I've always viewed Wikipedia as a useful starting point for research -- not the kind of source that I'd quote for anything, but a good place to turn for general background to explore further.

Well it turns out the Florida-based operation may not be much better or worse than other sources, according to a story in the AP today:

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that relies on volunteers to pen nearly 4 million articles, is about as accurate in covering scientific topics as Encyclopedia Britannica, the journal Nature wrote in an online article published Wednesday.

The finding, based on a side-by-side comparison of articles covering a broad swath of the scientific spectrum, comes as Wikipedia faces criticism over the accuracy of some of its entries.

The incident which launched recent scrutiny of Wiki has Southern roots, and is particularly unfortunate. As the news story relates,

Two weeks ago prominent journalist John Seigenthaler, the former publisher of the Tennessean newspaper and founding editorial director of USA Today, revealed that a Wikipedia entry that ran for four months had incorrectly named him as a longtime suspect in the assassinations of president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.

Southern Exposure readers will recoganize Seigenthaler's name; we profiled him in a 2004 issue (story in print edition only, but here's the issue).Under his leadership, The Tennessean was a crusading paper for progressive change. From SE:


Day in and day out, The Tennessean challenged powerful political machines and corrupt corporations, exposed scandals in the society class, and even took on the revered Tennessee Valley Authority ... The Tennessean exposed fraud in city government, environmental damage caused by coal mining, and abuse in retirement homes. It fought vigorously for civil rights.

Reporting that Seigenthaler may have killed Kennedy is an especially bizarre mistake, given their association:

In 1957, he investigated the Teamsters Union in Tennessee, which, at the time, was engaged in systematic violence, intimidation, and the bribery of a judge. His reports got the attention of then chief counsel to the Senate Labor-Management Rackets Committee chair Robert F. Kennedy, who brought the committee to Tennessee. The two men became fast friends, and in 1960 Seigenthaler joined Kennedy's Justice Department at the attorney general's right-hand man.

So you can see why he was a little upset. I doubt a mix-up of that calliber would appear in Brittanica, but who knows? As the AP story shows, the two are neck-and-neck in the errors department.