are invariably right. So studying Wikipedia — with all its flaws — could help them learn to become more critical readers.

Crowley noted, "Wikipedia should not be represented as a formal reference when it meets none of the minimal standards for such. I return to my editor's comment that Wikipedia is a big blog, not a real encyclopedia. If it represented itself as such, I'd have far less trouble with it."

I agree. Perhaps there should be a different label, other than encyclopedia, for such open bodies of information, and in fact, the prefix "wiki" indicates it uses software that allows users to freely create and edit the Web page content. If the public fully understood what a wiki is, perhaps there would be less debate regarding its reliability.

To understand the whole process better, I decided to submit an article to Wikipedia and watch what happens.

I submitted a rewrite of the Photoshop Elements 4.0 column I wrote recently (Getting Started, June 17). Standard encyclopedias typically don't include articles about specific versions of software programs, but I had noticed Wikipedia did include articles about previous versions of Elements, so I submitted the column, minus all personal references and opinions.

Within one hour, the submission was removed with a note indicating it had been moved to the general Photoshop Elements article. That made sense, I thought, but when I searched for it there, I couldn't find it. Even the site search engine couldn't locate it. So — poof! — my submitted article vanished and the transfer that was supposed to happen, never did.

Maybe that's better than watching my carefully written piece be ravaged by reader edits, but its disappearance does make me wonder about the initial decision process.

If you submit an article to Wikipedia, let me know what happens.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted

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