Rory Cellan-Jones

Will Wikipedia always win?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 31 Mar 08, 18:42 GMT

Nicholas Hilliard was an English goldsmith and limner (no, I'm not sure either), best known for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth I and James II. That's if you believe Wikipedia.

The Hungarian version of the entry on Hilliard was its ten millionth article, a milestone trumpeted by the online encyclopedia at a time when many are questioning both its reputation as an accurate source and its future direction. There are also plenty of rivals coming on to the web reference scene, but like Google in search, Wikipedia will be hard to topple from its perch.

What you cannot dispute is its speed and reach. A BBC colleague tells me that when Richard Widmark died last week, the Hollywood actor's Wikipedia entry was updated even before the death was announced on the airwaves. For journalists, it has become the second most useful online tool after Google - while remaining a useful source of stories about its own gaffes and inaccuracies, and what it describes as "vandalism" to entries for prominent figures.

And while most of those errors are corrected pretty swiftly by an army of amateur editors, there has been a vigorous debate among "Wikipedians" themselves over whether its completely open model can continue or whether it should find a way of favouring more "expert" contributors.

If David Gerard is to be believed, then the current model will prevail. Mr Gerard, an editor and administrator on the English site, told me: "We have never promised reliability - what we try to do is be useful." But he insists that reliability is improving all the time, and the original concept of a resource where the wisdom of the crowd would quickly prevail has proved itself: "We've got where we are by taking everything, by being as wide as possible. We get lots of rubbish... and then we clean it up."

Two other online reference works, Citizendium and Knol, are trying a different route. Knol was unveiled by Google last December as a tool which would "encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it".

The idea appears to be that anyone - expert or not - can still write an entry, but Google's ranking system will then favour the most authoritative pieces. There is also the promise of a share in ad revenue for authors - so that the market will, in theory, reward accuracy. The service is not yet up and running, so it is difficult to judge whether it will win readers away from Wikipedia, but if it can attract a critical mass of real experts, it must stand a chance.

Citizendium, started by Wikipedia's co-founder Larry Sanger, says in its manifesto that humanity needs a better online encyclopedia, other than one made up of "mere disconnected grab-bags of factoids". It insists on named contributors and has expert editors who approve articles.

The trouble is that it is very limited right now - just under 6,000 articles - and when I tried to compare its entries with the millions on Wikipedia I struggled. Eventually, I glanced at two subjects - quantum mechanics and cricket. In one of these - I will let you guess which - I have a modicum of knowledge, about the other I know little or nothing. But in both cases Wikipedia appeared to have more comprehensive and approachable entries.

Of course, the brutal truth is that it is the reference entry which comes highest in a Google search which will win the readers. And for the foreseeable future that is likely to be the Wikipedia version - whether it is accurate or not.


  • 1.
  • At 08:14 PM on 31 Mar 2008,
  • David Meyer wrote:

A limner is a type of artist. Well, at least according to, er, Wikipedia...

When I first read the announcement on a Wikimedia mailing list, I laughed as a (clearly different) Nicholas Hilliard is one of the QCs in the Diana inquest.

Wikipedia is clearly going nowhere, and with the "stable versions" system currently being developed, quality and reliability for the readers can only improve.

Quoted accurately! Thank you!

I don't think we'll ever necessarily be "reliable" as such - it's a live working draft, not a polished finished product. But "usefulness" is pretty good to achieve.

Wikipedia is open for anyone to edit in the same way that our country allows people to do whatever they wish:

1) If you do something against the law in the UK and you are detected you lose the ability to do anything you want (subject to due process and the rule of law). If you vandalise wikipedia you can be banned (by IP or by user name). Wikipedia has a judicial system, the beginnings of a democratic process and even a (tiny) newspaper.

2) In the UK certain places have locks on to prevent you from accessing them and certain high profile locations are protected by heavy security. In wikipedia articles can be protected and users police high profile articles. High tech surveilance systems operate on wikipedia to detect abuses and rectify them (vandal detection bots).

No system of control works efficiently by barring access as a default. It is better to grant access but withdraw it where necessary. Wikipedia recognises this and these new encyclopedias do not which is why Wikipedia is here to stay whether you like it or not. Personally I like it.

It must be noted that in peer reviewed comparisons of Wikipedia's accuracy with that of other online encyclopedias that it has faired pretty well. A fact that seems to be lost on much of the media.

I was the "seer" who first updated Wikipedia on Richard Widmark's death apparently even before the news was announced on the airwaves. The mention is flattering, but I made the update only after his full-length obituary appeared on The New York Times website. Though it seems that the Times had scooped other media outlets on the news.

The thing with Wikipedia, if Richard Widmark had died before my eyes and I immediately logged on to report such fact, the update would be immediately marked by the editors with a "citation needed" or deleted altogether until such time that the news is actually reported in a reputable news website.

  • 6.
  • At 06:27 AM on 01 Apr 2008,
  • Gaurav wrote:

I don't remember when was the last time I found something incorrect or inaccurate in Wikipedia. It really rocks for me...

At least on Citizendium you know who has written the articles and have some idea of their credentials. Contrast that with the mostly anonymous Wikipedians, who rarely present qualifications for editing even non-controversial topics. Also, Citizendium continues to grow; in terms of word count it's actually bigger than Wikipedia was at the same stage.

  • 8.
  • At 12:29 PM on 01 Apr 2008,
  • Brian Herbert wrote:

Wikipedia captures more information because it allows all sorts of people to contribute. This is information that would normally not be captured. Like most things in life, it is assumed to be accurate until someone suggests otherwise (which is very easily done). In summary, wikipedia takes lots of information from outside of the normal sphere knowledge (media, accademics, business etc) and makes it easily accessible.

  • 9.
  • At 01:11 PM on 01 Apr 2008,
  • Jamie Kelly wrote:

I love wikipedia, it has solved many an argument.

If you only use one source for your answers you deserve to be duped.

I use wikipedia as a base for my answers, and use other sources (yes, including books) to confirm my findings.

Doesn't everyone do this?

The problem with so called authors is the errors that are inevitably introduced. Wiki, with its monitors, manages to contain these, but without such a mechanism facts turn to fiction very easily and very rapidly. Popularity is not a mechanism for determining truth or maintaining accuracy.

  • 11.
  • At 11:56 PM on 02 Apr 2008,
  • Andrew Knowled wrote:

Wikipedia and an iPhone! Unbeatable combination!!

  • 12.
  • At 12:33 AM on 04 Apr 2008,
  • Mark K wrote:

For the 95% of human wisdom which is 'established' Wikipedia is
invaluable. As a software engineer if I want background on a specific
technology I use it every day.

OTOH if you want info on something contentious 'Is god real', 'What
about MMGW', 'Was Diana murdered' etc. it's useless.

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