Wikipedia breeds 'unwitting trust' says IT professor

Students banned from citing Wikipedia in coursework.

If you are faced with the prospect of having brain surgery who would you rather it be performed by - a surgeon trained at medical school or someone who has read Wikipedia?

That's the view of Deakin University associate professor of information systems Sharman Lichtenstein, who believes the popular free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is fostering a climate of blind trust among people seeking information.

Professor Lichtenstein says the reliance by students on Wikipedia for finding information, and acceptance of the practice by teachers and academics, was "crowding out" valuable knowledge and creating a generation unable to source "credible expert" views even if desired.

"People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading," she said. "Parents and teachers think it is [okay], but it is a light-weight model of knowledge and people don't know about the underlying model of how it operates."

Lichtenstein and her associate, Dr Craig Parker, are leading a team of researchers to determine how Wikipedia operates, and is not shy in expressing her lack of confidence in the population's appreciation of intellectuals.

"Australians are notorious in their disrespect of academics, scholars and professionals - so called elites," she said. "Yet as I say to my students, 'if you had to have brain surgery would you prefer someone who has been through medical school, trained and researched in the field or the student next to you who has read Wikipedia'?"

As a result, Lichtenstein's students are not allowed to cite Wikipedia in their coursework.

"My students say Wikipedia is a good place to get a general understanding of a topic," she said. "They get a good understanding of a topic and get more specific information elsewhere. There is a need for easy-to-use information that is correct and has been produced by a rigorous process."

When asked if people should be more comfortable believing in a "web of trust" network like Wikipedia over an individual, Lichtenstein said experts have never been 100 percent correct, but are making a comeback in terms of public perception as a group of untrained people can be more misleading.

And if experts are part of Wikipedia's editing pool? Lichtenstein said the problem with that is experts expect to be paid for their work.

"If someone asked me if I would dedicate a day a week to Wikipedia I would expect to be paid," she said. "People have invested a lot in becoming an expert and they are trying to earn a living and you can't expect experts to contribute without pay."

Information in a traditional encyclopedia was built up by experts with "recognized credentials and expertise in the field", according to Lichtenstein, but Wikipedia, in contrast, "prides itself on being built by groups of lay citizens rather than traditional experts".

"While research shows there is an advantage to this it also shows they are not experts in their field and lack the experience to make judgments about what knowledge should be included and what should not."

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Lichtenstein also expressed concern about the anonymity of Wikipedia's many "editors and administrators", which may also mean consumers are unable to establish the credibility, or otherwise, of an author.

According to Lichtenstein, Wikipedia topics are selected for inclusion on the basis of their notability, which is subjective and fosters discrimination and elitism, "the very things the Wikipedia is against".

"Unlike academic journals and other legitimate reference sources, the Wikipedia has created new and anonymous elite 'editors' and administrators," she said.

"An expert is held accountable if they make a mistake but no one is held accountable for the information available on Wikipedia. People miss the statistical likelihood that a doctor will give you a wrong diagnosis compared with Wikipedia. And people may never be able to tie back false information they use to Wikipedia."

Lichtenstein warns that if teachers, employers and academics continue to accept Wikipedia as a legitimate reference, the valuable knowledge of experts will become increasingly disputed and marginalized, and inferior knowledge will be learned and applied in the workplace.

"There have been many incidents when a version of a Wikipedia article can be very inaccurate, which could be innocent or the result of deliberate changing of an article," she said, adding there are certain political views, particularly conservative, that are not tolerated on Wikipedia.

Lichtenstein said as a result of growing dissatisfaction with Wikipedia's editorial process people are starting to develop niche online encyclopedias, including Google which plans to release "Knol" for user-generated content.

"Google Knol is supposed to be a competitor to Wikipedia that will involve experts, and because it's Google, search results will appear above Wikipedia entries which are quite often the first result," she said.