Do you trust Wikipedia?

Sunday, 30 September 2007 - 3:19am IST

With it’s new version the internet encyclopaedia hopes to convince users of worth as an unbiased reference tool. Dean Williams checks out.

With it’s new version the internet encyclopaedia hopes to convince users of its reliability and worth as an unbiased reference tool. Dean Williams checks out

The goal is to give a free encyclopaedia to every person in the world, in their own language. Not just in a ‘free beer’ kind of way, but also in the free speech kind of way.” These words were uttered by Jimmy Wales, as he talked about his latest offering for the world wide web: Wikipedia.

Along with Larry Sanger, Wikipedia  was founded in 2001 and offered the first ‘definitive’ vault of knowledge on the internet, and for all intents and purposes the oriflamme had been established.

Wikipedia grew and spread through the net like an Australian brush fire: it currently has 253 language additions and an estimated seven per cent of all internet users visit the site per day. In fact, in 2005, a study carried out by the magazine Nature stated that Wikipedia was as good a source of accurate information as Britannica, a claim vehemently denied by the latter.

But then came the brickbats, and the charges levelled against the website were those that every encyclopaedia (digital or print) dreads... unreliability and bias.

On May 26, 2005, Brian Chase an operations manager at a delivery company in Tennessee, USA, decided to edit — as a prank — Wikipedia’s biography of colleague and renowned writer John Seigenthaler Sr.

Chase wrote: “John Seigenthaler Sr was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. For a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven...”

It was four months before the entry was discovered. Even US President, George W Bush’s entry on the website has not escaped pranksters. At the BBC, a staff member changed Bush’s middle name to ‘wanker’, and a New York Times employee simply added the words ‘jerk, jerk, jerk’.

This year, the Wikipedia Media Group (the website’s parent company) has launched Wikipedia 2.0 — with new editing guidelines — and with it the company hopes to rectify the damage done to its image.

In Wikipedia 2.0, only edits made by “trusted” users will be implemented. According to Wales, in order to become a “trusted” user, one will have to show commitment to Wikipedia by editing a number of articles. Other users will have their entries scrutinised by an editor before they can be uploaded. This move has already been implemented in the German version and has seemingly been accepted by its users.

But for edits that are slightly subtler in their inaccuracies, editors will vote on whether an article should be flagged as ‘high quality’ or not. Wikipedia will now also implement a ‘trust rating’ for each contributor based on their previous edits, and these ratings will be flashed in each article.

Wikipedia is also launching a new project entitled Wikiscanner. This will allow users to find out which organisations, or individuals are behind entries by taking the IP address of the computer that submitted the entry and looking it up on a separate database.

The Wikipedia Foundation is confident that the changes — to be implemented over the next few months — will allay fears about the encyclopaedia’s reliability, and cement its place as the world’s most popular reference site.

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