Wikipedia: a triumph for public, but reader beware

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2007, 12:00am

An article in a respected journal once concluded that the incidence of errors in Wikipedia was only slightly higher than in Encyclopaedia Britannica. The people at Britannica naturally disagreed, citing the importance of choosing expert contributors and editors rather than allowing anyone to write and edit articles.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen presumably would sympathise. As we report today, his Wikipedia profile page was edited from an IP address registered to his campaign headquarters building. The changes put a more favourable slant on references contributed by others about his record on public spending, the environment and political reform.

Mr Tsang is the latest to be caught up in a recent rash of claims that corporations, government departments and even the office of the Australian prime minister have been 'writing their own history' by removing or editing critical comments. There is no suggestion of direct involvement by Mr Tsang, and such claims are not new.

The point about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. That is the whole idea of it and what makes it such a popular online encyclopaedia.

Its mission, however, is to present free knowledge to everyone on the planet with a neutral point of view. With the assistance of customised software to monitor editing, the site's administrators do their best to filter out vandalism, factual errors and bias. It claims that most of the writing and editing is done by a core group of not much more than 1,000 including site administrators. But it is nonetheless subjective. People hold different views, and their motives are not always innocent. Those who enter the site should be aware of what they are getting and not confuse it with a conventional encyclopaedia.

In a sense, blogs and sites like Wikipedia have become the thinking man's graffiti. Traditional wall daubings remain an art form or a political medium to some. But now anyone can post their thoughts openly and spontaneously on the Web. Subject to the caveat to the reader, the world should be a better place for it.