Reliability vs verifiability on Wikipedia, the peer production encyclopedia

By Pep Adrian, wikipedian in residence at the UOC.

Wikipedia has been said to be the largest commons-based peer production project in the world. Since its creation in 2001 it has been edited and reviewed billions of times. It has long achieved the goal to be the greatest encyclopedia even written, and aims to be the sum of all human knowledge.

When explaining Wikipedia to non-editors we always face the same question: Is it reliable? And sometimes we are tempted to answer quite straightforwardly: No. It is not and never will be. However we must concede that this is not a good way to present oneself and must keep on explaining.

One of the main challenges for Wikipedia in the next years will be changing the focus of public opinion from reliability to verifiability. We must admit that nowadays, when tons of information are just one click away, it is not acceptable to follow certain old patterns of authority, trustworthy or reliability, and that we have been dramatically empowered to question everything and doubt about everything we read or learn. Everyone can understand that even the best publications or authors do make mistakes and have biased approaches, sometimes much more than what we would like to admit.

« All the information contained in Wikipedia is only as reliable as the sum of external sources it uses »

On the other hand, Wikipedia is built on the verifiability approach, aiming to gather all human knowledge but never to include original research. In this way, ideally, every sentence or affirmation included should be referenced and easy to track from independent publications. If not, it could be easily challenged and removed. In this way all the information contained is only as reliable as the sum of external sources it uses. In fact, one of the main Wikipedia mottos is “We do not expect you to trust us”. Should anyone still expect so?

In Wikipedia, peer production means gathering all available information worldwide to build a single, rigorous, neutral, up-to-date, verifiable picture of the reality. It is not easy but it is an ongoing process. And everyone can help.

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About the Question
How many peers does it take to change a light bulb?

Systems like Linux and websites like Wikipedia are paradigmatic of a particular way of open collaboration known as peer production. Peer producers choose their tasks freely and coordinate their work using open digital platforms. They share the fruits of their labour as part of a global commons, and everyone works according to their abilities and benefits according to their needs.

Is this an emerging form of communism? Or the future of liberal capitalism? Or is it simply a new mode of production? In this blog we want to explore both the benefits and the downsides of such way of working.

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