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BYU scholar: Wikipedia's political content is reliable

Published April 18, 2011 6:11 pm

Research • Entries are factually accurate, but omissions abound, study says.
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Politics is a subject in which rhetoric and reality rarely occur on the same page, so Wikipedia's political content is often viewed with suspicion.

But when it comes to objective and verifiable data, the online encyclopedia's entries about politicians and elections are surprisingly accurate, according to a new study by a Brigham Young University political scientist.

In the decade since its founding, Wikipedia has become one of the most tapped information sources in the world, now the Internet's ninth-busiest site with nearly 43 million unique visitors last January, according to its own Wikipedia entry.

Because its content is the work of thousands of anonymous volunteer editors, it has been widely assumed that entries concerning politics would be massaged by those with an agenda. But Adam Brown's findings suggest those concerns may be overblown, although he did document that errors of omission are common.

"We don't need to worry about Wikipedia just because it's not Britannica, but that does not mean it is your stopping point," said Brown, an assistant professor of political science and a fellow at BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Wikipedia's reliability has been the subject of many academic studies, but they typically examined how it measures up in scientific subjects. The BYU study is the first to review Wikipedia's presentation of political information, according to Brown. Its editing system, open to almost anyone with an account, would seem ripe for abuses in topics where there are strong incentives for misrepresentation, Brown noted. His study did not explore whether Wikipedia entries provide unbiased reviews, but the extent to which facts were correct regarding names, places, dates, election results and biographical information. Part of his study focused on coverage of the 155 gubernatorial elections held between 1998 and 2008.

Of the 246 candidates, 230 had a dedicated entry. Brown found no inaccuracies concerning candidates' prior experience. Wikipedia's coverage of the election outcomes had a few minor errors, but were largely accurate. In only four races were the votes outside an accuracy margin of 1 percent.

"My finding is optimistic for the health of our country," said Brown, whose study appeared last week in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics. "It doesn't have to be hard to learn about the political process, or your political candidates."

He did find a bias toward "recentness." Elections predating Wikipedia's creation in 2001 were increasingly less likely to be covered the further back in time they were held. For example, all gubernatorial races in recent years have entries, while only half in 2002 are covered, 36 percent in 1998, 25 percent in 1990 and 14 percent in 1981.

"Wikipedia's volunteer editors are more likely to write about political topics about which they are actively thinking," he wrote. "An event will be more prominent in their minds if it occurred recently than far in the past."

Errors of omission follow a pattern, Brown concluded. Coverage is more complete for topics that are more prominent or recent, and more robust for state lawmakers who are legislative leaders, have large constituencies or are longtime politicians.

bmaffly@sltrib.com