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Image: Ryan McGuire

Editing Wikipedia appears to some (including me) to be an endless road – it goes on and on, and is never concluded. And that doesn’t mean it gets better – even when highly experienced Wikipedia editors are on the case. Here is an example.

According to Peter Thonemann, who teaches Greek and Roman history at Wadham College, Oxford, “one of the main worries about Wikipedia is not that its content does not improve over time (it clearly does) but that it gets better so much more slowly than anyone would have predicted back in 2006 or 2007.”

That’s a very optimistic conclusion! Thonemann, in a review of Jack Lynch, You Could Look it Up (which I will review when I have tracked down a copy), has revealed a central issue with Wikipedia. His example (which was explained to him by Wikipedia editor Richard Farmborough, who unusually revealed his real name for this purpose) was the answer to the question “Which English-language novel has sold the most copies?” Thonemann explains there can be no firm answer for such a question, given the proliferation of editions and the absence of reliable sales figures back to the 19th century; nevertheless, for several years Wikipedia claimed to have the answer. What about Wikipedia’s much vaunted insistence on a source for every fact? It seems to have got lost on this fact. From the Wikipedia talk pages, which are an admirable record of every change to every article, Farmborough describes how this “fact” has reappeared and disappeared in the Wikipedia article many times over the past seven years. What happened to the article is instructive:

  • May 2009 RF queries the fact
  • Dec 2014 RF removes the statistic
  • Dec 2014 the statistic is reinstated
  • Dec 2014 the statistic is removed
  • Dec 2014 the statistic is reinstated
  • Feb 2015 the statistic is removed
  • Mar 2015 the statistic is reinstated
  • Mar 2015 the statistic is removed
  • April 2015 the statistic is reinstated
  • Jan 2016 the statistic is removed

Ten changes to one fact in seven years. It is continually reinstated because other Wikipedians believe it is correct – having read the Wikipedia entry.

Thonemann concludes from this episode “there is no way back from the Wikipedia revolution. Instead of grumbling, perhaps we ought to spend a bit more time editing Wikipedia ourselves”. That’s a strange conclusion after revealing how one clearly erroneous fact had to be removed over five times – and that there is no guarantee it won’t be removed again! If we all got involved, perhaps we could increase the number of times a non-fact is reinstated.

My conclusions are very different. Thonemann states “Wikipedia does just fine at uncontroversial factual information, but as soon as a topic demands critical discrimination or a bit of intelligent digging, its quality control goes completely haywire”. Clearly that is not the case here. Which is the best-selling English-language novel of all time should be uncontroversial factual information, but, as with many “facts”, some critical awareness of potential primary sources and their reliability is required before the fact is recycled on Wikipedia. Apparently, Wikipedia editors call this problem citogenesis: self-sustaining cycles of non-facts, where a fact appears on Wikipedia and is then quoted as a source, until eventually everyone assumes it is true, simply because they read it in Wikipedia. Yet Wikipedia struggles to manage just this one fact – and keeps getting it wrong. With four million articles, how many individual facts does that comprise? And how many of them are correct?