The London Guardian published an article on Wikipedia, with ‘experts’ evaluating articles within their expertise. The takehome is that some entries suck, and some entries are pretty good. Well, that’s sort of obvious. I think it’s more interesting that this article, and many others like it, are being published at all. When was the last time an encyclopedia occasioned any review outside the library collection development press?
As for the varying quality of Wikipedia, it’s not really surprising. It reflects the state of the world. What’s surprising, in a popularly-created encyclopedia, is not that there are less-accurate and less-informative articles; what’s surprising is the really large number of accurate and informative articles on onpopular topics. The entries on Samuel Pepys and Steve Reich are, respectively, ‘fairly substantial’ and ‘factually accurate’. Wow. There are probably tens of thousands of people who could qualify as ‘experts’ on Bob Dylan’s biography and discography. I suspect many fewer—dozens?—qualify as experts on Samuel Pepys and Steve Reich. And yet, somehow, a couple of good entries on these subjects.
For a project only four years old, that’s pretty damn good. The Encyclopedié took, what, 20 years to publish? If Encyclopedia Britannica scrapped every single one of its old articles and started from scratch, how long would it take them to create EB? It would have to be several years, and that’s even paying full-time editors and fact-checkers and writers. By contrast, Wikipedia generates 750,000 articles in four years, in English alone, and another 850,000 articles in other languages. For free. With no fulltime editors. Am I surprised that some significant percentage of them qualify as “drafts”? Hell, no. Am I happy to have access to draft encyclopedia articles, for free? Hell, yeah. An encyclopedia — even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica — is only ever supposed to be a source for a quick answer or a place to get started for more serious research. As far as I’m concerned, Wikipedia serves admirably.