Who's afraid of Wikipedia?

Crowdsourcing is indeed one of the buzzwords of our time. It refers, basically, to any process where contributions are solicited ”from a large group of people, and especially from an online community”. It may have to do with material contributions, as with for example crowdfunding, but largely the notion refers to collective processes of knowledge-production or meaning-creation.

Pierre Lévy, a much referenced researcher in the area of digital culture research, coined the concept of ”collective intelligence” in a book by the same name back in 1994. This concept is based on the idea that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something, and that this fact can be harnessed through digital media. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Wikipedia is of course the prime example of these processes. An encyclopedia updated in real time, that anyone can edit, and where the collective intelligence of the many gives us an extremely useful source of information. Because however much some people may hate Wikipedia, I guess it would still be their go-to source for getting quick info about what Transnistria is, how to tell the difference between Sardelles and Anchovies, or for a quick overview of gorillas in comics. If nothing else, it is highly likely that the mighty Google would point them there.

Of course, researchers will find Wikipedia useful since it is easily accessible and well updated. Still many of us hesitate to cite it, sometimes even discouraging students from using it. So what should we do with the Wikipedia type of knowledge in science and scholarly research? Should we ban it, or embrace it? Do we need to develop new tools to deal with it?

A study comparing Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Brittanica found that already its 2005 version was nearly as accurate as EB on science subjects. Seeing that 7 years of collective intelligence working its alleged magic have passed, and also that Wikipedia covers lots of stuff that EB won’t, one might even ask if the site deserves any stigma at all. In a study I made, I still found that it is not uncommon that authors of scientific articles insert various forms of disclaimers or excuses for having consulted Wikipedia. Some examples from various papers:

[…] In contrast to the other serials described, this series was very popular, at least according to a web-based source (Wikipedia [nd]), the producer (Tabloid Jelita/Dv/Idh [nd]) and some of my neighbors in Semarang where I recorded this show while carrying out fieldwork. […] 

The above author says that “at least according to” this source the point in question can be made. Obviously, this wording presumes that other — more certain or reliable — sources exist, the use of which would not require this type of comment.


[…] Those who preside over the Drizzt Wikipedia page have written how ‘‘Salvatore uses Drizzt to represent issues of racial prejudice’’ (Drizzt, n.d.). Drizzt has somehow rejected his evil nature but is often judged as evil. […]

The above author not simply refers to the entry in question, but also makes clear that this knowledge comes from ‘those who preside over’ this page. I doubt that a similar comment would be made if the information was coming from, say, Encyclopedia Britannica or any source that is more established. By making it visible that Wikipedia entries are ‘written’ by a group ‘presiding over’ certain areas of knowledge, the author hints that other things might have been ‘written’ if other people were ‘presiding’ over the entry. In reality, this is of course also the case with Encyclopedia Britannica.


[…] Wikipedia, written and edited collaboratively by volunteer authors in the general public, provides a peek at the lay perception of library history. The online article for Public Libraries claims, “The origins of the public library as a social institution have not been well explored or recorded. The institution may have been inspired by the libraries of European universities, which in turn attempted to imitate research libraries in antiquity.” […]

This author makes clear that the site is ‘written and edited by volunteer authors’ and that it therefore can be said to ‘provide a peek at the lay perception’ of the topic. While other encyclopedias also provide ‘peeks’ at certain ‘perceptions’ of the world, the stronger legitimacy of these sources make it less likely that references to them would have similar disclaimers. These excuses indicate that Wikipedia tends to be seen by academics as a less reliable and potentially more tendentious source of information than many others.


[…] We used the ‘List of Smart Card’ directory in Wikipedia (2008) to identify relevant cases. We believe this list to be comprehensive and accurate for two reasons. First, we have followed smart card development over the past few years, and all the major initiatives that we are aware of are included. Second, we used alternative search methods (e.g., Google searches, and industry magazine listings) to identify possible missing cases and no additional cases were added. […]

The above author, finally, seems to feel the need to motivate why knowledge and information coming from Wikipedia can be ‘believed’ to be ‘comprehensive and accurate’. Maybe the inclusion of these motivations are sometimes the product of requests from peer-reviewers that are sceptical towards the site. But do we really need to be this anxious? I think we should rather look even further into the future.

The development towards using crowdsourced knowledge for academic reference is not limited to Wikipedia — which was cited 104 times in Scopus 2004 and 9101 times in 2011. The graph below provides an overview of the occurrence of Twitter (launched in 2006), Facebook (launched 2004), YouTube (2005), and the blogging platform WordPress (2003) in Scopus reference lists since 2006. This is excluding articles that discuss or analyse these services in particular, or social media in general. Even though the absolute numbers are still small, the increase is obvious.


“Collective intelligence” site URLs in SciVerse Scopus reference lists


These social web services, when used as sources of information and knowledge, can — like Wikipedia — be seen as platforms for crowdsourced knowledge. But in these cases we are also dealing with potentially less structured and more diverse forms of content.

In the end, my study showed that crowdsourced knowledge has not (yet) changed scholarly citation practices to any significant degree. It is still marginal. But we can be sure that in the not so distant future scholars will have to seriously face the challenge of maintaining ’scientific rigour’ (or something like it) while facing increasingly diverse sources. Indeed, the academic community will have to find ways to benefit from the wisdom of crowds without being discouraged by its open and dynamic character.

Note! None of the social media services mentioned in this post will neither do your empirical work for you, nor write your papers.

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