I find Wikipedia-bashing tedious and somewhat ungentlemanly. For columnists looking to fill space, it is simple sport to find an error—though usually a trivial one—in a Wikipedia entry on a topic about which you have some claim to knowledge. But surely the real Wikipedia story is that through the collective efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers, anyone (or almost anyone) with a connection to the internet has access to a free, vast encyclopedia that most of the time does a damn good job. Of course, Wikipedia’s shortcomings are well documented—any resource open to editing by whoever fancies it exposes itself to risk of vandalism, manipulation or incompetence—and so you’d be foolish to rely exclusively on it. But as a jumping-off point for further research, or for corroboration, it’s incredibly useful—and Prospect is happy for its crack team of fact-checkers to use it, in an intelligent way. For what it’s worth, on topics I know a bit about, Wikipedia seems to me to come off pretty well. And of course, a couple of years ago Nature compared 42 science entries in Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and found that in terms of accuracy, the free online encyclopedia fared almost as well as its “dead-trees” counterpart (2007 edition currently retailing for £995).*
Yet despite all this, I always hesitate before turning to Wikipedia to educate myself. And it was only yesterday, when reading this article by Douglas Wolk in the New Republic on Wikipedia’s treatment of the Valerie Plame case, that I realised that this was not because of Wikipedia’s record on accuracy, but because of its turn of phrase. As Wolk argues, Wikipedia’s scrupulous adherence to the “neutral point of view” credo drains all life from its writing, and can often lead to sentences that, while factually flawless, are stylistic shockers. “Little things that are true and even relevant keep accruing on the page like barnacles,” says Wolk, and while in theory neutrality need not imply a steadfast refusal to declare some facts important and others not, in practice it usually does, leading to immensely lengthy entries that lack the attention to weight, rhythm and stylistic balance you’d get from a single-authored article. If you just want the facts, then Wikipedia will, usually, serve you well—but for clear, concise writing, Britannica still coasts it.
* One should add that the Encyclopedia Britannica contested Nature‘s methodology.