This morning at the Maine School of Science and Math my Google workshop went off the rails a bit when the topic of Wikipedia reliability came up. I made the bold assertion that I could make an incorrect edit to a Wikipedia page and within one half of an hour it would be corrected by someone in the Wikipedia editing community. I was challenged on this claim by Dan Meyer. In response to the challenge I edited the Wikipedia entry about calculus to read that it was a branch of social studies. Well it wasn’t changed back within the thirty minute window that I claimed, but it was changed back in three hours and six minutes.
Why I made the claim:
I wanted to prove that the editing process for incorrect Wikipedia entries was faster than that of print periodicals.
What I learned from this:
Don’t make such a bold assertion or if I do I should edit a topic that is bit more contentious than calculus. For example, if I had edited the page about Penn State or Joe Paterno it probably would have been addressed quicker because more Wikipedians are paying attention to it these days. (I didn’t edit one of those pages because I didn’t have a long enough history as an editor to be granted access to editing those pages).
Why I still think Wikipedia is good:
A three hour response time to a page that is not about a contentious topic isn’t bad and sure is faster than it would take to correct a mistake in a textbook.
The references on a Wikipedia page often lead to good information. We should still teach students to verify that information too.
Articles that Wikipedia editors believe are not neutral, lack verified references, or have other flaws are labeled as such.
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Some reports about Wikipedia’s accuracy:
The most well-known study is this December 2005 report by Nature.
This PDF includes references to studies by Political Science and Politics and Psychological Medicine. The same PDF announces a forthcoming study by Chris Davies and Naomi Norman on the reliability of Wikipedia. I’m looking forward to reading the findings of that study.
For the record I’m glad Dan challenged my assertion even though I was eating crow for two and half hours this morning.