Wikipedia Entries: How To Tell How True They Are

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The encyclopedia anyone can edit can also be the resource anybody can question. The latest case of alleged Wikipedia abuse: Last week, BuzzFeed reported that Newt Gingrich's staffers had repeatedly edited entries for the candidate and his wife Callista to emphasize their positive traits and erase references to less-appealing elements such as Gingrich's prior divorces.

One of my editors quickly e-mailed a link to Slate's recap of the controversy under the subject line: "another reason why Wikipedia isn't a reference site!"

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It's true that Wikipedia's openness can be exploited by malicious or misinformed people to rewrite history, or at least engage in the kind of airbrushing you might want to do on your Facebook Timeline. You can find more than enough evidence of that in Wikipedia's own article on its reliability.

But even if the assertions in an entry or the references provided for it don't seem fishy, the encyclopedia also provides a good set of tools to spot mischief.

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Begin with the "Talk" tab just above an entry's title. So-called talk pages relate discussions among Wikipedia's corps of volunteer editors about the veracity and sourcing of an entry; if there's been any major fuss, you'll see it discussed here first. Sometimes, talk about an entry will reveal useful information not included in the article itself.

The "History" tab on an article page, in turn, is where that entry tells its own story: who edited it, when they edited it, (often) why they made a change and how those revisions compared. You can click on any of those usernames to pull up their autobiographical user page if they've created one. Click the "talk" link next to each name to see comments or complaints from Wikipedia editors, then follow the "contribs" link to see every revision posted by that person.

As you'll see, some "Wikipedians" are productive and devoted contributors, and others surface only occasionally. (Like me: I've hardly ever used my account.) It shouldn't take long to see if users have demonstrated a history of militant cluelessness on the site.

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Anonymous edits are listed under the Internet Protocol address of the computer that person used. If that IP address belongs to the subject of an entry, you should see it noted prominently on its talk page. (Some self-interested edits are less subtle: I've seen one former boss and one friend tweak entries about themselves under usernames that obviously identified them.)

So how does this work in practice? Consider the entry for Discovery News' parent, Discovery Communications, Inc. There's little talk about it — the most recent discussion is more than a year old — although it only gets a C grade for its usefulness to researchers. The history page doesn't suggest much controversy either; one IP address listed there belongs to Discovery (whoops!), but that user's only recent actions were to add and then remove a link to Discovery News.

But the surest hint of this entry's reliability as a basic reference may be the variety and volume of contributors. As one principle of open-source software development holds, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

If this seems a lot of work, remember that judging a story's sources and a writer's integrity are skills you need to read the news intelligently–especially in an election year.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery

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