The Trusted Wikipedia Project

Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales and The Long Now” by ioerror

In a previous Daily Link post, I called on a heated debate between Britannica’s editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales. The Wall Street Journal moderated this debate via email, and published it under the headlines: “Will Wikipedia Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias?“. In essence, the WSJ was piecing together the difference of opinions about information established on open versus closed systems. While Dale Hoiberg strongly believed in the value of the peer-review process for information accuracy, Jimmy Wales believed that “openness” is going to be necessary in order to reach the highest levels of quality.

Not too long ago, a study in the journal Nature found few differences in accuracy between science entries in Wikipedia and the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica. Believe it or not, this meant that both encyclopaedias shared somewhat equal level of reliability (much to the unhappiness of the Britannica folks). Still, for most educators and librarians, Wikipedia remains as a convenient but risky reference to them. While I constantly remind users that they can cite a specific version of a wiki page so the information wouldn’t change, it is clearly not enough remove the stigma of an unauthenticated information resource editable by almost anyone (see RamblingLibrarian’s post).

Alex also addresses this exact issue…

“In practice, students are being told by teachers all around the world that they shouldn’t trust Wikipedia. That would be great, if they were also telling them not to trust anything else published. But this appears to be skepticism mis-focused. By bridging the divide between what are traditional technologies (techniques) of establishing authority and new forms of communal authority, I think we allow for more people to access and engage in collaborative knowledge building.” – Alex Halavais

In reflection, this fear is a good thing if we work it the right way. Taking this skepticism positively, we should never take any single information resource as gospel in the first place. The makings of a good scholar involves surveying and building a worthy bibliography of resources in support of his or her research. As Alex highlighted, Wikipedia shouldn’t be the only one susceptible to reliability issues since the same level of judgement (see critical faculty) should also apply to Britannica (and other references). What Wikipedia is doing is bigger than the sum of its parts, since it reminds us about the general importance of information evaluation, that is, the process of reflecting upon the meaning of statements, examining the offered evidence and reasoning, and forming judgments about the facts.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to figure out a way to find that magic middle between both systems. Rather than to configure the user, configuring a better system allows for accurate information to be more accessible. This is where the Trusted Wikipedia project comes to play…

Many people dismiss Wikipedia out of hand as a trusted source, precisely because it is written and edited by “anybody.” This differs, they suggest, from a newspaper, which is “fact checked,” or from an academic paper, which is “peer reviewed.” Over the last two years, I have chatted with a number of people about the possibility of peer reviewing Wikipedia “from the outside.” At Wikimania, a number of proposals were made–some of which are already under way–to make Wikipedia both a more credible and a more accurate source of information. The two, while complementary, are not necessarily identical.

What I would like to do is assemble an editorial board of recognized experts in Internet Studies, Computer-Mediated Communication, and Human-Computer Interaction who would go through the process of finding appropriate peer reviewers and certifying particular versions of Wikipedia articles as being peer-reviewed. This would provide the reader with an additional indication that the work is of high quality and accurate.

To do this, we need to assemble a group of people who have some level of recognition in the field, and who are willing to devote a small amount of time to helping to select a core set of articles and oversee the review process. While we will be looking at a number of ways to make this process more technologically easy, the key issue here is to find a group of people willing to invest a little time and their reputations in an effort to make Wikipedia a more trusted source.

If you are interested in chatting a bit more about the project, drop me a note. If you will be in Brisbane for the Internet Research, perhaps we can discuss the possibilities over lunch on Thursday.

// Alexander C. Halavais
// Social Architect
// http://alex.halavais.net

What Alex is suggesting is to take a subset of Wikipedia entries that relates to our circle of research, have our professors as experts peer-review them, then certify them as being of enough quality for academic use. If I’m not mistaken, this is all to be done within Wikipedia, possibly with some kind of indicator to be meaningful (such as a logo, seal, or person’s name associated with the article).

There are existing initiatives that revolve around the same idea, but most of them have been “parasitic” in approach, that is by copying specific content off Wikipedia and housing them on individual wikis as approved references. I see this as defeating the purpose of Wikipedia as a reference source since the common good becomes too dispersed to benefit the general public, as well as either wikis. One such project is Citizendium, which outright competes with Wikipedia by starting as a “progressive fork” of Wikipedia, taking all of its launch content from the “infamous” online encyclopedia. Another similar project is STS Wiki which examines the interplay of society, science and technology.

After reviewing some of the initiatives aimed at fixing Wikipedia’s flaws, I think the best approach would involve working within the system rather than on the outside. However, Alex’s idea does have foreseeable flaws, such as the sense of grassroots ownership being lost once “some expert” steps in to grade the work. This may cause less people to be motivated to post content, since they can already rely on these experts to do so. About.com has always been taking this “experts” route, but having individuals dedicated enough to qualify as moderators of certain topics. Perhaps time will tell how this plays out, but in the mean time, I do see this idea as a positive step forward for Wikipedia. It’s simple, and anyone in their own interest domains can self-organize to do this too (e.g. librarians, mathematicians, biologists). To recognize this, Wikipedia could try the Digg.com approach of ranking users based on the quality of contributions (based on user votes / karma). This would reinforce that missing sense of content ownership (i.e. pride, ego) and encourage competition on a goodwill level.

Good idea or Bad idea?

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