This House believes Wikipedia is a force for good

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopaedia produced entirely by the voluntary efforts of hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. It was founded in by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001, after an earlier effort to build a traditional “expert” encyclopaedia online got bogged down in the slow complexities of academic review and professional editing. Instead Wikipedia adopted wiki software, which allows groups of people to cooperate dynamically in writing and editing material online. To many people’s surprise, this open-access approach was a rapid success, attracting many high-quality submissions from a wide range of contributors. This was despite (or because of) online warfare between rival volunteers who sought to edit and reedit entries.

As of May 2011 the English-language Wikipedia site has over 3.6 million articles; adding in entries from versions in other languages raises the total to over 9.25 million. Proponents argue it has rapidly become an indispensable reference for anyone seeking information and is one of the most heavily visited sites on the internet. It has become particularly heavily used by students at school and college, to the concern of some educationalists but the applause of others. Nevertheless, from the start Wikipedia has had its critics, with co-founder Larry Sanger leaving the project early over the direction of the site. Past and present editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica have criticised Wikipedia for inaccuracy, arguing that its democratic ethos lacks academic rigour and provides no guarantee that any entry can be relied upon though a study in the science journal Nature found that the two encyclopaedias have similar levels of error[1]. Others have criticised the agenda of the site, and the way in which its rules for contributors (including the famous “Neutral Point of View,” or NPOV) are applied in practice. Despite a number of well-publicised scandals, however, proponents maintain the site has continued to grow, both in size and in importance.

[1] Giles, J. (2005, December 15). Special Report: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

 

 

Title 
Wikipedia provides free, open access to knowledge
Point 

Wikipedia exists to provide free, open and easy access to information and knowledge. Its goal is to ‘distribute a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet in their own language, and to an astonishing degree (it) is succeeding’.[1] It already has over 3.5 million articles in English alone.[2] This is more than ten times those of Encyclopaedia Britannica, its nearest printed rival. Traditionally, reference works were very expensive, which meant previously that knowledge was restricted to the wealthy, or those with access to well-funded public libraries. Wikipedia liberates that knowledge and provides volumes of online information to anyone with access to a computer, or even a smartphone, and the internet. Its impact is only restrained by the reach of internet providers and the desire of people to learn. Users do not need to be able to afford particular print objects but can access contents of Wikipedia from any location with Internet connectivity.

[1] Schiff, S. (2006, July 31). Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer it all? Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The New Yorker

[2] Asrianti, T. (2011, April 27). Writing culture on the web: Are we still better at talking? Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The Jakarta Post

Counterpoint 

Wikipedia does not provide free, open access to knowledge, for it only applies to those who already have access to both a computer and internet access. Furthermore, since very few computer retailers or internet service providers are willing to provide their services free of charge, to declare Wikipedia free is disingenuous; there are substantial charges before Wikipedia can be utilized. Moreover while Wikipedia may provide free open access to knowledge this is mostly for those who speak English. Those who need this resource are those who speak much smaller languages but as yet Wikipedia is not a good resource in these languages. The Punjabi Wikipedia only has 3,000 articles[1] despite it being  a language with more than sixty million speakers.[2]. Lastly, whilst Wikipedia has advantages over traditional print encyclopaedias, tangible objects have the advantage of never going offline and therefore being able to provide their information constantly.

[1] Wikimedia. (2012). List of Wikipedias, Retrieved May 16, 2012, from meta.wikimedia.org.

[2] Ethnologue. (2000). Languages of Pakistan, Retrieved May 16, 2012, from ethnologue.org.

Title 
Collaboration in editing encourages democratic principles
Point 

The process of collaboration required to create and maintain an up-to-date, factual source of information encourages democratic practices and principles. Wikipedia seeks to achieve its democratic goal of the spread of free, open material by democratic means. As an open-source project it relies upon the collaboration of tens of thousands of people who constantly add, check and edit articles. Disagreements and disputes are sent up the line to moderators, who oversee the editing process. This “socialisation of expertise” as David Weinberger puts it[1] ensures that errors and omissions are rapidly identified and corrected and that the site is constantly and accurately updated. No traditional encyclopaedia can match this scrutiny. Indeed, “Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering the world has ever known, and it may well be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind.”[2] Not only do such democratic processes encourage democracy more generally, but they are an effective means to create a user-friendly product, as illustrated by open source software such as Firefox and Linux.

[1] The Economist. (2006, April 20). The wiki principle. Retrieved 16 May 2012, from The Economist.

[2] Poe, M. (2006, September). The hive. Retrieved May 11, 2012, from The Atlantic.

Counterpoint 

Collaboration in editing does not encourage democratic principles, but merely privileges the loudest voice, or in this case, the most regular user. As such, creating knowledge by consensus is inherently flawed. A fact is not true simply because lots of people think so. Traditional encyclopaedias are written and edited by academics and professional experts, whose reputation is put on the line by the articles they produce. They have the credentials and expertise that give them the authority to write without requiring widespread communal feedback. However, anyone can write a Wikipedia article, regardless of how much or how little knowledge he or she has of the subject. Worse yet, because contributors are effectively anonymous, it is impossible to assess the quality of an article on an unfamiliar topic by assessing the credentials of those who have produced it. Collaboration, therefore, becomes a barrier to the provision of reliable, accurate and up-to-date information.

Title 
Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for enquiries
Point 

Wikipedia pools information that previously was spread far and wide in cyberspace into one readily accessible location. Enquiries will not and should not end at Wikipedia, but it provides accessible background information as well as links to additional research and publication on a topic and is, therefore, an obvious starting point.[1] Nobody at Wikipedia has claimed that it is a definitive account of human knowledge or a replacement for in-depth research. But it gives a quick guide to an unknown subject and points the enquirer on to more specialist sources. It is used to good effect by students, teachers, journalists and even judges, among many others – showing it is a valued reference source. Experienced users can quickly assess the quality of an article from its written quality and the thoroughness of its references, so they need not accept its content out of hand. Nothing on the internet should ever be accepted uncritically, but Wikipedia has earned its reputation as a valuable starting resource.

[1] Purdy, J. P. (2010). Wikipedia is good for you!? In C. Lowe and P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing, Vol. 1 (pp. 205-224). Fort Collins, CO and West Lafayette, IN: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. 

Counterpoint 

Wikipedia is a common starting point for enquiries, but not because it is excellent; it has become a standard source of reference because it is free and easy to access. Wikipedia, through its popularity, is often the first search result found when using public search engines like Google, which draws users to its information regardless of the reliability that other sources may offer. Many of its users are students, with too little experience to ascertain the quality of an article but anxious to find the quickest and ostensibly most efficient path to the information they require. Overdependence on Wikipedia means that students in particular never develop proper research skills and increasingly accept that an approximately right answer is good enough.[1],[2] Middlebury College’s history department even banned students from citing Wikipedia in papers,[3] and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself has asserted that changes to Wikipedia are necessary to make it a suitable resource for college students.[4],[5]

[1] Graham, L., & Metaxas, P. T. (2003, May). “Of course it’s true; I saw it on the Internet!” Critical thinking in the Internet era.Communications of the ACM, 46(1), 71-75.

[2] Frean, A. (2008, January 14). White bread for young minds, says University of Brighton professor. The Times. Retrieved June 9, 2008.

[3] Jaschik, S. (2007, January 26). A stand against Wikipedia. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved March 4, 2008.

[4] Young, J. R. (2006, June 12).Wikipedia founder discourages academic use of his creation. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved October 4, 2008

[5] Young, J. R. (2008, May 16). A ‘frozen’ Wikipedia could be better for college, founder says. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved October 4,

Title 
Wikipedia enshrines the principle of freedom of information
Point 

A key principle for Wikipedia is to present information as neutrally as possible. This has led to Wikipedia being banned in China, after Jimmy Wales refused to censor articles to make the site acceptable to the Chinese government.[1] Wikipedia, thus, epitomizes the principle that all should have access to the necessary information required not just to live, but also enjoy and cherish our lives. As such, Wikipedia is not threatened by variants and rivals that also seek to promote freedom of knowledge because it views them as partners to a mutual goal, not rivals. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, readily acknowledges it will eventually be superseded by another way of sharing knowledge on a mass level.[2]

[1] Revill, D. S. (2006, September 10). Wikipedia defies China's censors. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The Observer

[2] Barnett, E. (2009, November 17). Jimmy Wales interview: Wikipedia is focusing on accuracy. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The Telegraph.

Counterpoint 

No organisation can succeed in being completely neutral and unbiased as is shown by the number of complaints the BBC, which is obliged to be impartial in political matters,[1] gets about bias on issues ranging from politics,[2][3] to Israel,[4][5] to climate change.[6] Similarly Wikipedia can be criticised for its inbuilt bias, intolerant of dissenting views. Even Wikipedians themselves acknowledge that its topic coverage is slanted.[7] Religious conservatives object to the secular liberal approach its editors consistently take and have found that their attempts to add balance to entries are swiftly rejected. This bias even extends to the censorship of facts which raise questions about the theory of evolution. Some conservatives are so worried about the widespread use of Wikipedia to promote a liberal agenda in education that they have set up Conservapedia as a rival source of information.[8]

[1] BBC. (2012). BBC Charter and Agreement. Retrieved May 16 2012, from the BBC.

[2] Helm, Toby. (2011, December 31). Labour turns on BBC over ‘pro-coalition coverage’. Retrieved May 16, 2012, from The Observer.

[3] Johnson, Boris. (2012, May 14). The statist, defeatist and biased BBC is on the wrong wavelength. Retrieved May 16, 2012 from The Telegraph.

[4] PNN. (2012, May 16), Protest Outside the BBC: End Your Silence on Palestine. Retrieved May 16, 2012 from Palestine News Network.

[5] Paul, Jonny. (2010, April 28). Watchdog: BBC biased against Israel. Retrieved May 16, 2012, from The Jerusalem Post.

[6] Black, Richard. (2009, October 13). Biases, U-turns, and the BBC’s climate coverage. Retrieved May 16, 2012, from the BBC.

[7] Why Wikipedia is not so great. Retrieved November 14, 2004, from Wikipedia.

[8] Jane, E. (2011, January 11). A parallel online universe. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The Australian

Title 
Wikipedia models, in an accessible form, the process of knowledge creation through writing.
Point 

hrough the process by which its articles are constructed, Wikipedia supports “notions of revision, collaboration, and authority” that many academics value and helps to make visible the knowledge-making process.[1] With its Discussion and History pages, Wikipedia illustrates the peer review process academic writing goes through as well as the iterative, recursive nature of public writing. Thus, it can disabuse students of the notion that good writing happens in isolation in one sitting.  Therefore, Wikipedia can be an excellent teaching tool.[2][3]

[1] Purdy, J. P. (2009). When the tenets of composition go public: A study of writing in Wikipedia.” College Composition and Communication 61(2), W351-W373. Retrieved May 9, 2012.

[2] Wilson, M. A. (2008, April 1). Professors should embrace Wikipedia. Retrieved April 1, 2008, from Inside Higher Ed.

[3] Lundin, R. W. (2008). Teaching with wikis: Toward a networked pedagogy. Computers and Composition 25(4) (2008) 432–448.

Counterpoint 

Wikipedia may document the process of creation of encyclopaedia articles, but it does not illustrate the kind of research-writing we should be teaching students. Academic peer review is limited to expert readers. While expert readers can participate in Wikipedia, their voices are often drowned out by the less knowledgeable masses. Moreover, Wikipedia discourages appropriate source use and citation practices. Not only do students frequently plagiarize from Wikipedia,[1] but they also plagiarize in contributing to it.[2]

[1] Nagel, D. (2011, November 3). Wikipedia tops list of plagiarized sources. Retrieved May 9, 2012, from THE Journal.

[2] Sormunen, E., & Lehtio, L. (2011, December). Authoring Wikipedia articles as an information literacy assignment: Copy-pasting or expressing new understanding in one’s own words. Information Research 16(4). Retrieved April 27, 2012.

Title 
The information is not accurate and sometimes undermined by poor writing
Point 

Wikipedia has become a standard source of reference because it is free and easy to access, not because it provides quality, accurate information. While a 2005 Nature comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica found that the online and print encyclopaedias were both  inaccurate,[1]  the Nature study itself was badly skewed, and Britannica disputed nearly half the errors or omissions for which it was criticised.[2] On this basis, Wikipedia is not just 30% less accurate than Britannica; it would be two and a half times less reliable. Comedian Stephen Colbert has even publicly skewered Wikipedia for its inaccuracy.[3] In addition, the Nature study took no account of the written quality of the submissions under comparison. All of Britannica’s entries are edited carefully to ensure they are readable, clear and an appropriate length. Much of Wikipedia’s material is a cobbled together from different contributions and lacks clarity.[4] This can mean that even where Wikipedia is accurate readers do not get the wrong information from it. Furthermore, many of its users are students, with too little experience to weigh up the quality of an article.

[1] Orlowski, A. (2005, December 16). Wikipedia science 31% more cronky than Britannica's. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The Register.

[2] Fatally flawed: Refuting the recent study on encyclopedic accuracy by the journal Nature. (2006, March). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved December 12, 2010.

[3] Colbert, Stephen. (2006, July 31). The word—Wikiality. The Colbert Report. Comedy Central TV Network. 

[4] Schiff, S. (2006, July 31). Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer it all? Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The New Yorker

 

Counterpoint 

Studies indicate that the information on Wikipedia is, in fact, accurate.

The only systematic comparison of Wikipedia’s quality against its leading traditional rival, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, showed Wikipedia to be of similar accuracy. A survey in the leading journal Nature compared 42 pairs of articles on a wide range of science subjects.[1] Experts in each topic found that Wikipedia’s user-contributed articles had only 30% more errors and omissions overall than Britannica, despite the latter’s much vaunted pride in its expert authors and editors. And as Wikipedia is a constant work-in-progress, these faults were quickly corrected, whereas a traditional publication like Britannica will only revise articles at intervals of years, if not decades, if they ever do. So, over time, errors in traditional encyclopaedias persist longer than in Wikipedia.

[1] Giles, J. (2005, December 15). Special Report: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from Nature

Title 
Entries are too easily manipulated
Point 

Wikipedia entries are far too easily manipulated due to the ease at which they can be edited and the lack of official or authoritative oversight. Wikipedia is therefore subject to the worst qualities of humanity – as is shown by a number of scandals affecting the site. Entries can be deliberately vandalised for comic effect (as happens every April Fool’s Day), for commercial gain, or for more insidious purposes of libel or insult. Some of these deliberate errors are picked up and corrected quickly, but others exist on the site for long periods. Notoriously, respected journalist John Siegenthaler was libelled in an almost solely fictitious addition to an article that was was not detected for months.[1] Recently one very senior editor was exposed as a college drop-out, rather than the distinguished professor of theology he had claimed to be.[2] Such examples seem to confirm the doubts of Larry Sanger, the original project coordinator for Wikipedia. He has since left Wikipedia and written a number of warning articles about how open to abuse the online encyclopaedia is.[3] Without a more stringent, hierarchical editing process, such abuses can never be prevented, and the trustworthiness of Wikipedia’s information will always be questionable.

[1] Siegenthaler, J. (2005, November 29). A false Wikipedia 'biography'. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from USA Today

[2] Elsworth, C. (2007, March 7). Wikipedia professor is 24-year-old college dropout. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from The Telegraph

[3] Sanger, L. (2008, January 23). How the Internet Is Changing What We (Think We) Know. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from Larry Sanger Blog

Counterpoint 

Entries are not easily or wantonly manipulated. Wikipedia harnesses the best qualities of humanity – trust and cooperation in pursuit of an unselfish goal. Sceptics essentially take a negative view of society, unable to understand why people would club together to produce something so valuable without any financial incentive.[1] Wikipedia is not naïvely trusting. The majority of entries are written by a close online community of a few hundred people who value their reputations. Examples of abuse have led Wikipedia to tighten up its rules so that cyber vandals can easily be detected and editing of controversial topics restricted to the most trusted editors. Overall, Wikipedia is a tremendous human success story, which should be celebrated rather than criticised.

[1] Ciffolilli, A. (2003). Phantom authority, self-selective recruitment and retention of members in virtual communities: The case of Wikipedia. First Monday 8(12). Retrieved April 27, 2005.

Title 
Wikipedia is driving high-quality encyclopaedias out of business, without offering a better service.
Point 

By providing its articles for “free,” Wikipedia will drive traditional, high-quality encyclopaedias out of business by destroying their business model. Indeed the traditional print version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has already been discontinued with the focus changing to the online version after sales had declined from 120,000 in 1990 to only 8000 in 2010.[1] Wikipedia may make articles available for nothing to those with access to the internet (still only a minority of people in the world), but many of these articles are not worth reading. The cost of a traditional encyclopaedia may be high, but it pays for articles written, checked and edited by experts and professionals. Even on the internet there is no such thing as a free lunch: people have to pay for internet access and computers. If Wikipedia makes it harder for ordinary people to access reliable information, then the world will be a poorer place.

[1] Bosman, Julie, (2012, March 13). After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the Presses. Retrieved May 14, 2011, from The New York Times Media Decoder blog.

Counterpoint 

Wikipedia does offer a better service, not necessarily in terms of the quality of information, but in terms of the depth, breadth and accessibility of information. Enquiries will not and should not end at Wikipedia, but it provides accessible background information as well as links to additional research and publication on a topic and is, therefore, an obvious starting point.[1] Nobody at Wikipedia has claimed that it is a definitive account of human knowledge or a replacement for in-depth research. But it gives a quick guide to an unknown subject and points the enquirer on to more specialist sources. It is used to good effect by students, teachers, journalists and even judges, among many others – showing it is a valued reference source. Experienced users can quickly assess the quality of an article from its written quality and the thoroughness of its references, so they need not accept its content out of hand. Nothing on the internet should ever be accepted uncritically, but Wikipedia has earned its reputation as a valuable starting resource.

[1] Purdy, J. P. (2010). Wikipedia is good for you!? In C. Lowe and P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing, Vol. 1 (pp. 205-224). Fort Collins, CO and West Lafayette, IN: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. Retrieved May 9, 2010.

Title 
Wikipedia lacks the necessary coverage
Point 

One of the major problems with Wikipedia is that it has very patchy coverage. Traditional reference sources provide consistent coverage over the whole field of knowledge, with priority given to the most important topics in terms of space and thoroughness of treatment. By contrast, Wikipedia has very detailed coverage of topics in which its main contributors are interested, but weak material on other, much more important issues.[1] Thus, there is, for example, much more on the imaginary language of Klingon than there is on the life and philosophy of John Locke.

[1] Why Wikipedia is not so great. Retrieved November 14, 2004, from Wikipedia.

Counterpoint 

Wikipedia is a service that offers information where it is felt most necessary. If there is more information on the imaginary language of Klingon than the works of John Locke, for example, that is because more people want to read and learn about Klingon or are unable to find the information they desire elsewhere. In this way, Wikipedia is responsive to audience desires and needs. As such, there are few shortcomings in Wikipedia’s coverage. If Locke was to come into vogue, then undoubtedly his page would soon expand to meet that demand. 

Title 
Wikipedia threatens the academic enterprise.
Point 

If Wikipedia is taken to be an accurate resource, then the academic expertise is threatened because anyone can produce “correct” knowledge. Though academics can continue to participate in this work, they are not essential. Normal, ordinary people can do as good a job. Not only does relying on Wikipedia (incorrectly) make academics seem unnecessary, it proliferates the misinformation that academic work seeks to combat. Overdependence on Wikipedia means that students never develop proper research skills and come to believe that an approximately right answer is good enough.[1] Free, open access to huge swathes of information is a threat to both good research and the teaching of good research-writing skills.[2] Middlebury College’s history department even felt so strongly about Wikipedia’s negative influence that in 2007 it banned students from citing Wikipedia in papers.[3]

[1] Graham, L., & Metaxas, P. T. (2003, May). “Of course it’s true; I saw it on the Internet!” Critical thinking in the Internet era.Communications of the ACM, 46(1), 71-75.

[2] McClure, R. (2011.) Googlepedia: Turning information behavior into research skills. In Vol. 2 of Writing spaces: Readings on writing, edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, 221–41. Fort Collins, CO and West Lafayette, IN: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.

[3] Jaschik, Scott. (2007, January 26). A stand against Wikipedia. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved March 4, 2008.

Counterpoint 

“If we see the ongoing evolution of information in public spheres as a part of scholarly work . . . Wikipedia can enrich, extend, and enliven, rather than threaten, the scholarly enterprise.”[1] Wikipedia encourages more people, including students, to participate in scholarly work by asking them to edit and respond to its articles. In this way, it makes scholarly work more visible and accessible. Wikipedia integrates research and writing in productive ways in the service of knowledge production, which educators can exploit to teach students.[2] Wikipedia transforms people from passive users of web content to active producers of it.[3]

[1] Purdy, J. P. (2009). When the tenets of composition go public: A study of writing in Wikipedia.” College Composition and Communication, 61(2), W351-W373. Retrieved May 9, 2012.

[2] Purdy, J. P. (2010). The changing space of research: Web 2.0 and the integration of research and writing environments. Computers and Composition, 27(1), 48-58.

[3] Bruns, Axel. (2009). Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

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