Larry Sanger, the founder of the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia, has blasted the UK Education Secretary Alan Johnson for suggesting that the popular reference website is a good educational tool for children.
Johnson described the internet as “an incredible force for good in education” for teachers and pupils. He singled out Wikipedia for particular praise.
“Wikipedia enables anybody to access information which was once the preserve only of those who could afford the subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica and could spend the time necessary to navigate its maze of indexes and content pages,” he told the annual conference of the National Association of Schoolteachers and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).
Wikipedia was founded in 2001, and is in the top ten most visited sites on the internet – number 23 in the UK. It contains more than seven million articles in 251 languages. Written collaboratively by volunteers, its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the web site. The name is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a type of collaborative website) and encyclopedia.
But Sanger says the site was “broken beyond repair” and no longer reliable. This follows similar criticism from detractors.
In Wikipedia's own definition of itself it states: "Critics have questioned Wikipedia's reliability and accuracy. The site has also been criticized for its susceptibility to vandalism, uneven quality, systemic bias and inconsistencies, and for favoring consensus over credentials in its editorial process. Two scholarly studies have concluded that vandalism is generally short-livedand that Wikipedia is roughly as accurate as other encyclopedias."
Sanger left Wikipedia, and two weeks ago launched an online encyclopaedia called Citizendium.org, which will be monitored and edited by academics and experts as well as accepting public contributions.
In an October 17, 2006 press release Sanger said that Citizendium "will soon attempt to unseat Wikipedia as the go-to destination for general information online".
So someone who has just released a competitor to a product says the original product is rubbish, and conveniently a UK minister has stepped right into his promotional rant. Readers may remember another competitor to Wikipedia - the right-wing Conservapedia.
Coincidentally, the Tories have waded in. Tory schools spokesman Nick Gibb chortled: “It appears the Secretary of State is not quite as modern as he needs to be in this information age.”
My PC Advisor colleague Matt Egan is right to support Johnson. Wikipedia is a superb reference tool. I use it all the time, but of course am wary of quoting it verbatim (except for that bit above where I did just that!). Facts need to be checked, and Wikipedia does include plenty of external links where such facts can be double-checked.
Maybe Citizendium will one day be as popular as Wikipedia, but it doesn't yet even have definitions of "London", "Monkey", "Chair" or "Rolf Harris", so is rather less likely to be the first port of call for fact finding, checking and proving other people wrong.
Teachers and students should be encouraged to use Wikipedia – if only to learn about being wary of sources. By being edited by everyone, it should generally preclude extremism and be constantly checked for errors.
Sanger would do well to do the same.