Wikipedia vs establishment sources

Interesting article in today’s Guardian from Nicholson Baker.  He gushes lovingly and engagingly over that most ubiquitous of web sources, Wikipedia

I was particularly amused by his take on Wiki’s detractors (and by association, the detractors of Wiki’s voluntary authors).  Those ‘deletionists’, those ‘self-promoted leaf-pile guards’ who say ‘your leaves were too crumpled or too slimy or too common, throwing them to the side.’

Last week, while on holiday, I leafed my way through The Cult of the Amateur, a text authored by perhaps the leading ‘self-promoted leaf-pile guard’, Andrew Keen. 

Keen pours endless scorn on Wikipedia, bemoaning the impact it is having on established reference sources (i.e. the Encylopoeadia Britannica), and on our culture more generally.

So I thought I’d try a little experiment here.  How, I wonder, does Wiki’s entry on Nicholson Baker compare with his entry in one of the establishment sources, Gale’s Contemporary Authors, in terms of some of the criteria key to journalists (and other professional researchers) plying their trade?  We’re talking Up-to-dateness, Degree of detail, Referencing and reliability, and Authoring and reliability here.

So in a quick and dirty compare and contrast, I found that his latest bibliographic entry for fiction in Contemporary Authors is Vintage Baker, Vintage Book (New York, NY), 2004.  By contrast, the latest entry in Wiki is Checkpoint (2004, Random House; ISBN 1-4000-4400-6).  A quick check of Amazon shows that Vintage Baker appears to be the latest, albeit it comprises a selection of Baker’s works.  Is it therefore a new work?  Perhaps Wiki’s and CA’s definitions of what constitute a *new work* differ somewhere…

Non-fiction is a different story however. In CA the latest entry is Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, Random House (New York, NY), 2001. However in Wiki the latest entry is Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008, Simon & Schuster; ISBN 978-1416567844).  That’s some 7 years difference, and in addition, Wiki lists another Non-fiction entry within this 7-year span: With Margaret Brentano (his wife). The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898–1911) (2005, Bulfinch; ISBN 0-8212-6193-2).

In terms of a basic biog, his Wiki entry contains a 271-word long blurb, by comparison with a much punchier, almost bullet-pointed 75-word description in CA.  In CA his wife and children are named, in Wiki they are not. However in Wiki, his hometown is mentioned, whereas in CA it is not.  In CA his agent is mentioned, in Wiki she is not.  Does this suggest a privacy issue in the latter?  Could the authors of the Wiki entry not find this information out?  Unlikely –  his agent appears to be corroborated elsewhere freely on the web. 

In CA we learn that Baker was previously occupied as an oil analyst, a word processor, and a technical writer.  We learn none of this from Wiki.  In Wiki we learn that he is an agitant for the preservation of paper-based media. In CA all we learn of this lies in the hint that he is founder of the American Newspaper Repository.

In terms of literary analysis, CA has a robust precise/analysis of the authors’ main works, spanning some 2416 well-crafted words.  Wiki’s analysis is a more managable 1004 words long. The referencing speaks volumes for the contrast in these two sources.  CA offers a conventional bigliography of hard-copy books and periodical entries, in the standard Harvard format – completely hyperlink free. 

Wiki, by comparison, links primarily to itself (i.e. other Wiki entries on Baker’s books), to newspaper articles he has authored (including the one published today – how’s about that for being up-to-date!), and to other sources about the author (recognised, establishment sources it has to be said), as well as links about his other activities (the American Newspaper Repository).

As far as the authoring of the two articles is concerned, we know CA is an established source, and we know that Gale are its’ publishers.  End of.

The last five authors of the Wiki entry include Loren.wilton (no further details on Wiki), the IP address (no further details on Wiki), Ghmyrtle (an un-named author who claims to be from Chepstow in Wales), Chiskop (no further details on Wiki), and Polly (a contributor to other areas of Wiki, but un-named in their basic Wiki entry).

So in summary:


CA seems to have a different definition of what constitutes a *new* literary work, but was way behind on non-fiction bibliography.

Degree of detail

Both contained a good spread of info, with degrees of focus on the authors’ life, family and home. No contact details in Wiki however, which is not much use to a journalist (and which frankly, didn’t take much to find out online).

Referencing and reliability

CA has the conventional academic approach to authority, which stands the test of time. However, it doesn’t care about helping you find these items online.  Wiki is fairly self-referential by comparison, but did include some external links.  Self-reference is, of course, a bit of a spanner in the works of triangulating your sources.

Authoring and reliability

We know CA is authored by Gale, and their reputation rests upon getting it right. But many authors of the Wiki article don’t share who they are, and cannot be corroborated.

Basically I think this compounds my own prejudices about Wikipedia when it comes to journalistic research.  Its great for up-to-dateness, but hardly a source you can use without reference to other established sources, be they newspaper articles, or the conventional academic sources used in the industry.

What you reckon…



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