The wiki generation

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.

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8 Comments on “The wiki generation”


  1. […] “… 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 …” (more) […]

  2. anna notaro Says:

    “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”
    That is the worst, most short-sighted, and ultimately ignorant stance that academics could take towards new cultural phenomena – thought I would not mince my words! :)).
    For a media scholar and educator in particular to advice students to ignore Wikipedia would be like telling a medical student to skip the anatomy class. One can obviously understand why academia (in its majority so far) has had a lukework attitude, at best, towards the Wiki phenomenon. Universities have traditionally been ‘centers of knowledge’ with all the power which derives from it, since the mid 1990s the wiki concept begun to revolutionize ‘knowledge management’ by making it much simpler, less centralized and ultimately more democratic.
    Such epochal change in knowledge management is comparable to the advent of the movable type and the book which gradually brought about a de-centralization of the centers of knowledge production which, from then onwards, were not anymore exclusively in the hands of religious orders and kings. Wikipedia is only the most renowned wiki, however the wiki model as a document or collection of documents, hosted on the Web or an intranet that allows any individual or team authorized to log into the site to edit the material and add comments or content has numerous valid applications, not least in higher education (http://wikisineducation.wetpaint.com/page/Higher-Ed+Wikis)
    What any academic should do when faced by change brought about by technological innovations is not to run back into the ‘knowledge castle’ to defend it but to understand the alleged new ‘enemy’ and more importantly to guide students in acquiring the type of expertise needed in order to use such new knowledge tools critically.

  3. Niall Says:

    Wikipedia can be a useful starting point in an information search. Depending on the rigour of your requirements, you can then move onto peer-reviewed journals or other deeper and more reliable sources.

    Wikipedia was found to be as accurate as Britannica in a study published in Nature (2005) http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038_3-5997332.html.

    “Nature found eight serious errors – four came from each online encyclopedia. Wikipedia had 162 while Britannica had 123 factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. An average of 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.”

  4. Derfel Says:

    Great post. I’m going to record a podcast interview with the President of APS about this.

  5. cormac Says:

    “Now nearly ten years old, the website has been criticised for inaccuracy and sloppy oversight”.
    Not in physics! This is a good example of the two cultures divide; most physicists agree that wiki is surprising accurate and thorough on any technical entry. It is a first port of call for students – but not the last, since concepts are often not fully explained (as in any encylopedia). Hence plaigiarism for WIKI is usually pretty obvious. Why wiki is so good fr physics is an interesting…perhaps physicists love nothing better than to correct one another?
    Btw, in a recent comparison between wikipedia and a standard encyclopedia, didn’t I read that wiki came out surprisingly well overall? I’ve forgotten hwere the report is

  6. Westley Says:

    Similar arguments were used in opposition to the exponential increase in the dissemination of information that the printing press introduced. Hopefully, as occurred then, academia embraces the new approach and asserts a degree of ownership of and engagement with the new approach, adapting it to its own ends. They sure as heck will be unable to un-invent the internet just as they could not un-invent the printing press.


  7. One thing is for sure – search engines consider wikipedia an ‘authoritative’ source and anyone serious about being found on the WWW needs to engage with wikipedia.

  8. Perry Share Says:

    The really interesting thing about wikis, I think, is their capacity for crowd-sourcing of ideas and open-source development of anything from software to car designs.

    I suggested way back on this blog that someone, eg Dr Denny if he is back from Lexington, might like to start a wiki project to design a workable and fair fees/funding system for the 3rd level sector, drawing on/in the expertise and experience of the people who visit this site, to start with. This would be far preferable to waiting for the DES to come up with one, and FvP has always been a bit coy as to exactly how his fees/scholarships systems might work🙂

    There is a long way to go before this potential for collaborative bottom-up policy-making takes off, but there must be great potential?


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