Wikipedia should shed secrecy

The online encyclopedia is a great service, but allowing anonymous editing sets it up for more embarrassments

Trends

December 25, 2005|By STEVE JOHNSON | STEVE JOHNSON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"If your mother says she loves you, check it out" stands as one of the most treasured journalistic maxims, a reminder that no assertion, no matter how likely it seems, should be taken at face value.

Now, thanks to a volunteer online encyclopedia, we can add another: "If Wikipedia says John Seigenthaler plotted to kill the Kennedys, check it out."

Wikipedia, the free digital reference book that has grown enormously in size and stature this year, was dealt a public-relations setback recently when Seigenthaler, a prominent Nashville newspaper editor in the civil rights era, told of a bogus Wikipedia biographical entry on him that seemed to have been crafted by an aspiring Oliver Stone-style screenwriter.

Or it could have been Buck Owens or Billy Crudup. For a couple of weeks after Seigenthaler's USA Today article explaining the situation, we didn't know, because one of the treasured values in the Wikipedia community is anonymity, or the possibility of anonymity, and the author of the Seigenthaler entry had held onto his.

Earlier this month, though, after being nearly tracked down from his computer's Internet protocol address by a Wikipedia critic, confessing to Seigenthaler and then being exposed in The New York Times, the prankster was revealed as a Nashville man trying to tweak a member of a prominent city family to amuse a co-worker.

It shouldn't work like that.

Wikipedia, if it wants to achieve the "better-than-Britannica accuracy" that Jimmy Wales, who leads the effort, says he strives for, needs to become as good as the old-school reference tomes at making its authors stand behind their work.

This, I realize, puts me in the camp of the fusties, librarians and the like who prefer to steer people to sources that are trustworthy rather than quick-and-easy or, in the case of Wikipedia, trendy.

But I'm not one of the Wikipedia bashers, either. It's a good, often great, first reference, an amazing feat of predominantly quality work and a refutation to those who would argue that you can't coax good work out of people without paying them.

I'm impressed, too, by Wales' candor when he says, in an interview, "People definitely should not be using Wikipedia as a primary source. The real story there is, Why were they ever?"

But no matter whether it strives to be the last word on a subject or the first, requiring authorial responsibility is the right and obvious thing for Wikipedia to do.

"Anonymity should not be permitted in a work that purports to provide factual information," says James Rettig, university librarian at the University of Richmond and the editor of Distinguished Classics of Reference Publishing.

"Wikipedia's very good when it's good," Rettig says. "It's useless when it's not."

The Seigenthaler incident was the most prominent in the U.S. but hardly the first; in another high-profile case, the encyclopedia called Norway's prime minister a convicted pedophile before the lie was removed after about a day.

Much lower in profile, librarian Gary Price, the editor of ResourceShelf.com and news editor for SearchEngineWatch.com, says he did his own test this past summer, inserting fantastical falsehoods into the entry about him.

"I said I was a roadie for Warrant and Megadeth and AC/DC in the '80s," he says. "I said, in addition to librarian, in my spare time I'm also a stuntman," and he linked to an Internet Movie Database article on an actual stuntman named Gary Price.

"I wanted to see how long it would take for a little-known person like me to have that information removed," he says. "Kudos to Wikipedia: It took six to eight weeks."

Seigenthaler's entry was up for months, time for it to spread via the search engines (which tend to rank Wikipedia entries highly in their results), to make it into high-school and college papers, to be repeated in other online reference works that use Wikipedia material but aren't as good about updating.

In light of all this, Rettig was thinking about how Wikipedia might reform itself, and "it struck me as a no-brainer that you just cease the ability for people to edit it anonymously."

But all Wikipedia did was tweak its rules. In the future, to create an entry you'll have to register with the site first, although you'll still be able to do that without giving your real name. Plus, you'll still be able to edit entries - the source of most of the encyclopedia's info-vandalism - without registering.

The encyclopedia (www.wikipedia.org) has built a base of more than 830,000 English-language entries (plus more than 1 million in its next nine most popular languages) by allowing users to create entries and to edit other ones as they see fit. People who are expert in certain areas, whether amateur or professional, keep watch on the entries in those areas and are notified when changes are made.

Although a prominent Wikipedia critic (at www.wikipediawatch.org) calls the phenomenon a "hive mind," this self-policing model, not unlike eBay's, usually knocks down bad information quickly.

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