Hong Kong's government slammed for citing Wikipedia in official research

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 March, 2015, 4:38am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 March, 2015, 4:38am

The government has been accused of using standards of sourcing that would shame an undergraduate student after citing information from Wikipedia in Legislative Council papers.

The free online encyclopedia is used as a quick reference source by millions every day, but its use is frowned upon by academics because it is an "open source" platform that anyone can edit.

But a Security Bureau paper for a Legco panel meeting on February 3 cited Wikipedia as the source for a table comparing identity card policies in 34 countries. A search of the Legco website reveals that the legislature's own research unit had cited Wikipedia in preparing discussion papers for various panels.

Lawmakers from both pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps slammed the government for its "sloppy work".

"Anyone can modify the entries on Wikipedia," League of Social Democrats lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung said. "Even the entry about me is full of false facts."

Leung said it was not the first time the lawmakers were given questionable information. "We don't even know if the discussion is based on real facts. This shouldn't have happened."

Pro-establishment lawmaker Lam Tai-fai also questioned why officials did not do their own research. "Even many African countries have set up consulates in Hong Kong. Giving the consulates a call would do."

A government source said staff cross-checked information gleaned from Wikipedia with official sources. Asked why those were not listed, the official said: "It would be clumsy to list all the hyperlinks in the paper since it involved over 30 countries."

But the lawmakers remained unconvinced.

"This is about whether they are serious [about their work], and such efforts should not be spared," Lam said.

In academia, Wikipedia's use is discouraged. Harvard University's guide to online sources is titled "What's Wrong with Wikipedia?" and advises students to be "extremely cautious" in using it.

Usual practice at universities is not to cite Wikipedia as source of reference, said Chinese University sociology Professor Stephen Chiu Wing-kai. His department helped developed the university's citation guidelines.

"It's not that you cannot use Wikipedia, but I am aware that some international universities ban students from citing Wikipedia," Chiu said. "But if it is for academic purposes or when preparing a formal report, it should not be your only source."

Founded in 2001, the online dictionary has long been mocked for inaccuracy. Even founder Jimmy Wales advised students not to use Wikipedia as a source; his own entry at one time incorrectly stated that he was a keen chess player.

The Legco secretariat said in a written statement that its researchers would not refer to Wikipedia as their only source of reference. But the secretariat did not directly respond to the question of whether Wikipedia was ever used as the source for part of a particular document. That appeared to be the case in more than a dozen papers the research division had prepared.