Regular readers of this space will know how often I have warned about the problems of Wikipedia. The truth about Wikipedia is that it is not a reliable resource. I warn my students that if they cite it in their research they have failed and their grade will reflect that failure. The reasons for my concern about Wikipedia are many. If this is news to you please consult the resources below. The most recent illustration of the structural problems of Wikipedia comes to use via an editorial in a small-town newspaper located 119 miles due east of Escondido, in Brawley, CA. The author, Justin Hope, is a physician who reports on his experience trying to edit an entry on Dr Pierre Kory. The author of the editorial became a Wikipedia editor, which anyone can do. He tried to correct an entry, in which someone had used a prejudicial adjective, by using a more neutral adjective (“controversial”). He was unable to correct it because Wikipedia rewards those who spend the most time on an entry. Someone like Dr Hope can make or correct an entry but if the senior editor (who is senior by virtue of the time he or she has spent on the entry) does not agree, the entry or revision goes away. It does not matter whether the squatter, who figuratively hovers around the entry, has any expertise. The thing that matters most is time spent on an entry. In short, Wikipedia is not a resource as much as another social media platform made to look like a comprehensive online reference work. Wikipedia also gives news accounts published by journalists priority over actual published scholarship. So, as Hope found, a “fact check” by a journalist trumps a peer-reviewed study by scientists. Wikipedia is, in principle and far too often in fact, a propaganda machine and not a reliable reference work.
A Wikipedia entry can be created by anyone, regardless of whether that person knows anything about a topic. I began to realize the problems with Wikipedia when I heard two afternoon talk-show hosts log on to Wikipedia and begin editing a site to make fun of someone. That simply is not possible nor should it possible in an actual, responsible reference work. Nevertheless, a Wikipedia entry, especially when it might be controversial (e.g., the entry on Ivermectin), is then controlled by the person or persons who spend the most time on the entry even if those persons have no qualifications or specialized knowledge on that topic.
By contrast, an actual reference work is typically edited by scholars who recruit other scholars, usually specialists but sometimes graduate students, to write on subjects in a non-controversial way in order to introduce beginners to a subject. To be sure, this is not always the case—this is a fallen world and there are poorly executed printed and online reference works. Scholars and librarians are usually able to sort out the useful reference works from those that are less useful. Librarians tend to accession those works that are more credible. Teachers send their students to the better reference works in order to orient them to a topic. An entry in a real reference work will report accurately the basic facts, summarize the state of the scholarship on a topic, and conclude with a bibliography, which guides the student to further research. This is not how Wikipedia operates.
Further, in a real reference work, scholars take responsibility for the work they publish. The editors s are clearly identified and often the authors of entries are identified. Typically, however, the editors of a Wikipedia entry are anonymous.
Dr Hope’s editorial is yet another in a growing number of warnings about the too often fraudulent nature of Wikipedia. Please do not let the convenience of Wikipedia (created by the algorithms used by the search engines) overcome your better judgment. If you use Wikipedia, please do so with the knowledge that virtually everything in an entry is subject to the control of someone who is unqualified to edit a reference work and that what you saw five minutes ago may no longer exist. The bibliography and references at the end of an entry may be helpful or they may be dead links or links to other misleading or propagandistic material. This warning is especially aimed at Millennials and Zoomers who have grown up with Wikipedia and whose schools and teachers may even have encouraged them to use Wikipedia as a resource.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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