The Deadly Danger of Wikipedia and Corrupt Community Research

The problem with unrestricted community involvement in online research is the great risk to truth and accuracy in the reporting. If one community member cannot be trusted, then the entire veracity of the rest of the community — guilty or not — is also placed under the microscopic and burning Panopticonic eye of doubt and disingenuousness.

The actor known as Sinbad was reported dead of a heart attack on Saturday by Wikipedia — an online community encyclopedia — the problem with the report was that Sinbad is alive and well:

Rumors began circulating Saturday regarding the posting, said Sinbad, who first got a telephone call from his daughter. The gossip quieted, but a few days later the 50-year-old entertainer said the phone calls, text messages and e-mails started pouring in by the hundreds.

“Saturday I rose from the dead and then died again,” the Los Angeles-based entertainer told The Associated Press in a phone interview. The St. Petersburg-based company, which describes itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” leaves it to a vast user community to catch factual errors and other problems.

Apparently, someone edited it to say Sinbad died of a heart attack. By the time the error was caught, e-mail links of the erroneous page had been forwarded to hundreds of people. Wikipedia was created in 2001 as a Web research tool. It has more than 1.6 million articles, contributed by members of the public.

Here is what Sinbad’s current, locked, Wikipedia page looks like:

This sort of gaming of the Wikipedia system demonstrates rather clearly why community research portals must only be used for entertainment purposes and should never be believed or employed as founts of truth or waterfalls of scholarly veracity.

Open systems like Wikipedia are ripe for abuse and are vulnerable for the corruption of what is right and true. If it is so easy to change the living into the dead on Wikipedia, what other more delicate truths have been surreptitiously corrupted by that free online “encyclopedia?”

Where is the Wikipedia oversight and intelligence and security to prevent this sort of prank from happening in the first place? Many universities and colleges do not allow students to use Wikipedia as a source in their scholarly research and papers because anyone can contribute to Wikipedia and there is no sustained or verifiable way to confirm all the information hanging in the ether of their 1.6 million articles before being published.

We have used Wikipedia a lot in the past to try to help back up what we are claiming in both our articles and in our comments. We now must stop using Wikipedia as a resource. We liked Wikipedia because it is free, easy to access, no registration is required to view articles and — most pernicious of all — Wikipedia indexes really well in the major search engines.

Oftentimes Wikipedia has several top entries for some of our more esoteric thoughts and ideas. It is easy to assume if a Wikipedia article is a top return in an online search that article must be honest and be embedded in the truth, but search engines do not test for scholarly merit or infallible factuality. Search engines merely reflect the popularity of an article. Search engines cannot promise their returns are verified by appropriate research methods.

It is now the publication policy of Urban Semiotic to require authors and Commenters to go beyond the come-hither simple search-and-pull of Wikipedia and to take the next scholarly step to back up their claims and contentions using established research portals and methods for inclusion in our articles and comments.

Wikipedia will never be used in Urban Semiotic again as a hotlink or as a quoted source because when we link back to Wikipedia, we are making a promise to you the link we are providing is verifiable and true. We are no longer able to make that promise using Wikipedia. To not take this hard stance against Wikipedia after this Sinbad betrayal is to perpetuate the lie that Wikipedia is an online research portal that can be trusted.

53 comments

  • Although I appreciate your reasoning for your hard stance against Wikipedia, I find it sad. I do not find it sad that you take this approach. In fact, I applaud you for holding Wikipedia up to the standard it should hold for itself. I do find it sad that you need to take such measure, and that I find myself often in the same situation. I do and will continue to use Wikipedia as I do now, a starting point for information that I verify from multiple sources.
    It is a shame that such a noble concept falls by the ignorance or malace of a few. It seems it is always the will of the few that destroy the need of the many. Can we, as a community, not find a better way to enhance the concept of wikipedia?
    I don’t have the answer, but it is something that I will continue to consider.
    Enjoy!
    J.L. Munn

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  • Hi J.L. –
    I, too, share your sadness, but I’m not certain what to do about the condition.
    Normally, in rigorous ongoing publication, you have an established chain of command in vetting something for publication in the verifiable scholarly realm.
    One person isn’t enough to verify something. At least three others in, say, a panel of five editors have to agree to the facts established and argued in the piece for it to make it into the published public realm.
    Wikipedia could do the same sort of thing — not allow any changes to established articles or publication of new articles unless and until an established panel of experts clears and verifies the story for publication.
    But that sort of command and control kind of ruins the idea of an “everybody’s encyclopedia” because it creates a hierarchical flow of information and editing.
    You’d also probably need to pay some people to have their identifies verified and confirmed as editors and researchers for submitted articles and that, too, is antithetical to the idea of Wikipedia.

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  • Don’t forget, however, what I wrote about this matter nearly two years ago in my article On The Wikipedia & Collaborative Editing.
    By this point you may have already thought of one of the biggest potential problems with allowing anyone to edit or rewrite articles on the English Wikipedia. How can you avoid mean-spirited or agenda driven people who seek to destroy content? People who are not fond of the television program Charmed might want to go to the article and write unkind words about it. However, one of the ideas of the Wikipedia is to be free from non-neutral point-of-view content. With as many people as there are that work on keeping the Wikipedia running, all strictly volunteer, most all vandalism is immediately spotted and removed. When there is a recurring problem, steps are taken to prevent further vandalism, such as the banning of ip addresses.
    I will, however, respect your wishes and avoid using wikipedia as a source both for go inside articles and forthcoming urban semiotic entries. :)

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  • Hi Gordon –
    I forgot you were one of the Wikipedia volunteers as you mention in your article:

    I am one of many online collaborators who contribute to the English Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia. True, many of my contributions are extraordinarily minor, but it is still a bit of improvement that can be appreciated by any user.

    If we consider Wikpedia an entertainment resource and not one appropriate for research, then the whole idea is fine — but when Wikipedia describes itself as a “free encyclopedia” I think they are claiming for a stature they did not earn and cannot claim.
    There has always been the danger of Wikipedia going wrong, and I remember instances in the past when wrong information vandalized their site — but with this Sinbad story where no other major media picked up on his “death” one begins to recognize the need for direct oversight and editing of everything that gets filtered into and out of Wikipedia.

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  • UPDATE:
    It looks like the problem with Wikipedia reporting falsities as facts is deeper and more widespread than we originally thought:
    http://www.google.com/search?q=wikipedia+erroneous+entries

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  • Insightful post and comments David, but you should note that Wikipedia itself clearly states that one should not use Wikipedia as a source. Rather, the references provided at the end of an article should be used as sources. If no references are provided, the article should be tagged as {{unreferenced}}. Wikipedia is a great place to start your research with, but not a great place to end it.
    All the errors and hoaxes are introduced due to the open nature, but this openness has led to the enormous growth of Wikipedia.
    Efforts are being made for the release version CDs, which will contain the article in their best versions. The 2006 CD was made available last year.
    I agree that Wikipedia is the encyclopedia with most number of erroneous entries, but it still remains a useful tool. A post titled “Corrupt Community Research” disappointed me.

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  • We prefer Real First and Last Names here as a matter of our Comments Policy, utcursch –
    http://urbansemiotic.com/comments-policy/
    – so that we may avoid the contamination and corruption that is dogging the entire idea of a Wikipedia.
    While I appreciate your comment, and the trackback, your own Commenters are taking you, and Wikipedia, to task for your defense of the project.
    Your blog is dedicated to Wikipedia, so it is important we know your biases and prejudices in protecting the very thing you are defending here.
    We wish your disappointment was reserved for Wikipedia itself, and not for a blog post title that is confirmed to be factual by the unfolding Wikipedia scholarly scam.
    For Wikipedia to call itself an “encyclopedia” is to entrap the young and the uneducated into thinking that portal is a cogent and verifiable site for accurate information. It is not. It is an ideas gathering place and Wikipedia should only be used for bemusement and entertainment purposes only.
    Growth does not equal accuracy.
    Popularity is not the same a fact.
    1.6 million published articles can be leveled and terminated as irrelevant by the publication of a single lie.
    I no longer believe Wikipedia is a useful research tool. To start research in what might be a bed of lies is to tempt folly and foolishness because even the hotlinks to honored resources found at Wikipedia are brought down and flung into question when the text surrounding them is unverified and obscured by faith and wishing.

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  • Here’s a fascinating article from October 2005 about the unreliability of Wikipedia:

    Encouraging signs from the Wikipedia project, where co-founder and überpedian Jimmy Wales has acknowledged there are real quality problems with the online work.
    Criticism of the project from within the inner sanctum has been very rare so far, although fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer associated with the project, pleaded with the management to improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise. (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about.)
    Meanwhile, criticism from outside the Wikipedia camp has been rebuffed with a ferocious blend of irrationality and vigor that’s almost unprecedented in our experience: if you thought Apple, Amiga, Mozilla or OS/2 fans were er, … passionate, you haven’t met a wiki-fiddler. For them, it’s a religious crusade.
    In the inkies, Wikipedia has enjoyed a charmed life, with many of the feature articles about the five-year old project resembling advertisements. Emphasis is placed on the knowledgeable articles (by any yardstick, it’s excellent for Klingon, BSD Unix, and Ayn Rand), the breadth of its entries (Klingon again), and process issues such as speed.
    “We don’t ever talk about absolute quality,” boasted one of the project’s prominent supporters, Clay Shirky, a faculty tutor at NYU. But it’s increasingly difficult to avoid the issue any longer.
    Especially since Wikipedia’s material is replicated endlessly on the web: it’s the first port of call for “sploggers” who create phoney sites, spam blogs, which created to promote their clients in Google.
    Wales was responding to author Nicholas Carr, who in a dazzling post on the transcendent New Age “hive-mind” rhetoric that envelops the “Web 2.0″ bubble, took time out to examine the quality of two entries picked at random: Bill Gates and Jane Fonda.
    He wasn’t impressed by what he saw.
    “This is garbage, an incoherent hodge-podge of dubious factoids that adds up to something far less than the sum of its parts,” he wrote.

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/

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  • I see there’s a placeholder for a “law wiki” on the net.
    I wonder what our laws will look like after they are open for random editing. :)

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  • Hi Chris!
    Yikes! The problem with the whole “Wiki” notion is anyone can start one at any time and pretend and perpetuate the myth that they are real and factual. That sort of situation is prime for pimping indulgent interests and vandalizing ideas.

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  • We have discussed the pitfalls of Wikipedia before – do you have any suggestions for other similar free reference sources we can use instead? Would be nice if we could bypass them altogether and not give them any traffic at all.

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  • Hi David,
    The software Wikipedia uses is open source and free to anyone. In fact, the “skin” to make a site that looks like Wikipedia is available and could be used to trick the gullible into thinking whatever content is on the site is accurate.
    Wikipedia is a good place to start a search to learn more about a topic. If the topic isn’t sourced well, then I wouldn’t trust it as much as a site that has a lot of footnotes linking to other quality sites.
    One overlooked place for decent information might be blogs — you have to be careful with any free source, however. Here’s one blog that I usually like to search to get ideas when I’m working on a project at work and need some quick pointers to get me going in the right direction: illinoistrialpractice.com. In one of the recent posts, the author points people to look for information on Del.icio.us — something I would have never considered, but which also might be useful as well.

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  • Nicola –
    This is always hard: What sources do you trust on the web? Most of the Old Reliables do cost money because their information has value and history and provenance behind it.
    Newspapers and magazines and journals that have a hardcopy version are usually a good and reliable resource. If people are paid to produce the content that is another good indicator there is seriousness behind the effort — unless it is a Spam site. :grin:
    Google Scholar can be a good site, but if you do a search on “Wikipedia” there right now you get gobs of ridiculous returns. That’s disappointing.
    There needs to be an editorial mind and philosophy behind the publication of the information that can be verified at least two other independent places. That sort of effort to “be right everywhere” is expensive.
    Maybe we should start a list of proper research portals!

    Like

  • Chris!
    Right! Wikipedia wants to propagate its brand name over the “empiricalness” of its content and that is a mighty concern.
    Wikipedia does encourage aping of look and feel and imitation of its purpose and that isn’t good for the innocent and the eager who just want to find the right information on the web that is actually reliably accurate in the end. User ignorance, desperation, an need for easy access to information is what makes sites like Wikipedia thrive, but they earn their popularity under false pretenses.
    I don’t think I’d trust any private blog as a proper research resource unless it was operated by a variety of minds and interests that were all publicly known and researchable.
    Del.iciou.us is another Wikipedia-like dead-end of spurious links and wannabe facts. I wouldn’t trust any of those bookmark portals at all.

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  • Hi David,
    I wouldn’t cite a private blog, but sometimes it can point someone in the right direction to save time when doing research. Sometimes just having a case name can save hours of research time because that can be plugged into the trusted resources.
    I found a free encyclopedia — encyclopedia.com — that offers the Colombia Encyclopedia free of charge. :)

    xrefer, a digital-reference content company, has announced a partnership with Columbia University Press that will provide access to the electronic version of Columbia Encyclopedia’s sixth edition through xrefer-plus, xrefer’s new library reference service.

    Like

  • Chris –
    I understand blogs and such could be good pointers to real information, but I’d never quote them as a reference in any sort of research article.
    Encyclopedia.com is sort of like dictionary.com — they offer certain things for free to try to entice you into making larger purchases.
    I prefer to just buy a yearly Highbeam subscription:
    http://www.highbeam.com/help/memberOptions.hbr
    and get access to everything, and I prefer to pay http://www.m-w.com for my dictionary subscription as well.
    I round out my paid research portals with Questia:
    http://www.questia.com/

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  • Hi David,
    We use the “Mother of All Paid Search” services: Westlaw.
    I also have available as a part of my bar association dues:
    Casemaker for Indiana, and
    FastCase for Illinois.
    I need to log into Casemaker and FastCase to check them out one of these days to see how they compare to Westlaw.

    Like

  • Interesting list of alternatives there.
    Highbeam is a little disconcerting as it does not appear to tell you how much the service will cost after your 7 day trial.
    Questia seems to be very American orientated
    I have to confess I do use the BBC quite a lot – they are pretty comprehensive and are an excellent starting point.
    I will make a note of Google Scholar for future reference.

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  • Hi Chris!
    You cannot beat Westlaw. Outstanding stuff.
    Universities also have great online portals to information. Janna’s NYU research setup is incredible and deep and one of the best I’ve ever seen.
    I can use Columbia’s alumni library portal for some good online access to info and the NY Public Library also has a wealth of online information access for members.
    Do any of your universities give you online library privileges?

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  • Hi Nicola!
    Both Highbeam and Questia are around $100.00 USD a year. You can also buy quarterly subscriptions for around $30.00 USD.
    Highbeam is great for bloggers. You find something you like, click “Blog This” and you get a cool link and image URL your readers can read to confirm your source. It is time limited though. After a few days your readers have to pay for access to view your source. That’s why I haven’t used it much, but maybe I should start now that Wikipedia is finished. :grin:
    Questia is great for searching books and interactive projects and saving “bookshelves” of related information.
    Highbeam gives you quick, deep access to lots of journals.
    Questia is more a research portal that you use all day long.
    I’d give ‘em both a try to see what you find!
    They both offer quite different experiences but I highly recommend each of them.
    The BBC is a fine and reputable portal. Is the BBC ever accused of having an improper, intrinsic, political bias?

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  • If I get to the stage of serious writing I will consider both of them – thanks for the heads up.
    The BBC has often been accused of bias – its investigative journalists rub up against the government ( who raises money by TV licence to pay for the BBC) – the most notable occasions being the David Kelly Affair and the recent cash for honours scandal. It has also been accused of bias against Catholics, Muslims and Jews.
    BBC News Editors blog on the subject – http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2006/10/bias_at_the_bbc.html

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  • No problem, Nicola, if you have any other questions, please let me know!
    Loved the BBC blog link, thanks! I guess if you’re successful and have a POV, there will always be someone out there trying to “get you” to shut you up.

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  • That is always the way if people envy your success – they try to knock you down, pick holes in you or otherwise destabilize you.

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  • Right, Nicola. That’s why we can’t worry about those who question, deny, or try to block what we know is right. We must find our own successes and settle on them.

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  • I always ask what is their motive – why have they said /done that – recognise it deal with it and then move on.

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  • Sometimes they don’t even know their own motives. That’s were you find the real evil. It lurks. Unidentified, unacknowledged and unaware.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    I don’t use Wikipedia as a scholarly source but used to utilize the resources available in every other comment of mine.
    Won’t do it again.

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  • David!
    Does this mean you won’t help me with my entry to the Wikipedia Toothy Vagina Popular Culture page???? :-(

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  • Right! You’re on your own — unless Chris is willing to help get you into Westlaw.

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  • Sinbad is alive and well. It’s his career that’s dead.

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  • Ha! Well done, Swan! So sad. So true! :lol:

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  • An update on this – a new alternative to Wikipedia has been announced here
    http://tinyurl.com/2ccdn6

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  • Beautiful link, Nicola, thanks! I love the idea of a new, smarter and information-safe Wikipedia-thing from the original Wiki geniuses! :grin:

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  • That’s a fantastic link, Nicola, and confirms rather precisely how much of Wikipedia cannot be trusted.
    It’s too bad Google doesn’t realize this farce. Wikipedia routinely provides the first three top returns in any search I’ve lately been performing on Google. It’s a little frustrating.

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  • I actually back up my google searches now with others – I am fed up of the sponsored links and the Wiki entries too.

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  • I think that’s a great idea, Nicola.
    What are your other favorite search engines?

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  • I think that’s a great idea, Nicola.
    What are your other favorite search engines?

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  • You are not the only one. Today, I got to see how malpractices by wiki editors holding the power to edit and delete stuff would potentially be a serious and dire problem in the long run.

    Please read about my plight here:

    http://7des7iny.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/is-wikipedia-biased/

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