What I Learned (and Did Not Learn) From Wikipedia the Other Day
By Gary Price
Here’s a story, an real life example, about Wikipedia that came about during at dinner the other night. Yes, it’s one example from one article but I think if nothing else it’s a useful example.
If I said that this experience was going to stop me from ever using Wikipedia again it would be ridiculous, impractical, and foolish.
Common Sense That Needs Repeating
Even when using Wikipedia to get a brief overview (aka “lay of the land”) about any topic it’s still a good idea to check more than one source even when your just trying to get the basics. For info pros, educators, journalists, etc. this is second nature but for some users it’s not and worth pointing out.
All reference tools can have problems but over the years we’ve noticed that a lack of consistency from one entry to the next is a primary issue with Wikipedia. Of course, knowing a bit about editors would also be useful but that’s another matter.
A Story, An Example
Last Friday night my wife went out to an area restaurant for dinner. When we were taken to our table I noticed that at the table across from was someone who looked familiar but I wasn’t sure who he was. After a moment I thought that he looked like a former player from the Washington Redskins. I couldn’t recall his name but if it was the person who I though it was I remembered a facts about him that might help trying to figure it out.
So, out comes the iPhone.
Unfortunately, what I thought I knew makes for a rather sad story.
- He Had Been Arrested a Few Times For Drug Use
- Banned Permanently Banned From the NFL
- Graduated from College Functionally Illiterate
After creating a search using using some of those concepts and after a few iterations I came up with the former player’s name.
To any NFL fan during the 80s the name Dexter Manley is well known. He was a great player and very likely would be in the Hall of Fame by now. Sadly drugs were the root cause of his eventual ban from the NFL.
Did I learn (or confirm) any of what I knew with Wikipedia?
In fact, NONE of what I knew and confirmed elsewhere is mentioned in the entry about Mr. Manley. His story is well-known and has been discussed many places over many years. Manley also told his story in an autobiography.
This does not end the story.
When I checked the Wikipedia history page for Dexter Manley’s entry I noticed that information (including reference links) about his arrests were removed from the article on May 27, 2011. Why? According to the notation, “Arrests are irrelevant.”
Yes, it’s true. Even though the facts of Manley’s arrests are well documented many they’re irrelevant for Wikipedia. It is s a sad story but does that make it irrelevant? No. We’ve sent a note to Wikimedia asking to explain why arrests info are not relevant as they are part of Mr. Manley’s story.
By the way, info about the arrest and prison time served of another sports legend, Pete Rose, IS included in his entry.
To be honest our guess why the info was removed is that it’s simply an editor not wanting the info in there for whatever reason(s) they believe apply. In this case it appears relevancy is the issue. Editors removing useful and documented factual material for any number of reasons from Wikipedia are well-known but are often not discussed.
The lack of consistency (Dexter Manley, no arrest info, Peter Rose yes info) from one article to the next is something we’ve noticed over the years and is something Wikipedia needs to address and users need to understand. This is not only true about info added and removed but also for what’s been missed or just omitted.
It’s one issue for popular topics that are constantly reviewed but another issue for important info that is not used by the masses day in and day out.
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com. Gary is also the co-founder of infoDJ an innovation research consultancy supporting corporate product and business model teams with just-in-time fact and insight finding.