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Truths, half-truths and Wikipedia

Journalists play with loose facts

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Comment Wikipedia comes in for a fair amount of criticism these days from El Reg and other publications, but I can't help wondering if we're missing the real point regarding its status as an encyclopedia. Most of the arguments hinge on its accuracy, or lack of it. But if our criteria for an encyclopedia is a guarantee of 100 per cent accuracy, then there are no encyclopaedias now, and there never have been. So is Wikipedia an encylopedia, and, if not, can it ever be one? Reluctantly, I think the answer is a resounding 'no', and here's why.

This is a tale of personal experience, so a bit of background is needed. In the first place, I am a casual editor on Wikipedia under the username Tomandlu. I've contributed to articles on various novels, historical events, and so on (including, for reasons I fail to recall, the tuberculate pelagic octopus – don't you hate it when that happens?). So, I like Wikipedia, I really do. Besides, any resource that has anything as bizarre as the Death Star talkpage gets my vote.

My father is George Melly, the British jazz-singer and writer. Needless to say, I keep an eye on Wikipedia's article on him. I try to avoid any bias, although I did once suggest that a particular anecdote wasn't really noteworthy or accurate. (It was a trout not a salmon, and he didn't wank on it, just near it; besides, if a wank-adote is really required, then there's a far better one involving cat impressions and a plate.)

The closest I've come to censorship was when I removed "incontinence" from a list of his health problems. I didn't lose much sleep over it - it's your standard, old-man, incontinence, so, once again, not very noteworthy. I'd have removed "has wrinkles" or "thinks modern music is too loud and repetitive" on the same basis. However, lung cancer (an early member of the list), and emphysema (a later addition) were retained.

I had some concerns about this. Nevertheless, the information was accurate – albeit unreferenced – so I let it stand. At least no one else seemed to have heard that he had also been diagnosed with early vascular dementia, and that stayed off the list – I certainly wasn't going to add it in.

We can now fast-forward to earlier this year, when my father came out, so to speak, as a sufferer. I duly added "vascular dementia" to Wikipedia, and settled down to following the various news coverage and articles on my father's condition – for the most part sympathetic and accurate pieces, and often based around interviews…and then I came across an article in the Times by a Dr Thomas Stuttaford.

Now, you can take my word for it, or you can take a look at the article and compare it with the entry on Wikipedia, but large sections of it are obviously sourced from there and I was rather shocked. This wasn't, as far as I knew, what Wikipedia was for. Wikipedia was for... well what exactly? Or more accurately, who?

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