By design, the most popular reference source on the Web operates by consensus rather than by discriminating between fact and error.
This leads to errors; he writes,
Here is a small example concerning my family, and that I cite because I therefore know the subject and it illustrates what I’m talking about. It would be difficult to name an African country that has suffered war in the last 40 years and whose travails have not been reported by Martin Bell for the BBC. One of those countries, however, is Rwanda. Wikipedia’s entry for Martin, sure enough, cites prominently his journalism from that country – a body of work that no one has seen because it doesn’t exist. It’s the type of small error – something that might have happened, but didn’t – that no amateur editor would feel sufficiently strongly about to check, or sure about to delete. Inevitably, given Wikipedia’s reach and unwarranted use even by serious newspapers, that factoid will make its way into profiles and, one day, obituaries of the man. It’s not important; it doesn’t affect his professional reputation one way or the other; it’s just wrong. By not discriminating between fact and error, the Web and specifically Wikipedia increasingly blur the distinction between them.
Stephen Pollard agrees, drawing attention to inaccuracies in the entry on him,
The entry on me, for instance – probably the only subject about which I can claim to the the world’s leading expert – has so many basic errors of fact that it is laughable.
He then goes on to discuss some of them; his biography of David Blunkett wasn’t official, he’s never appeared on Question Time and so forth. He writes,
I have made a point of never correcting it because once I start, there will be no end to it, as it is forever altered with new errors.
However, someone’s corrected it, and within hours of Mr Pollard’s criticisms appearing. I thought of correcting the Martin Bell entry, but, instead, left a comment in the Discussion section, drawing attention to Kamm’s complaint. In under an hour, someone replied,
His profile on the BBC lists Rwanda as a country he has reported from, whether the BBC profile is correct or not is another matter…
And so it does, telling us that
Martin Bell joined the BBC in Norwich aged 24 with a first-class honours degree from King’s College, Cambridge, behind him.The call to London came three years later, and soon he was in Ghana on his first foreign assignment.
Over the next 30 years, he reported from 80 countries and covered 11 conflicts. He made his name in Vietnam in the 1960s, and also covered wars in the Middle East, Nigeria, Angola and Rwanda, as well as numerous assignments in Northern Ireland.
One rather assumes that whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry took the information from the BBC rather thna the other way round and, if the international broadcasting organisation for which he supposed reported from Rwanda can’t get it right, it’s a bit hard to blame Wikipedia for reproducing the error.
From the point of view of correcting errors, Wikipedia seems to work better than the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was very heavily criticised for its inaccuracies when it came out in 2004 (and, of course, Wikipedia doesn’t cost £7,500 for a copy). To be fair, the ODNB were aware of that inaccuracies are inevitable; as the Preface puts it,
Nobody who has been involved with the new dictionary believes it to be free from errors and gaps, and we who have created it accept responsibility for its defects. ‘That there are errors in the Dictionary,’ wrote [Sir Sidney ]Lee [of the first edition] ‘those who have been most closely associated with its production are probably more conscious than other people.’ [Colin] Matthew felt that the creators of what became the Oxford DNB should not seek perfection, for that would hinder completion: only through publication could the project’s labours benefit readers. The Oxford DNB’s defects will gradually be corrected after September 2004 in response to changes in evidence, interpretation, and priorities. No longer does a century need to elapse before such improvements can be made. After 2004 it will, for the first time in its history, be continually refined and amplified in its online edition and printed supplements, and will gain further strength from the collaboration with readers and contributors which has moulded the Dictionary since its inception in 1882.
Inaccuracies, it seems to me, are unavoidable in such an enterprise; a friend of mine was commissioned to write some of the ODNB articles and found herself under very considerable time pressure from the deadlines — obviously, compiling articles for the ODNB isn’t her main job and, while she knows a great deal about C19th Imperial British history, she did have to research some of the more obscure figures on whom she was writing, which takes time. She’s not completely happy with some of what she wrote — she thinks it’s correct, but couldn’t swear to it because she had in some respects to rely on secondary sources that she doesn’t wholly trust rather than dig out the original archive documents; but, when she raised this objection to the editors who were pressing her on deadlines they, not unreasonably, said they couldn’t give everyone extensions or the new edition would never get published.
I’m with Tim on this; one doesn’t expect encyclopaedias to be accurate — errors are, unfortunately, inevitable. Wikipedia has a better chance than most of being accurate, or at least having its more egregious errors corrected swiftly (as with Mr Pollard’s entry) than does the ODNB — had my friend been writing her articles for Wikipedia she could have submitted, and revised, them at her leisure rather than having to wait for her revisions to go through the ODNB’s committee procedures for her (or others’) corrections and emendations to appear in the online edition and in print supplements.
On a lighter note, Dave Cross has an illuminating article on Petronella Wyatt’s Wikipedia entry. Seems she created her own entry (very poor form) and then, a few days later, wrote an entertaining piece in the Daily Mail about how it was vandalised. Except, as Mr Cross notes,
It seems likely that Ms. Wyatt genuinely didn’t realise that Wikipedia articles have a history, so she didn’t know that her claims could be checked out quite so easily. But given that she has so obviously used “journalistic licence” exaggerate this event, how much can you trust anything else that she writes?
It’s one thing to complain that entries in Wikipedia are inaccurate — but knowingly making inaccurate claims about their inaccuracy… this could get ever so recursive.
Declaration of interest: there’s a bit about Ms Wyatt and her Wikipedia entry over at Mr Worstall’s place. I’m the person who made the perfectly accurate and sourced emendation, based on Tim’s comments, that was removed (on the grounds it was more relevant to The Spectator than to Ms Wyatt) within five minutes.