Critics say that Wikipedia can’t be trusted because any fool can edit it, and because nobody is being paid to do quality control. Advocates say that Wikipedia allows domain experts to write entries, and that quality control is good because anybody who spots an error can correct it.
The whole flap was started by a minor newspaper column. The column, like much of the debate, ignores the best evidence in the Wikipedia-quality debate: the content of Wikipedia. Rather than debating, in the abstract, whether Wikipedia would be accurate, why don’t we look at Wikipedia and see?
I decided to take a look and see how accurate Wikipedia is. I looked at its entries on things I know very well: Princeton University, Princeton Township, myself, virtual memory (a standard but hard-to-explain bit of operating-system technology), public-key cryptography, and the Microsoft antitrust case.
The entries for Princeton University and Princeton Township were excellent.
The entry on me was accurate, but might be criticized for its choice of what to emphasize. When I first encountered the entry, my year of birth was listed as “[1964 ?]”. I replaced it with the correct year (1963). It felt a bit odd to be editing an encyclopedia entry on myself, but I managed to limit myself to a strictly factual correction.
The technical entries, on virtual memory and public-key cryptography, were certainly accurate, which is a real achievement. Both are backed by detailed technical information that probably would not be available at all in a conventional encyclopedia. My only criticism of these entries is that they could do more to make the concepts accessible to non-experts. But that’s a quibble; these entries are certainly up to the standard of typical encyclopedia writing about technical topics.
So far, so good. But now we come to the entry on the Microsoft case, which was riddled with errors. For starters, it got the formal name of the case (U.S. v. Microsoft) wrong. It badly mischaracterized my testimony, it got the timeline of Judge Jackson’s rulings wrong, and it made terminological errors such as referring to the DOJ as “the prosecution” rather than the “the plaintiff”. I corrected two of these errors (the name of the case, and the description of my testimony), but fixing the whole thing was too big an effort.
Until I read the Microsoft-case page, I was ready to declare Wikipedia a clear success. Now I’m not so sure. Yes, that page will improve over time; but new pages will be added. If the present state of Wikipedia is any indication, most of them will be very good; but a few will lead high-school report writers astray.