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‘W ikipedia”: Anyone looking for information online in the last few years is bound to have come across this funny word. Type any search term into Google, and a Wikipedia entry will probably pop up somewhere on the first page or two. On “Japan,” for example, the Wikipedia entry comes in an impressive eighth. On “bird flu,” it ranks 16th, right after a bunch of government health sites, the BBC, the New York Times and CNN.

But how much can you trust what this oddly named entity tells you about Japan or anything else? First, a bit of background. Like us, you probably wondered initially what in the world Wikipedia was. The “pedia” part was obvious, especially since the Web site itself proclaims it “the free encyclopedia.” But what about “Wiki”?

Travelers familiar with Honolulu may have been reminded of the famed Wiki Wiki buses that shuttle passengers around the sprawling international airport there. And they would have been right. It turns out that Wikipedia’s name ultimately derives from those buses, which are themselves named for the Hawaiian word for “quick” or “to hasten.” We say ultimately because use of the word to describe a type of Web site that allows people to contribute and edit content — as Wikipedia does — actually dates back to 1995, six years before Wikipedia was born.

In fact, Wikipedia is not the only wiki, just the biggest and best-known one. The collaborative software has been put to other uses as well, including Susning Nu, a Swedish Web site that offers an interactive encyclopedia, dictionary and technical how-to guide; the Wiktionary, a free, constantly updated dictionary in every language; Wikibooks, a collection of open-content textbooks that anyone can edit (January’s book of the month is “Chess”); Wikiquote, a compendium of quotations contributed and checked by users; Wikispecies, with links to sources in multiple languages; and Wikinews, “the free news source you can write!” We won’t even try to explain the wiki-within-a-wiki or speculate on the future of cooperative fiction.

It’s a wild and wiki world out there, complete with undefined frontiers and the kind of lawlessness that often accompanies them. Late last year, several groups stirred controversy with a proposal for a Wikiversity, which would host online courses, with content determined by students, and even potentially confer degrees. (Who would want to be treated by a Wikiversity-accredited doctor?)

And last summer the Los Angeles Times had to shut down an experiment with “wikitorials,” in which readers were invited to rewrite editorials that would then be featured, along with the originals, on the newspaper’s Web page. The initiative lasted just three days before the wikitorial site was overwhelmed with profanities and pornographic photos.

Which brings us back full circle to Wikipedia and the credibility problems it has never quite succeeded in shaking off. To be fair, the giant electronic “citizens’ encyclopedia” is not vulnerable to the crude vandalism that scuttled the wikitorials, since it has a sophisticated monitoring system in place. But what about the subtler kind of abuse and bias that seems inevitable when anyone with an ax to grind has access to entries?

Isn’t there a fundamental dissonance between the very idea of an encyclopedia, a word that connotes authority and reliability, and the idea of an anything-goes almanac in which every Tom, Dick and Harry can post his interpretation — or overwrite others’ interpretation of controversial topics from cloning to Condoleezza Rice?

Many people think so. Researchers and fact checkers at most major newspapers, for example, are discouraged from using Wikipedia as a source. In November, a former USA Today editor publicly complained that he had been defamed in a Wikipedia entry. The encyclopedia suffered some bad publicity.

Yet perhaps the naysayers should not have the last word. Wikipedia’s proprietors responded to the challenges appropriately, stiffening user rules and boosting surveillance. The site’s popularity only climbed. As of Jan. 1, it had jumped to the 26th busiest site on the Internet. Then in December, it received an additional boost when the British science journal Nature declared Wikipedia’s science entries to be only slightly less reliable than the Encyclopedia Britannica’s: about four inaccuracies per article compared with about three per article in the mother of all reference works. Not bad for a team of unpaid citizen experts — amateurs in the true sense of the word.

The truth is, it is too early to tell whether Wikipedia and its wiki-satellites will flop or fly. For now, it seems obvious, it should be used with caution, as just one reference work among many. But then, hasn’t that always been true of any reference work?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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