Nigel Scott discusses some of the more notable problems with Wikipedia:
A man knocks at your door. You answer and he tells you he is an encyclopaedia salesman.
‘I have the largest and most comprehensive encyclopaedia the world has ever seen’, he says.
‘Tell me about it!’
‘It has more editors and more entries than any other encyclopaedia ever. Most of the contributors are anonymous and no entry is ever finished. It is constantly changing. Any entry may be different each time you go back to it. Celebrities and companies pay PR agencies to edit entries. Controversial topics are often the subject of edit wars that can go on for years and involve scores of editors. Pranksters and jokers may change entries and insert bogus facts. Whole entries about events that never happened may be created. Other entries will disappear without notice. Experts may be banned from editing subjects that they are leading authorities on, because they are cited as primary sources. University academics and teachers warn their students to exercise extreme caution when using it. Nothing in it can be relied on. You will never know whether anything you read in it is true or not. Are you interested?’
‘I’ll think about it’, you say, and close the door.
I use Wikipedia all the time … but I rarely depend on it for primary information, and never for topics that are in the news at the time. Even then, I sometimes encounter data that is clearly wrong — from the trivial (minor errors in dates that are clearly typos) to more serious (actually false or misleading information). I have edited articles on Wikipedia a few times, but not for several years. For more dedicated Wikipedians, however, there are other dangers:
The standard of debate around controversial Wikipedia pages often degenerates into playground squabbling, in spite of rules that are intended to foster consideration and the principle of good faith between Wikipedia editors. Established editors who know the ropes find it easy to goad and ban newcomers with differing views. Thus, gamesmanship trumps knowledge.
The self-selection of Wikipedia’s editors can produce a strongly misaligned editorial group around a certain page. It can lead to conflicts among the group members, continuous edit wars, and can require disciplinary measures and formal supervision, with mixed success. Once a dispute has got out of hand, appeals to senior and more established administrators are often followed by rulings that favour the controlling clique.
Wikipedia is particularly unsuited to covering ongoing criminal cases, especially when a clique of editors who have already made their mind up about the case secures early control of the page. The ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher’ entry is indicative of this. The page has been under the control of editors convinced of the guilt of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito almost continuously since 2007. The page has now been edited over 8,000 times by over 1,000 people. Its bias became so obvious that eventually a petition to Jimmy Wales was launched. Once alerted, Wales took a personal interest and arranged for new contributors to assist in editing the page. He commented: ‘I just read the entire article from top to bottom, and I have concerns that most serious criticism of the trial from reliable sources has been excluded or presented in a negative fashion.’ A few days later, he followed up: ‘I am concerned that, since I raised the issue, even I have been attacked as being something like a “conspiracy theorist”.’