The Democratization of Information? Wikipedia as a Reference Resource

By Wallace, Danny P.; Van Fleet, Connie | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Democratization of Information? Wikipedia as a Reference Resource


Wallace, Danny P., Van Fleet, Connie, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Throughout the history of reference services, the creation and production of reference resources have been the province of professionals. Authors and editors, even when acting as volunteers, have been characterized by substantial, identifiable expertise. Production has been the domain of established publishers and database vendors. Control has been tight, with a generally agreed-upon understanding that the emphasis on expertise both in creation and in production serves to ensure the quality of reference resources.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (www.wikipedia.org) represents a completely different paradigm. Authors and editors are volunteers in every sense: the general principle is that nearly anyone can--and by implication, should--be a contributor to Wikipedia. There is no centralized editorial control. Instead content is influenced by individual contributors working collaboratively to achieve consensus and, when that fails, calling for a vote among interested contributors. The result can be thought of as a sort of democratized reference resource by, of, and for the people.

Applying Katz's Criteria to Wikipedia

The late Bill Katz, in his landmark Introduction to Reference Work, identified six fundamental evaluation criteria for reference sources: purpose, authority, scope, audience, cost, and format.

A brief examination of Wikipedia in light of those criteria may prove instructive.

Purpose

According to Katz, "[t]he purpose of a reference work should be evident from the title or form." (1) According to Bopp and Smith, "the focus or purpose of an encyclopedia is generally found in its prefatory remarks." (2) Wikipedia, however, offers nothing that could really be termed prefatory remarks. The first of the "key policies" that underlie Wikipedia is "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Its goals go no further." (3) Wikipedia's subtitle, "The Free Encyclopedia," provides direct guidance on nature and purpose. Wikipedia is further described as "an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language." (4) Grammatical incorrectness aside, this is a lofty goal that sets an incredibly high standard. Although the motive behind the purpose remains somewhat unclear, use of Wikipedia, which rose from an audience of 3.3 million in September 2004 to 12.8 million in September 2005, seems to suggest that the encyclopedia is serving some purpose. (5)

Authority and Objectivity

Authority is clearly the major challenge to Wikipedia. The limitations imposed by this challenge are freely recognized. "Its open nature allows vandalism, inaccuracy, and opinion. It has also been criticised for systemic bias, preference of consensus to credentials, and a perceived lack of accountability and authority when compared with traditional encyclopedias." (6)

Although the last edition of Katz seemingly downplayed the role of authority and objectivity, earlier editions identified four subcriteria related to authority:

1. The qualifications of the author within the context of the purpose of the source;

2. The sources of the author's knowledge;

3. The reputation of the publisher; and

4. Objectivity and fairness. (7)

Author Qualifications

Wikipedia relies primarily on unsigned, truly anonymous contributors. Wikipedia's slogan is "The Free Encyclopedia that anyone can edit." (8) This means that for most articles, the reader has no access to information about author qualifications. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Wikipedia is the explicit statement that "Its authors need not have any expertise or formal qualifications in the subjects which they edit," which seems to move beyond openness and democracy of information into the potential for information anarchy. (9) There are clearly, however, some controls in place. The most important of these controls is the potential for articles to be re-edited or rewritten by other contributors. …

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