Oh no — not another article about Wikipedia’s failings

Yet another tired article on the subject of “Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?” Wonder why people continue to publish this stuff — especially a supposedly high-class site like The Chronicle (of Higher Education)? The article starts in the predictable way of such guff — with a good-news story:

Two years ago, when he was teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the professor hatched a plan designed to undermine the site’s veracity — which, at that time, had gone largely unchallenged by scholars. Adopting the pseudonym “Dr. al-Halawi” and billing himself as a “visiting lecturer in law, Jesus College, Oxford University,” Mr. Halavais snuck onto Wikipedia and slipped 13 errors into its various articles. He knew that no one would check his persona’s credentials: Anyone can add material to the encyclopedia’s entries without having to show any proof of expertise.

Some of the errata he inserted — like a claim that Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, had made Syracuse, N.Y., his home for four years — seemed entirely credible. Some — like an Oscar for film editing that Mr. Halavais awarded to The Rescuers Down Under, an animated Disney film — were more obviously false, and easier to fact-check. And others were downright odd: In an obscure article on a short-lived political party in New Brunswick, Canada, the professor wrote of a politician felled by “a very public scandal relating to an official Party event at which cocaine and prostitutes were made available.”

Mr. Halavais expected some of his fabrications to languish online for some time. Like many academics, he was skeptical about a mob-edited publication that called itself an authoritative encyclopedia. But less than three hours after he posted them, all of his false facts had been deleted, thanks to the vigilance of Wikipedia editors who regularly check a page on the Web site that displays recently updated entries. On Dr. al-Halawi’s “user talk” page, one Wikipedian pleaded with him to “refrain from writing nonsense articles and falsifying information.”

Mr. Halavais realized that the jig was up.

Writing about the experiment on his blog (http://alex .halavais.net), Mr. Halavais argued that a more determined “troll” — in Web-forum parlance, a poster who contributes only inflammatory or disruptive content — could have done a better job of slipping mistakes into the encyclopedia. But he said he was “impressed” by Wikipedia participants’ ability to root out his fabrications. Since then several other high-profile studies have confirmed that the site does a fairly good job at getting its facts straight — particularly in articles on science, an area where Wikipedia excels.

Experienced readers will know what follows next — the “but” clause. And, lo!, here it is:

Among academics, however, Wikipedia continues to receive mixed — and often failing — grades. Wikipedia’s supporters often portray the site as a brave new world in which scholars can rub elbows with the general public. But doubters of the approach — and in academe, there are many — say Wikipedia devalues the notion of expertise itself.

The rest of the piece then rehashes a lot of old stuff that anyone with access to an RSS feed has read a thousand times. What I’d really like to see is something that moves on the discussion about user-generated reference material.