I’ve been involved in a long debate over Wikipedia with a friend who is a respected journalist. His contempt for the project stems from his distrust of anonymous writers and what he perceives as a lack of respect among Wikipedia’s contributors for journalistic standards. He’s not wrong — those who follow the controversy surrounding Wikipedia know about recent scandals. More importantly, however, his views are representative of a large number of influential people who distrust Wikipedia for serious research.
Wikipedia is a good idea. There is a need for a freely available, reliable encyclopedia on the Internet. Commercial alternatives like Britannica clearly have their place. But, if only because users expect information on the Internet to be free, we should be grateful that some people are willing to volunteer their time to make that information reliable.
Are we there yet? The report that Nature Magazine released last December contended that we may be closer than we thought. It is also a positive sign for Wikipedia that prestigious organizations are beginning to take the encyclopedia seriously enough to evaluate its claims. In a follow-up interview during Nature’s Dec. 15 podcast, Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikimedia Foundation and founder of Wikipedia, said his goal is to achieve “Britannica or better” accuracy. Yet he was also modest about the report’s findings, admitting that he neither expected such a positive review nor did he think the level of quality was consistent across all subjects.
There is no question: Wikipedia has a long way to go. In order to make it better, supporters need to shift focus away from isolated articles and genres and first address the system that produces the content. By doing so, contributors will have more tools to ensure the reliability of their articles.
I came up with a list of six easy steps that project leaders could take to make Wikipedia better. It’s not conclusive, but these suggestions arose from my own research and conversations with people who are concerned about the project.
1. Consistently enforce the existing standards
In addition to dozens of clearly written policy pages, Wikipedia has impressive tools for tracing the history of an article through its “recent changes” feature. There are extensive guides on the website that instruct contributors on how to cite sources, format entries, debate controversial passages, and argue effectively. Critics who only know about the wiki format may not understand the standards that the project leaders demand.
The problem? Wikipedia’s policies are not evenly enforced. The scandal over John Seigenthaler’s biography was likely only one manifestation of this problem. Participants in Wikipedia need to find ways to uniformly enforce existing standards on all content. If it’s too much work, then questionable content should be taken offline until it can be addressed. Otherwise, there is no way to claim that the site is reliable.
2. Force editors to take responsibility for their articles by telling us their names
Currently, contributors don’t need to provide any information beyond a user name in order to join the community. Until recently, there wasn’t even a requirement to have a user account in order to edit content.
This suggestion will meet with the most resistance, but it answers the biggest complaint about Wikipedia. The current policy is indefensible. If there is an honest reason to remain anonymous (like the fear of political retribution), then it’s easy to provide an editorial workaround either by having more reviews or clearly indicating that the article was anonymously created for political reasons.
3. Supply references and reasons for content change
Right now, in order to change an article on Wikipedia, after logging in, all somebody has to do is type. Their changes will be preserved along with the article’s history, but the only way to explain the reason for a change happens after the fact, in discussion forums.
What if there was an additional field on the edit screen that forced contributors to back up every new piece of content they added with references and reasons for doing so? It would be another tool that justified the added obtrusiveness with its usefulness.
4. Make citations clear
Like any good reference tool, Wikipedia provides endnotes for authors to cite references. But these aren’t used consistently. Some of the numbered links in the articles (which resemble endnotes) are merely links to other websites, with no bibliographical information at the end of the article.
5. Let users rate contributors
Trust is the key issue — and online it matters even more. Wikipedia could easily make use of a system similar to eBay’s user rating system. Every contributor should have their own page with a list of articles and feedback. Only users with an account should be able to create feedback for other users.
6. Settle copyright disputes before questionable material is published
There is a page on Wikipedia that lets leaders debate whether an image or text is under copyright protection. The problem is that many times, the resource is already on the website. If someone is reviewing possible copyright violations anyway, why not do it before the material is published?
These steps are easy to implement from a technology perspective, but the cultural challenges are significant. Despite recent scandals, Wales said that vandalism and malicious editing are not the biggest problems the community faces.
Far more difficult is getting contributors who are passionate about their content to agree on what gets published and the reasons for doing so. Experts who join in order to donate their time and knowledge to improving content will be forced to defend themselves — and their credentials — against less qualified opponents. It is conceivable that such an affront to their pride will drive many away. That would be unfortunate.
Perhaps even more challenging will be getting the current community to agree to abide by stricter rules. But those who most appreciate the remarkable qualities of the Wikipedia community should be the first to pressure the project leaders to take the simple steps necessary in order to ensure that its articles have been fact-checked, are clear of libel and copyright violations, and meet certain standards of composition and organization. Until these steps are taken, they may never be able to convince critics — who could otherwise be valuable allies — that Wikipedia is more than just a cute toy.