11 January 2006

Wikipedia, Science and Peer Review

Last week, Wendy Grossman wrote a wise article about how all those making a fuss over Wikipedia's inaccuracies and lack of accountability forget that precisely the same charges were levelled against the Web when it rose to prominence around ten years ago. (Parenthetically, it's interesting to note more generally how Wikipedia is in some sense a Web 2.0 recapitulation of those early Web 1.0 days - a heady if untidy attempt to encompass great swathes of human knowledge).

It seems to me that another story, on BBC News, which considered the fate of the peer review process in the wake of Dr Hwang Woo-suk's faked stem cell papers, is relevant here.

Many of Wikipedia's critics claim that everything would be fine if only it added some rigorous peer review to the process, just like science does when papers are published. But as the BBC item explains, the peer review process employed by Science magazine (where most of Hwang's apparently ground-breaking papers appeared) signally failed to spot that Hwang's papers were frauds (it also explains why, in any case, this is probably asking too much of peer review).

These recent problems with scientific peer review re-inforce Grossman's point about Wikipedia: that we should stop worrying about the inaccuracies and instead learn how to live with them, just as we do for the Web. Far better to develop a critical sense that submits all results - wherever they come from - to a minimum level of scrutiny.

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