If you are like me, you may be getting a bit tired of the prefix ‘wiki’ appearing everywhere. I have to confess that it has taken me until today to find out what ‘wiki’ actually means. Actually, I still don’t really know, because there are various suggestions out there on the internet. The two most commonly given are that ‘wiki’ is an acronym that stands for ‘What I Know Is'; or that it is Hawaiian for ‘quick’ (or rather, it is half of that, as the Hawaiian word is apparently ‘wiki-wiki’).
Of course what made ‘wiki’ famous is Wikipedia, the online open access encyclopaedia that you and I can edit. It is now one of the two or three most frequently accessed internet sites, with literally millions of articles. It is the last (or sometimes first) resort of students writing essays, or of people wanting reasonably detailed answers on whatever interests them.
The academic and expert communities have always been divided on Wikipedia. Now nearly ten years old, the website has been criticised for inaccuracy and sloppy oversight. In 2006 some of the original founders moved away and created a new site, Citizendium, which was also to be written by volunteers but which was to have more careful and expert monitoring and checking. It hasn’t worked, because some years on it still only has 15,693 entries, and of these only 155 have actually been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that was to be the chief characteristic of the site. Meanwhile Wikipedia keeps growing, and it is now said that for many users of the internet it is the only site they visit if they want to have quick information. Whatever is on Wikipedia, right or wrong, is now the only authority many people ever get to know.
I recently chatted with a group of academics who all declared that it was their belief that the academy needed to fight the use of Wikipedia with all the energy it could muster. But there are others who take a different approach. So for example the Association for Psychological Science is organising its members to edit, correct and monitor Wikipedia articles relevant to its field, thereby creating a more accurate set of articles. Other groups have also been formed to work on a voluntary basis to enhance quality control on the site, including a group of academics in Imperial College London. A research team in Carnegie Mellon University has produced a learned paper suggesting ways in which Wikipedia can be enhanced as a reliable tool (‘Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds in Wikipedia: Quality Through Coordination’). It may be that a gradual change of approach by the higher education community is under way.
Information gathering and distribution on the internet is constantly reinventing itself, and Wikipedia may yet be replaced with something different. But in the meantime it is there, and it is the information framework that most people now use and believe. There is very little point in fighting that, but there may be much to be gained from a better organised academic engagement.