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A question of authority

Our increasing reliance on Wikipedia changes the pursuit of knowledge

Last Updated June 22, 2007

Turkish historian Taner Akcam arrived at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport on Feb. 16, 2007, expecting to be picked up by a colleague en route to a lecture he was to give later that day. Instead, he says, he was detained at the border for more than three hours.

For visitors to be temporarily detained at the border is not in itself unusual but, Akcam told CBC News, the evidence the security officers showed him when he asked why they had detained him was: a page containing a tampered Wikipedia entry from December.

"I recognized the page at once," Akcam would later write on the website of the University of Minnesota, where he is a visiting professor. "The still photo and the text beneath it comprised my biography in the English-language edition of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia which anyone in the world can modify at any time. For the last year — most recently on Christmas Eve, 2006 — my Wikipedia biography had been persistently vandalized by anonymous 'contributors' intent on labelling me as a terrorist."

Related

In a previous article, entitled I, Editor, we looked at Wikipedia's open-editing policy, and how it contributed to the enormous growth of the website's content but also made it vulnerable to errors and incidents of vandalism. Here we look at how, despite concerns about reliability, Wikipedia has increasingly come to be counted on as an authoritative source of information.

Akcam had been invited to speak by Concordia and McGill universities on a subject that has been the source of controversy in Canada and abroad: his research into the role of Ottoman authorities in the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in the aftermath of the First World War.

His work, particularly his use of the term genocide, has put him at odds with the current Turkish government, which has vehemently denied the number of casualties and that such casualties constituted genocide. The government has been critical of nations, including Canada, that have acknowledged the event publicly.

Akcam said his work had never had an impact on his travel across the Canada-U.S. border before, and he expected little delay at the airport. Instead, Akcam said, he was detained for more than three hours.

Question of reliability

Akcam said he didn't know how the officer came upon the Wikipedia entry. In the University of Minnesota article he wrote in March after the event, he suggested that outside groups critical of his research might have sent the entry to border officials in anticipation of his arrival.

Akcam's account of the incident, later picked up by British columnist Robert Fisk in an April article in the Independent, raises questions about our growing reliance on so-called Web 2.0 sources of information — websites that rely on user-generated comments and input.

It also raises concerns about the resources Canada Border Services call upon when assessing arrivals to Canada, particularly in light of continued concerns about the reliability of the Wikipedia's entries and their susceptibility to vandalism.

CSB spokesman Erik Paradis downplayed the significance of what he said was "not really an incident."

Paradis wouldn't elaborate on the specifics of Akcam's account, saying the agency does not discuss particular cases. In general, he said, anyone entering Canada must demonstrate that they are entitled to be in Canada. Paradis added that anyone might be sent to a secondary examination if an officer deems it is warranted.

Although Paradis would not comment on the use of Wikipedia in secondary examinations, he did say border officers can use "a number of sources" in forming their decision.

"Each of these sources have different levels of security, and an officer can take these all into account, giving them different weight based on their reliability," he told CBC News.

Paradis's description of the process of assimilating data applies specifically to the role of CSB officials, but could just as easily be applied to any knowledge-gathering process, where readers must make assessments on the quality of the sources they access.

In such a process, what role does a website that anybody can edit at any time play in our pursuit of knowledge? And what role, if any, should it play?

Truth versus perception

User-generated content, as exemplified by Web 2.0 sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube and MySpace, has carved a unique role on the internet by putting control of information in the hands of the public, a welcome development for those who are concerned about how the information they receive is being filtered. Consumer sites also share some qualities with Web 2.0 sites, in user forums such as the reviews at the bottom of Amazon.com's book listings or the first-hand accounts on travel website TripAdvisor.

This has its drawbacks, particularly with contentious issues where there is no "consensus" view, since it is these issues that frequently draw the most vandalism.

When it comes to sources of information, Wikipedia's popularity is undisputed.

The combined readership of the multilingual versions of Wikipedia totaled more than 190 million unique visitors worldwide in February 2007, making it one of the 10 most-visited sites worldwide, according to internet traffic tracker Comscore World Metrix.

And as Wikipedia burgeons in size to include more than 1.7 million articles in the English-language version alone, and as users link to these articles, its entries begin to rank higher in search engine rankings. Type nearly any term into the Google search engine and a Wikipedia entry on the subject is sure to be in the first page of results.

A number of Wikipedia's readers are also contributing to it, with nearly 4.5 per cent of American visitors editing entries on the site, according to an April 2007 study by U.S. website monitor Hitwise. While less than 5 per cent may seem small, Hitwise said that other participatory websites, such as video-sharing site YouTube and photo-sharing site Flckr, had upload rates of under one per cent of total visitors, making Wikipedia a leader among Web 2.0 websites that emphasize collaboration.

As Wikipedia grows in popularity, it also grows in authority. The New York Times reported in January that U.S. court judges have used Wikipedia as a source in more than 100 judicial rulings since 2004, although these have mostly been confined to background information, not key to the facts of the case.

Toronto lawyer Simon Chester, writing in the legal research blog Slaw, said the website has also been cited as a source in Canadian courts, though to a lesser degree, with only eight cases mentioning information from the site.

Wikipedia backlash

Not all these citations have been well received.

After a defendant cited the online encylcopedia in the 2005 case of Bajraktaraj v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), Canadian Federal Court Justice Richard Mosely wrote in his ruling: "The quality of the sources relied upon by the applicant, including … a downloaded extract from an on-line encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, that provided no references for its content, did not impress."

Educators have also increasingly spoken out against Wikipedia entries showing up as references in school papers. Vermont-based Middlebury College, for example, voted this year to ban the use of Wikipedia in the bibliographies of student papers.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself has said the website, like any encylopedia, should not be used as a primary source of information.

Prof. Michael Geist from the University of Ottawa, an expert on internet and technology issues, doesn't have a problem with using Wikipedia as a first source of information, as long as it's not the only source.

"I think it's acceptable to rely on it as a starting point for research," he told CBC News. "It comes down to media literacy. You wouldn't want to rely on the Encyclopedia Britannica as your only source of information, either."

Instead, Geist said, Wikipedia's real value is less as a definitive source and more as a portal to other, more tangible sources of information.

Geist's sentiment echoes that of UC Santa Barbara Prof. Alan Liu who, in calling for a partial ban on Wikipedia as a source for students, summed up the site this way: "It is better thought of as a combination of encyclopedia and 'blog.' It is the world's blog."

Akcam said his experience has darkened his opinion of user-generated content on the web, because the incident has had implications on his ability to travel. He said he has inquired further with Canadian government officials about his detention and hasn't received a satisfactory answer. To make matters more difficult, Akcam said, U.S. border officials, notified of the incident, have informed him he should refrain from crossing the border until the situation has been resolved.

In response to Akcam's account of his border encounter, Wikipedia founder Wales said the website contributors "deeply regret every error."

Akcam said a volunteer editor from the website wrote to apologize after the Fisk article ran in the Independent. And in a final twist of irony, Akcam's mini-biography on Wikipedia now includes a section detailing his detainment at the border.

But Akcam still has concerns that Wikipedia entries or other publicly generated reference information, such as the user comments at the bottom of book reviews, are too open to abuse. He points out that groups opposing the nature of his research have posted accusations about him on both heavily visited forums.

"I personally don't trust these sources because they cannot be controlled," he said. "If I were doing research I would rely on five or six sources, but Wikipedia would not be one."

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