Tech Talk
March 31, 2006
Wikipedia – A free online encyclopedia

As a school girl, whenever I was assigned a project, I would head to the school library or the Kingstown Public Library to conduct my research.

These days, students more than likely use the Internet as their main source of information for school projects. While in my case I was, depending on the topic, limited to the thick, outdated volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannia, their options today are vast.{{more}}

The largest reference website on the Internet today is Wikipedia (http:, a free encyclopedia which is written collaboratively by thousands of people around the world. This project is extremely interesting. The name comes from the word “wiki”, a term given to websites that anyone can edit, correct or improve. The term wiki is a shortened form of wiki wiki which is a Hawaiian adjective denoting something “quick” or “fast”. The project started in 2001 and the website’s contents are written in most of the languages of the world, the English component being the largest by far.

Unlike other encyclopedia, Wikipedia’s authors are all volunteers and are not necessarily scholars in the particular subject area. You or I can go to the Wikipedia site, register and edit an existing article or contribute a new one. In every article, links will guide you to associated articles, often with additional information. You can add further information, cross-references, or citations, so long as you do so within Wikipedia’s editing policies and at an appropriate standard.

According to the published Wikipedia policy, authors are asked to add to the encyclopedia only statements that are “verifiable, and not to add original research”. They are encouraged to cite sources.

If an article is being edited by people holding different points of view, the article will be flagged to indicate it is the subject of a dispute. To resolve the dispute, the interested editors usually share their points of view on the article’s talk page. They attempt to reach consensus about how to edit the article so that both their perspectives are “fairly represented”.

Because Wikipedia is an ongoing work to which virtually anyone can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in some very important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles may still contain significant “misinformation, un-encyclopedic content, or vandalism”. Users need to be aware of this in order to obtain valid information and avoid inaccurate information which was recently added and not yet removed or corrected. Although Wikipedia is generally very good, like all sources, not everything in Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased. User beware.

Our first national hero, Joseph Chatoyer has made it to Wikipedia, as have a few other aspects of our heritage. Our local historians and keepers of our heritage should perhaps take up the challenge to add local information to Wikipedia’s database. This is a good project for the members of the Community College Heritage Club.

We should be careful however to cite sources and respect existing copyright laws. I mention this in closing because in a recent article in Newsweek, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia revealed that he gets “two to three threatening lawyergrams each week.” He argues that as volunteers, Wikipedians are freely sharing their knowledge, yet much of the “cultural heritage is being threatened by absurd limits on fair use of information in the public domain.”

This consideration adds a new dimension to the debate about copyright and new technology, which in the past has been primarily focused on persons “stealing” music and film off the internet. Wales is advocating copyright reform so that the possibilities inherent in the use of “new technologies” like the Internet can be realised. But that is another topic.