In the wake of the controversy over the bogus Wikipedia entry on John Seigenthaler, the BBC is reporting a small study carried out by Nature magazine comparing the scientific accuracy of Wikipedia entries with those in Encyclopedia Britannica.
The free online resource Wikipedia is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopedia Britannica, a study shows.
The British journal Nature examined a range of scientific entries on both works of reference and found few differences in accuracy.
[...]Now this is all well and good, but the thing is that it doesn't address where the real problem with Wikipedia lies. Excluding topics like "race" and evolution, scientific articles, by their very nature, aren't of much interest or visibility to ignoramuses, trolls, axe-grinders and other miscreants looking to make a point or stir things up, and the more obscure or abstruse the entries in question, the moreso this tends to be the case: no casual observer is going to go look up an article on, say, "crystalline cohomology", and then begin to fill it up with contentious notions.
In order to test its reliability, Nature conducted a peer review of scientific entries on Wikipedia and the well-established Encyclopedia Britannica.
The reviewers were asked to check for errors, but were not told about the source of the information.
"Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia," reported Nature.
"But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively."
Where Wikipedia falls short is precisely in the most accessible subjects, especially when it comes to anything the slightest bit controversial: the free and easy way in which articles can be changed by anybody means that those with particular hobbyhorses to ride and all the time in the world to ride them can easily wear down the patience of those who are more knowledgeable than they are and whose time is more valuable: to illustrate, if a renowned scholar of early 20th century German history contributes by adding Hitler to the list of famous vegetarians, but ignorant, illogical vegan nutjobs decide to delete or distort his contribution - despite the fact that it is about as well established a historical claim as any that can be made about a dead person - one can hardly expect that he'll drop his academic duties and eat up his free time engaging in edit-wars with every delusional twit out there who's convinced no vegetarian could ever have committed heinous crimes. Much the same holds for articles on, say, The Bell Curve, or the Pioneer Fund, both of which are vigilantly watched by far-right race cranks who are quick to delete anything that casts too negative a light on the subjects under scrutiny - most of us have lives of our own to lead and don't have any interest in eating up our years fighting with race obsessives, however well informed we might be.
I think Wikipedia is a decent resource to turn to for drier subjects which leave little room for subjective opinionating, or for information on pop-culture ephemera like the "All Your Base" craze, but for everything else I'm damned sure the Britannica will prove miles better; Wikipedia's lack of meaningful checks on who gets to edit what regardless of knowledge or authority guarantees that it will always remain a heaping pile of half-truths, outright lies and pure gibberish in which the odd small gem can be found now and then, and those who rely on it to settle contentious issues or even to do their homework are just plain stupid. To put it in plain English: direct democracy is irreconcilable with good judgement, and in matters of scholarship the opinions of one highly knowlegeable individual ought to outweigh the braying of thousands of ignorant asses.