Wikipedia as a Research Tool

Frank Luntz, the conservative pollster who coined the phrase “death tax” to replace “estate tax,” cites Wikipedia frequently in his book Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.  An odd reference choice, since one rarely sees citations for encyclopedia entries.  Wikipedia has the additional drawbacks of being entirely written by users, with unsigned articles that can be changed by anyone at any time. 

He cites Wikipedia as the source for a quote from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 anti-Goldwater “Daisy” commercial (pp. 123, 300).   Wikipedia currently provides a link to the original 30 second ad.  Of course these entries change all the time, but according to the Internet archive Wayback Machine, the link first appeared three years before Luntz published his book.  For an investment of 30 seconds, he could have cited the primary source.  But he didn’t bother with that.  Instead he relied on an encyclopedia that can be modified by anyone on the Internet.       

I’m a big fan of Wikipedia.  It’s always my first step when embarking on a new research project.  With a few caveats, I have convinced friends and colleagues that it is reliable.  Because author groups tend to form around one knowledge area, the entries are usually accurate and usually meet the Wikipedia standard of NPOV (no point of view). 

Anyone can write a Wikipedia entry, so it has lots of information about obscure topics.  I recently looked up a major rock band, the Doobie Brothers, which led me to their producer Ted Templeman and then to his 1960’s band Harpers Bizarre, who had covered a song by Cole Porter.  In a print encyclopedia, I would have to look up each item in its respective volume.  In Wikipedia, the links do the looking up for me. 

Of course, in a traditional encyclopedia, and in the online Encyclopedia Britannica which requires a subscription, only Cole Porter has his own article.  The Doobie Brothers and Ted Templeman are both mentioned in an entry about Warner/Reprise Records.  A search for Harpers Bizarre only returns an article about Diana Vreeland, fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine whose name the band parodied.  In Wikipedia, even “Anything Goes,” the title song from Porter’s 1930’s musical, has its own separate entry.  Harpers Bizarre covered it in 1967.  “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes.”  Fit right in with the Haight Ashbury scene.   

This depth of information is achieved because someone out there knows a lot about Harpers Bizarre.  Wikipedia gives that person, and anyone else with a knowledge niche, a forum to anonymously write about their favorite topic.  If a group forms around that knowledge area, refining and evolving the article, accuracy is achieved, along with the Wikipedia gold standard of NPOV, because the group moderates itself. 

For this reason, the accuracy level tends to be about the same as traditional encyclopedias.  This was tested in 2005, when Nature magazine found that the average Wikipedia science article contained four errors, while the average Britannica science article contained three (“Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head,” 12/15/05, pp. 900-901).  Wikipedia has the advantage here because it can correct errors immediately and the hard copy Britannica has to wait for the next printing. 

But Wikipedia’s strength is also its weakness.  It remains an intellectual graffiti wall where errors linger until someone bothers to paint them over.  Accuracy and NPOV are achieved through the group.  Highly visible topics more readily meet the standard than less popular topics.  If someone writes an inaccurate article and no one reads it or bothers to change it, then the errors stand.  In 2005, prior to the Nature study, a jokester modified journalist John Siegenthaler’s Wikipedia biography to imply that he participated in the assassination of Robert Kennedy.  Sieganthaler, a pallbearer at Kennedy’s funeral, discovered the error four months after it appeared.

I found an error myself this year while researching the French Revolution.  One Wikipedia article stated that Marie Antoinette’s brother was a pope.  Her brother Leopold II was the Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of a lot of Germanic territories and a major player in the wars of the French Revolution, but, despite the title, not a pope.  I assume the error was quickly corrected, but it was there when I happened to be reading.  If I had been new to the topic, perhaps a 7th grader, I might have believed it. (Sorry, no links.  This is a memory I hadn’t expected to use in an article.) 

As a reader, you do not know if a Wikipedia fact has been modified by a confused researcher or by someone just having a little fun.  Of course you can look at the editorial conversations that are generally available to all, but it would be impossible to vet every single fact.  So I don’t rely on Wikipedia for accuracy and I have not yet used it as a reference, although I do frequently link to it in these blog postings to provide more information. 

And now here’s the real reason I like Wikipedia – lots and lots of footnotes, references and links to more information – much more than a print encyclopedia because Wikipedia is not constrained by space.  Also it needs to prove its accuracy, so it places a high premium on documentation.  I knew a link to the original “Daisy” ad would be on that Wikipedia page, because that’s how Wikipedia operates.  If it can point you to the primary source, it will do so. 

I use Wikipedia the way you’re supposed to use any encyclopedia, as a starting point.  It gives me an overview that is more likely than not to be accurate and it gives me lots of resources for more information.  Those resources are signed and they have more references and it was Wikipedia that got me set for a new knowledge hunt.

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Dec 2008

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