The UK’s Sunday Observer newspaper yesterday had an article (Face facts: where Britannica ruled, Wikipedia has conquered) where John Naughton writes:
Unwillingness to entertain the notion that Wikipedia might fly is a symptom of what the legal scholar James Boyle calls “cultural agoraphobia” – our prevailing fear of openness. Like all phobias it’s irrational, so is immune to evidence. I’m tired of listening to brain-dead dinner-party complaints about how “inaccurate” Wikipedia is. I’m bored to death by endless accounts of slurs or libels suffered by a few famous individuals at the hands of Wikipedia vandals. And if anyone ever claims again that all the entries in Wikipedia are written by clueless amateurs, I will hit them over the head with a list of experts who curate material in their specialisms. And remind them of Professor Peter Murray-Rust’s comment to a conference in Oxford: “The bit of Wikipedia that I wrote is correct.”
And I am proud to stand by it. Anyone can write anything anywhere in WP but it’s not uncommon for one person to start a page and write enough to create critical mass, and others will then repeatedly tweak it – formatting, tidying, categorising, references, etc.. So, for example, I wrote an page on Molecular Graphics over a few days. I wanted to capture some of the growth of the subject – which as a founder member of the Molecular Graphics Society I loved. Other Wpedians have tweaked bits since. I was delighted to see that it’s been awarded a “B” grade by the chemists – roughly in the top 10 percentile.
In bioscience, physical science and mathematics mature pages are usually excellent. If I want to know how to integrate a differential equation, know the structure of a protein, or find the melting point of a common compound I’ll go stright to Wikipedia. If the page is very new I’ll be cautious, but if it’s been around for a year or more, if it’s got > 200 versions, if it’s got an infobox that points at online sources then it’s almost certainly “nearly correct”.
Some diehard detractors point to vandalism as a major drawback of WP – but any practiced reader will easily spot it. But could we improve the believability of WP by stamping it as “fit for purpose” at any given stage. WP is carefully versioned, so if it’s vandalised then it should be possible to stamp versions as “non-vandalised” – it might require some MD5 magic or diffing to be absolutely sure but I’d be surprised if this wasn’t straightforward.
In which case if we can create high-quality pages (B and greater) and stamp them, then even the naysayers must come round to agreeing that WP is fit for study.
I should of course, make it clear that there is nothing special about my contributions. The chemistry pages are created by a really dedicated group of volunteers, which started slowly but over the last 2 years or so has really taken off. I am absolutely clear that WP can soon become the primary reference handbook for undergraduates and for many of the rest of us as well.