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Digital Culture

Wikipedia isn't a viable source for scientists, expert says

Wikipedia offers unrestricted knowledge, is open to all - but the free online encyclopedia still has weak spots, even 15 years after its creation. German communication expert Rudolf Stöber explains why.

Deutsche Welle: How do you use Wikipedia in communication research?

Rudolf Stöber: I mainly use Wikipedia to expand research and as a platform that gives me ideas that I then have to look into more thoroughly.

What are your reservations concerning quality standards and reliability?

There's really no general answer to that, it very much depends on the context of the topic. You should be careful with articles that are part of the general political discourse, for instance when searching the expression "refugee crisis." But of course you can always check the revision history.

Basically, Wikipedia has become a very good encyclopedia. From a scientific point of view, my main reservation is that quite a few students and even a few of my colleagues believe they can use it as a tool for scientific research, and that's a huge misunderstanding.

So you're saying Wikipedia as a source needs to be backed up by other sources?

It's not something you should do - you must. Because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. What defines an encyclopedia is that it has to offer a certain standard condensed knowledge. Wikipedia does a pretty good job, with some concessions. Articles tend to go on and on. Compared to Germany's "Brockhaus" and the "Encyclopedia Britannica," I'd like to see more precise and condensed information on Wikipedia.

In general, encyclopedias offer condensed information about issues you may know more or less about, but they have nothing at all to do with science's main task, which is asking questions and posing problems. It answers factual questions with factual knowledge ('What is it?'), but doesn't offer problem-oriented methodological knowledge ('How does it work?').

What are Wikipedia's biggest weaknesses regarding content?

Prof. Dr. Rudolf Stöber

Communications researcher Rudolf Stöber misses the concise style of traditional encyclopedias

My field, Communication Research, is not very well represented, for instance. My colleagues would like to see Wikipedia apply the same level of quality management procedures as those used for scientific publications. To a degree, we feel judged by people who aren't experts. As a result, many scientists from my field are reticent to contribute, and I presume the same is true in other scientific areas. So it's legitimate for me to remind my students that there are in fact specialized encyclopedias, professional journals and books.

Wikipedia isn't just a knowledge platform - sometimes it's a battleground where people compete for the correct portrayal, the right interpretation. How do you see this struggle for the truth?

Wikipedia has this incredible advantage of a revision history open to all. This transparency is a good thing and it almost makes Wikipedia a research object in my own field of expertise. It surpasses the traditional role of an encyclopedia and offers more than condensed expert knowledge. But in principle, current affairs don't belong in an encyclopedia. This encyclopedia's strength - a focus on very current issues - is at the same time the reason for its weakness.

Wikipedia says it's published more than 37 million articles in almost 300 languages. That makes it the sixth most-visited website in the US, and the seventh in Germany. All the same, Wikipedia is regularly accused of being susceptible to vandalism, and that organizations and companies influence contents. Is this criticism justified?

I haven't checked the statistics but you can't solve the problem of alias authors who hide their true identities. Public relations entries are so skillfully concealed that it often takes a while for people to catch on. Inevitably, that's part of this open community structure, and it's a problem that can't be solved.

But there's no doubt it's a serious issue, just look at the entries by certain politicians that led to so-called "edit wars," and entries in the English-language Wikipedia on the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Then you'll know what I mean. One glimpse at the figures and how frequently things went back and forth, and you know, that's a problematic article. When things get out of hand, such articles are removed from the discussion.

Wikipedia has more than a billion clicks per month in Germany. As Wikipedia triumphantly sails the waters of the World Wide Web, the flagship of German encyclopedias, the good old "Brockhaus," is vanishing into thin air. Is that something you regret?

Yes, to a certain extent I do, because these encyclopedias used to keep it short, they were stringent and precise. It's unfortunate that the "Brockhaus" and the "Encyclopedia Britannica" are gone. These encyclopedias had honed a system of different lengths depending on the importance of the topic. On the other hand, you can't spurn the relevance of the community.

Professor Rudolf Stöber teaches communication research at the Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg. His expertise includes changes in communication, the general public and the media.

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