[Ira Matetsky, guest-blogging, May 17, 2009 at 11:54pm] Trackbacks
Wikipedia: Some Concluding Thoughts and an Invitation:

A few years ago, as the promised Information Superhighway was growing into the Internet that we know today, no one (to my knowledge) predicted that a collaboratively written, free-content, mass-linked website aspiring to cover all areas of human knowledge would become one of the most prominent information sources in the world. Still less did I anticipate that I would eventually play a role helping to administer such a site.

Eugene inspired me to volunteer this series of posts, now drawing to a close, by discussing a series of cases in which courts have either cited to Wikipedia for information, or asked themselves whether they can take judicial notice of the content of a Wikipedia article.

My own take on the reliability of Wikipedia articles is consistent with that suggested by some of the commenters: articles on non-contentious topics are usually accurate; articles on highly contentious articles are usually accurate on basic facts, but can be subject to bias and dispute with respect to the matters in controversy. It's an overgeneralization, but in essence, if debating a subject could lead to a fist-fight in a bar, or to a heated dispute in academe, then sooner or later the subject will be involved in a content dispute on Wikipedia. This is really not a surprise.

(The surprise comes from how many additional petty matters we also argue about. The people who sometimes refer to Wikipedia administrators and experienced editors collectively as a "Hivemind" may have overlooked the amount of bickering that goes on every day on the Administrators' Noticeboards.)

However, a strong article with more than the most basic content should contain citations of sources where information in the article was drawn from. Checking the sources, and where appropriate citing to them rather than the Wikipedia article itself, may often resolve the question of "is Wikipedia reliable enough to cite?" If no sources are cited, check the links to related articles; the relevant sources may be there. Otherwise, the article history will tell you who wrote the article, and sometimes a query on his or her usertalkpage will elicit the missing references. Beyond that, every article on Wikipedia has an associated "talkpage" where issues concerning the contents of the article, including requests for sourcing of controversial statements, may be addressed.

Anyone relying on Wikipedia must take into account that there are no guarantees as to who contributed a given article or sentence, or why. (In fact, this is emphasized in a couple of places on the site itself.) I think the general population of Internet users has become more aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of various resources, including Wikipedia, than was the case even a few years ago. At a dinner with extended family recently at which my role on Wikipedia came up, my niece, aged 11, told me that her middle-school librarian had cautioned her students not to rely automatically on the accuracy of Wikipedia and to double-check the information before using it for anything important.

More generally, everyone, and especially those young enough not to remember pre-Internet times, will all come to learn more generally which types of research can effectively be performed on the Internet, and which benefit most from access to older or more traditional resources. (Readers who are lawyers will recognize this as analogous to the discussions that go on between younger lawyers heavily dependent on Lexis or Westlaw, and more senior lawyers who believe that thinking through a problem and researching comprehensively often requires a trip to the library.) No one — whether a student writing a paper or someone looking for information — should simply accept information derived from any source without thinking through the quality of the source and what biases it might introduce.

Wikipedia is a valuable but a flawed resource and, as I stressed in the first of these posts, its main strength is also its main weakness: that anyone can contribute to it. Some articles suffer from political or other biases (a core content policy is that all articles must be written from a "neutral point of view," but not every editor is committed to upholding policy, and in any event, NPOV is often in the eye of the beholder). Some articles have been tampered with playfully or maliciously, and although most "vandalism" or "trolling" edits are picked up and reverted quickly, others are not, and some have lingered for months.

(Most vandals are just passing nuisances, such as bored schoolchildren, but some are more persistent, and a small but extremely troublesome handful are persistent to the point of doing serious damage. I'd be interested, just as a point of information, in learning whether there is any legal precedent for in some fashion barring such people from write-accessing or editing on a site. I will add that this is intended as a purely academic question.)

Moreover, the quality of articles varies very widely, and some articles need to be expanded or rewritten before they will have much value. Some articles are absent altogether; even with 2.8 million articles, there is a lot more yet to be written. (I envy some of the earlier editors who had the whole scope of knowledge to write on a blank slate, but there is still plenty more to be done. The occasional suggestion that "everything worth writing on-wiki has been written" is no more accurate than the comment of the apocryphal patent examiner who supposedly urged that "everything worth inventing has been invented.)

And yet — for all of Wikipedia's flaws, the fact is that it has become a central resource relied upon by many. That suggests that researchers typically find Wikipedia content both accessible and reliable. As I pointed out in my first post, Conspirators on this blog often link to a Wikipedia article when introducing a topic. They wouldn't do that if the articles weren't reasonably reliable at least in their basics. In my own experience, when I Google a topic and I come upon the Wikipedia article and read it, I find the information reliable. It may or may not be complete or brilliantly written, but it rarely is just wrong.

This will be my last post in this series, but I'll try to respond to any ongoing dialog in the comment thread. For those interested in further discussion, I assure you that there is ongoing dialog about virtually every issue affecting Wikipedia to be found somewhere right on Wikipedia. Although a few core policies are handed down by the Wikimedia Foundation, and some others arise from technical features and limitations of the software, almost all other Wikipedia policies and guidelines are developed largely by "the community," which means the collective body of editors, and more specifically, those who care enough about a given issue to participate in discussing it.

For those interested in discussing these issues without venturing onto Wikipedia itself, there is ongoing discussion of both theoretical objections to Wikipedia's structure and day-to-day operating issues on a website called "Wikipedia Review" (www.wikipediareview.com). (I participate there on occasion myself — I had not intended to, but someone invited me to join and I accepted.) "WR" can be a mixed bag, containing some instances of overgeneralizations and too much nasty ad hominem for my taste — but interspersed with that is some of the more well-reasoned criticism and commentary I've seen. WR also has a blog, blog.wikipediareview.com, whose contents be more accessible than the sometimes "inside baseball" discussions on the main forum. More recently, some present and former WR members have started another site, www.akahele.com, which also contains critical essays and commentary.

But in my opinion, the best way of enhancing or improving Wikipedia, whether by tweaking one article at a time or by advocating for some site-wide policy change, is to roll up one's sleeves and join in contributing there. For me, at least, I've combined the fun of a new hobby mixed with the enjoyment of sharing knowledge and helping resolve disputes.

Remember, anyone can edit, with or without registering an account. (Creating a brand-new article requires registration, which can be done using one's real name or a pseudonym.) The user interface is accessible even to those without computer skills (believe me, if I could master it, then anyone can), and within a few minutes of sitting down at the keyboard, you'll be an editor and a Wikipedian. Any editor can edit not just articles, but the policy discussions and related pages as well.

If you get stuck, [[Wikipedia:Help]] should link you to a page containing whatever information you need, although Volokh Conspirators (and anyone else) are also welcome to inquire at [[User talk:Newyorkbrad]] if you run into any problems. Perhaps a few of us can conspire there to pick a law-related article to collaborate on and bring up to Featured Article. (And also feel free to e-mail me with any questions or comments if you prefer; please use Newyorkbrad -at- Gmail.com rather than my work e-mail for this purpose.)

My thanks to Eugene and the other Conspirators for giving me a forum here this week (and also for giving me lots of interesting and challenging blog-reading over the years), to everyone who has commented or will comment on one of my posts, to the knowledgeable people who responded in detail to my query on Monday about the [[Saxbe fix]], and to all of the readers.