In defence of Wikipedia

In an item in this Sunday’s Observer newspaper, Face facts: where Britannica ruled, Wikipedia has conquered, John Naughton speaks up for Wikipedia:

Unwillingness to entertain the notion that Wikipedia might fly is a symptom of what the legal scholar James Boyle calls “cultural agoraphobia” […] I’m tired of listening to brain-dead dinner-party complaints about how “inaccurate” Wikipedia is […] 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.”

Now, Peter Murray-Rust, for those who do not know, is a Professor in The Department of Chemistry at this very University and an eager proponent of open access to research data. You really should take a look at his blog, petermr’s blog: A Scientist and the Web which, seemingly charging through complex chemical structures, is passionate and brave in persuance of its goal. He has just been speaking at the JISC ‘Libraries of the Future’ debate in Oxford. What he said there and in his blog is food for thought (he would probably say less thought more action) for those of us who work in libraries, particularly academic libraries.

Murray-Rust responded to the Observer item by posting: Wikipedia has won – how can we convince you? in his blog from which I select the following quote:

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.

Obviously, he goes on, we need to use some common sense in assessing the accuracy of  an item in Wikipedia. And where we are knowledgeable we can, of course, do our bit to improve its accuracy. I find Wikipedia an excellent resource for quick answers to most factual questions one might ask. If I was bolder, I would recommend it more often as an academic reference and Murray-Rust certainly doesn’t beat about the bush when he concludes (and I  applaud his conclusion):

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.

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About homlib

The Library of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.
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