TR: What do you say to educators who tell students not to use Wikipedia for their papers because it isn’t a reputable or reliable source?
JW: I say that in the 1950s, parents told their kids not to listen to Elvis Presley. It’s ridiculous to tell college students not to use Wikipedia. They all use it. Educators shouldn’t abandon their responsibility to help students cope with the world in an adult manner. They should teach students to critically judge sources. They should teach about how Wikipedia is created and its strengths and weaknesses. And they should tell students when to use an encyclopedia versus when to step into the primary literature.
Encyclopedias give you fast, accurate background information. If you’re reading a novel and come across a term you don’t know – for example, a novel set in World War II mentions the Battle of the Bulge – go to an encyclopedia to look it up. If you’re writing a paper on the Battle of the Bulge, Britannica or Wikipedia is not what you should be using. Read the article to get your bearings, but then do your homework.
Rock and roll will never die. Wikipedia is not going away, so if you tell your students not to use it, you’re being unhelpful to them.
TR: How will you change Wikipedia to ensure higher-quality articles?
JW: Very soon in the German Wikipedia, there’s going to be an experiment with stable versions. Trusted contributors will be able to identify work as being accurate and peer-reviewed, then set aside those articles so they can’t be edited. How it’s going to be reviewed and the level of quality – the community needs to figure that out. Other versions will still be available for editing.
The reason we’re doing this is that, in some cases, particularly with articles that are frequently vandalized, there is a good version of the article that people keep messing up. By doing this, we can extract out our own peaks.
TR: Wikipedia erects a technological barrier between its information and its users. There are many people with expertise who don’t contribute because they don’t use computers, can’t afford Internet access, or don’t understand how to use your software; and there are also end-users who can’t access Wikipedia for the same reasons. If your goal is a high-quality encyclopedia that’s available to everyone, how will you overcome this problem?
JW: You’re right. Our mission has always been to provide a freely licensed encyclopedia to every single person in their own language. If you have a broadband connection and you speak English or a whole host of European languages, we’re doing a good job. If you don’t have a computer or don’t speak one of those languages, we haven’t achieved anything.
There is a technical barrier – plenty of people find the software intimidating. You click edit, and while most times you just see sentences, sometimes you see formatting codes.
Even outside of that, there’s a techno-social barrier. For some people, the act of participating is a barrier. I’ve met people who say they think everyone on Wikipedia sounds smart. They want to add something, but feel they don’t know enough. In some cases, they don’t know enough, but in some cases, they really should contribute.