History Podcasts

How is fact checking and referencing done in historical studies?

How is fact checking and referencing done in historical studies?

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Hello I am new to this subject on a serious basis, and my first question, or set of questions, isn't actually a history question itself, but more of a question of the protocol for fact checking in the process of studying history.

So firstly, suppose I have read an account of a particular event X from a source Y, in as much as yes they will have referenced this in the way we are all familiar with, this still doesn't give me any assurances that those sources are not also false in a manner congruent to the manner for which the citation I have just read is false, so what infrastructure and or institution is assigned the role of policing and regulating the authenticity of publications online, and if I do need to purchase a hard copy of a text, what assurance that too has entirely factual content?

Secondly, in the cases for which a historical account has particulars that are still not known, what is the protocol for declaring this in something we write in a historical account and or what institution is assigned the role of ensuring or authenticating publishers adhere to this protocol?

Since you have located History SE on the Internet, one approach would be to ask here

I have read an account of a particular event X from a source Y

"Is the account true of false?"

in the cases for which a historical account has particulars that are still not known

Again, you can ask the question here. That does not mean that the particular question can or will be settled here to any particular observer's complete satisfaction.

Some historical questions do not involve controversy, for example, "On what date was the United States Declaration of Independence signed?".

Other historical questions might not ever be entirely resolved, even using modern technology, to any or all readers, students, authors of history complete satisfaction, for example, the questions of the origin of the Ancient Egyptians and the claims of certain people having "deciphered" or "transliterated" the so-called "hieroglyphics" of Ancient Egypt.

To illustrates the basic issue of citing and relying primary evidence and then setting historical questions aside, some people might live a number of years believing that their parents are their biological parents before being told, or discovering themselves, they were adopted, or, that one of their parents is actually not their biological parent. Since no human remembers being born, the child has only the account of their parents to rely on, or, when they reach a certain age, the ability to cite a birth certificate. However, if the child is never told that they were adopted, or one of their parents is not their biological parent, then they could easily live their entire lives without ever questioning the primary source of a birth certificate being true or that one or more of their parents is not their biological parent.

There is also the element of instinct involved in the investigation and study of history, which should not be discounted entirely, else one might not investigate paths to the truth that do not appear in a previously published work, but rather, spring from your own intellect. At some point an individual might become enlightened to the degree that they draw their own conclusions based on their own reasoning. The important point to remember at that stage is to clearly state that you have drawn your own conclusions, and attribute the conclusion to yourself. Facts can be disputed and conclusions drawn refuted. History is a living art and science. Whether you stand on the conclusions that you draw, whether supported by a primary or secondary source, is your own prerogative.

Cannot honestly state that History SE is absent of institutional flaws, users which have disclosed or un-disclosed biases, or that even sources cited will not be questioned. Though History SE is at least here and available to vet questions such as "I have read an account of a particular event X from a source Y "Is the account true of false?"".

what infrastructure and or institution is assigned the role of policing and regulating the authenticity of publications online.

There is no such institution, nor should there be. Truth isn't a token that can be possessed and guarded by any institution. Truth is a process, and peer review is one of the feedback mechanisms to guide that process. History is dynamic. What we know today is incomplete; tomorrow we will discover more and we will check the new facts against the old, and debate which is the most compelling narrative that includes most of the facts and omits the fewest facts in which we have high confidence. The day after that we'll discover something new and iterate.

You will discover incredible publications, both online and offline. Credible publications tend to cite other credible publications and make claims supported by evidence. Incredible publications tend to bend facts to fit theories. But there is no brilliant line. Our understanding of - just to pick an example - the causes of the American Revolution have changed utterly within my lifetime. Whiggish history used to be ubiquitous, but is now a subject for contempt. French historians used to be judged by how many times they cited Marx / page (that may be coming back into fashion).

I recoil from the notion of any institution or infrastructure that would "police and regulate" truth. The very concept is horrifying; no matter what complexities arise from unregulated truth, they cannot compare to the danger of regulated truth.

A pithier quote

Every periodical is its own ultimate authority, over its own content, as it should be. @pietergeerkens

(I just went back and did a tonecheck of my writing - don't know if it is necessary, but just for the record, none of the above is intended to be disrespectful or disparaging to @Adam; the above is merely my opinion in response to the question.)

Updating the question to address what I think is a gap in assumptions. I make a set of assumptions about any institution - if an institution were given the power to control publications, I think this assumptions would quickly dominate that institution's behavior.

  • The welfare of the institution is more important than the mission of the institution. Threats to the institution are existential; threats to the mission (history) are eternal and subject to interpretation.

  • Challenges to the interpretation of the institution are effectively threats to the institution and must be suppressed.

  • Challenges to the staff of the institution must be addressed vigorously.

  • "International" is a goal; nobody ever really forgets the prejudices of the natal country. If you were trained in history in France, you honestly believe that proper history should contain citations of Marx every 0.37 paragraphs, etc.

To misquote Federalist, "If historians were angels, there would be no need for the international institution of accuracy in history." But historians are human, and institutions designed by humans will serve the institution more than the discipline. The only possible protection is to prevent the formation of the institution.

Put another way, since history is a science, Kuhn indicates that progress in that science will consist of hard fought conflict. Any institution is only going to serve to retard that progress by providing a bastion for the established truth.

The scholarly discipline of history uses debated consensus forming across reviewed journal articles, chapters and books to describe a number of not currently rejected narratives of processes, relationships or agents.

Truth, fact and event don't belong to disciplinary history. "Not currently demonstrated to be meaningfully wrong," is what we do instead.

There are some ground rules of what not to do: misusing sources; not using essential sources; using inappropriate sources; not using enough sources; not using a great enough variety of sources. The response from reviewers will be harsh.

All historical writing involves theory use. Sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. Using bad theory, or using it inappropriately, will bring harsh responses.

Finally, the historical community pursues and in some cases publicly crucifies people purporting to be historians who are instead knowing and wilful liars. The community of historical scholars, and other allied fields such as teachers, archivists, librarians and curators have in the past fifty years been willing to attack western governments over historical myth making.

How is fact checking and referencing done in historical studies? - History

Historyteacher.net featured in the New York Times

[ K ids I n N eed of D esks]

UNICEF Fund Delivers Desks to Malawi Children!!

To all Social Studies teachers and their students:
$65 buys a desk for 2 young students who had been sitting for
6-8 hours a day on a concrete floor.

For $177 , you can provide a scholarship for one year's tuition for a young Malawi girl.

Social Studies School Service --> A comprehensive source of challenging, imaginative U.S. and world history resources—including books, DVDs, games, puzzles, and plenty more—with over 45 years of experience.

HipHughes Video History --> video lectures from Mr. Hughes, brought to you from McKinley High School in Buffalo, NY. These video lectures are designed to explain concepts in U.S. History and a small but growing arsenal of World History ideas.

ChronoAtlas --> An interactive Historical World Atlas - Users can submit their own cities, images of historical events and places, and boundaries of historical nations. [a great learning tool].

National History Bowl - The Bowl is a team tournament, with four players to a team, similar to a regular quiz bowl. The National History Bee is a tournament for individuals.

W A R I N I R A Q :
[ Middle East News Portals - many different and sometimes controversial points of view]

How is fact checking and referencing done in historical studies? - History

  • Almanacs

  • Biographies

  • Calculators & Conversion

  • Census & Demographics

  • Date and Time

  • Dictionary & Thesaurus

  • Encyclopedias

  • Genealogy/Obituaries

  • Geography & Maps

  • Health

  • People Finder

  • Quotations

  • Style & Writing Guides

Refdesk is free to use, but is not without cost. Please contribute any amount to help support us, and allow us to continue offering human curated features and free daily editions by email every day. BONUS: Contribute $25+ for a year of Ad-Free Refdesk service as our gift to you.

The Digital Public Library of America empowers people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society by maximizing access to their shared history, culture, and knowledge.

Site of the Day

Beet juice can indicate the acidity of a solution. If a solution turns pink when beet juice is added, it is an acid. If it turns yellow, the solution is alkaline. Provided by FactRetriever.com
Fact of the Day
Random Fact of the Day
"Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. " - Teddy Roosevelt
Thought of the Day
Motivational Quotes of the Day

Stories from a South African Childhood

By: Trevor Noah, 2016

This enjoyable book is a boyhood memoir by the Daily Show host Trevor Noah. Miscegenation was forbidden in South Africa, so his very existence was evidence of criminal behavior between his Black mother and European father. Caught between two worlds, he managed to turn each to his advantage. He was a very naughty little boy, and his Black caretakers were reluctant to curb him. His mother is a real heroine. The book does a very good job of describing life under apartheid. We hope he writes another book to tell how he left South Africa and found fame as a comedic commentator in America.

So which characters in the show owned slaves?

Most of them, actually. In one of the Cabinet rap battles, Jefferson extols the South’s agrarian economy, and Hamilton slaps back. “Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting,” he sneers, dismissing Jefferson’s argument as “a civics lesson from a slaver.”

But slavery was hardly just a Southern affair. In 1790, about 40 percent of households immediately around New York City included enslaved people. Most of Hamilton’s associates who toast freedom early in the show were slaveowners, including Aaron Burr and Hercules Mulligan (whose enslaved servant Cato worked alongside him in an anti-British spy ring).

The Schuylers, the prominent family Hamilton marries into, were major slaveholders. In fact, the mayor of Albany announced last month that the city would remove a statue of Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, who at various points owned as many as 27 slaves.

Angelica Schuyler and her husband also owned slaves, and Hamilton, who was a lawyer, helped them with their slavery-related transactions, including the $225 purchase of a mother and child.

Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.


Wikipedia allows anonymous editing contributors are not required to provide any identification or an email address. A 2007 study at Dartmouth College of the English Wikipedia noted that, contrary to usual social expectations, anonymous editors were some of Wikipedia's most productive contributors of valid content. [34] However, the Dartmouth study was criticized by John Timmer of the Ars Technica website for its methodological shortcomings. [35]

Wikipedia trusts the same community to self-regulate and become more proficient at quality control. Wikipedia has harnessed the work of millions of people to produce the world's largest knowledge-based site along with software to support it, resulting in more than nineteen million articles written, across more than 280 different language versions, in fewer than twelve years. [36] For this reason, there has been considerable interest in the project both academically and from diverse fields such as information technology, business, project management, knowledge acquisition, software programming, other collaborative projects and sociology, to explore whether the Wikipedia model can produce quality results, what collaboration in this way can reveal about people, and whether the scale of involvement can overcome the obstacles of individual limitations and poor editorship which would otherwise arise.

Criteria for evaluating reliability

The reliability of Wikipedia articles can be measured by the following criteria:

  • Accuracy of information provided within articles
  • Appropriateness of the images provided with the article
  • Appropriateness of the style and focus of the articles [37]
  • Susceptibility to, and exclusion and removal of, false information
  • Comprehensiveness, scope and coverage within articles and in the range of articles
  • Identification of reputable third-party sources as citations
  • Verifiability of statements by respected sources [20]
  • Stability of the articles
  • Susceptibility to editorial and systemic bias
  • Quality of writing

The first four of these have been the subjects of various studies of the project, while the presence of bias is strongly disputed, and the prevalence and quality of citations can be tested within Wikipedia. [38] In addition, the scientific research in the area of computational mechanism for trust and reputation in virtual societies was oriented to increase the reliability and performance of electronic communities such as Wikipedia with more quantitative methods and temporal factors. [39]

In contrast with all the previous intrinsic metrics, several "market-oriented" extrinsic measures demonstrate that large audiences trust Wikipedia in one way or another. For instance, "50 percent of [US] physicians report that they've consulted . [Wikipedia] for information on health conditions", according to a report from IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. [40]


Wikipedia and fact-checking includes the process through which Wikipedia editors perform fact-checking of Wikipedia, and also reuse of Wikipedia for fact-checking other publications, and also the cultural discussion of the place of Wikipedia in fact-checking. Major platforms including YouTube [41] and Facebook [42] use Wikipedia's content to confirm the accuracy of information in their own media collections. Seeking public trust is a major part of Wikipedia's publication philosophy. [43]

Comparative studies

On October 24, 2005, British newspaper The Guardian published a story titled "Can you trust Wikipedia?" in which a panel of experts were asked to review seven entries related to their fields, giving each article reviewed a number designation from 0 to 10, [44] but most received marks between 5 and 8.

The most common criticisms were:

  1. Poor prose, or ease-of-reading issues (3 mentions)
  2. Omissions or inaccuracies, often small but including key omissions in some articles (3 mentions)
  3. Poor balance, with less important areas being given more attention and vice versa (1 mention)

The most common praises were:

  1. Factually sound and correct, no glaring inaccuracies (4 mentions)
  2. Much useful information, including well-selected links, making it possible to "access much information quickly" (3 mentions)

In December 2005, the journal Nature published results of an attempted blind study seeking reviewer evaluations of the accuracy of a small subset of articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. The non-peer-reviewed study was based on Nature ' s selection of 42 articles on scientific topics, including biographies of well-known scientists. The articles were compared for accuracy by anonymous academic reviewers, a customary practice for journal article reviews. Based on their reviews, on average the Wikipedia articles were described as containing 4 errors or omissions, while the Britannica articles contained 3. Only 4 serious errors were found in Wikipedia, and 4 in Britannica. The study concluded that "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries", [27] although Wikipedia's articles were often "poorly structured". [27]

Encyclopædia Britannica expressed concerns, leading Nature to release further documentation of its survey method. [45] Based on this additional information, Encyclopædia Britannica denied the validity of the Nature study, stating that it was "fatally flawed". Among Britannica ' s criticisms were that excerpts rather than the full texts of some of their articles were used, that some of the extracts were compilations that included articles written for the youth version, that Nature did not check the factual assertions of its reviewers, and that many points the reviewers labeled as errors were differences of editorial opinion. Britannica further stated that "While the heading proclaimed that 'Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries,' the numbers buried deep in the body of the article said precisely the opposite: Wikipedia in fact had a third more inaccuracies than Britannica. (As we demonstrate below, Nature's research grossly exaggerated Britannica's inaccuracies, so we cite this figure only to point out the slanted way in which the numbers were presented.)" [46] Nature acknowledged the compiled nature of some of the Britannica extracts, but denied that this invalidated the conclusions of the study. [47] Encyclopædia Britannica also argued that a breakdown of the errors indicated that the mistakes in Wikipedia were more often the inclusion of incorrect facts, while the mistakes in Britannica were "errors of omission", making "Britannica far more accurate than Wikipedia, according to the figures". [46] Nature has since rejected the Britannica response, [48] stating that any errors on the part of its reviewers were not biased in favor of either encyclopedia, that in some cases it used excerpts of articles from both encyclopedias, and that Britannica did not share particular concerns with Nature before publishing its "open letter" rebuttal. [49] [50]

The point-for-point disagreement between these two parties that addressed the compilation/text excerpting and very small sample size issues—argued to bias the outcome in favor of Wikipedia, versus a comprehensive, full article, large sample size study favoring the quality-controlled format of Britannica—have been echoed in online discussions, [51] [52] including of articles citing the Nature study, e.g., where a "flawed study design" for manual selection of articles/article portions, the lack of study "statistical power" in its comparing 40 articles from over 100,000 Britannica and over 1 million English Wikipedia articles, and the absence of any study statistical analyses (e.g., reported confidence intervals for study results) has also been noted. [53]

In June 2006, Roy Rosenzweig, a professor specializing in American history, published a comparison of the Wikipedia biographies of 25 Americans to the corresponding biographies found on Encarta and American National Biography Online. He wrote that Wikipedia is "surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history" and described some of the errors as "widely held but inaccurate beliefs". However, he stated that Wikipedia often fails to distinguish important from trivial details, and does not provide the best references. He also complained about Wikipedia's lack of "persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose". [54] Wikipedia's policies on original research, including unpublished synthesis of published data, disallow new analysis and interpretation not found in reliable sources.

A web-based survey conducted from December 2005 to May 2006 by Larry Press, a professor of Information Systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills, assessed the "accuracy and completeness of Wikipedia articles". [55] Fifty people accepted an invitation to assess an article. Of the fifty, seventy-six percent (76%) agreed or strongly agreed that the Wikipedia article was accurate, and forty-six percent (46%) agreed or strongly agreed that it was complete. Eighteen people compared the article they reviewed to the article on the same topic in the Encyclopædia Britannica. Opinions on accuracy were almost equal between the two encyclopedias (6 favoring Britannica, 7 favoring Wikipedia, 5 stating they were equal), and eleven of the eighteen (61%) found Wikipedia somewhat or substantially more complete, compared to seven of the eighteen (39%) for Britannica. The survey did not attempt random selection of the participants, and it is not clear how the participants were invited. [56]

The German computing magazine c't performed a comparison of Brockhaus Multimedial, Microsoft Encarta, and the German Wikipedia in October 2004: Experts evaluated 66 articles in various fields. In overall score, Wikipedia was rated 3.6 out of 5 points (B-). [57] A second test by c't in February 2007 used 150 search terms, of which 56 were closely evaluated, to compare four digital encyclopedias: Bertelsmann Enzyklopädie 2007, Brockhaus Multimedial premium 2007, Encarta 2007 Enzyklopädie and Wikipedia. It concluded: "We did not find more errors in the texts of the free encyclopedia than in those of its commercial competitors." [58]

Viewing Wikipedia as fitting the economists' definition of a perfectly competitive marketplace of ideas, George Bragues (University of Guelph-Humber), examined Wikipedia's articles on seven top Western philosophers: Aristotle, Plato, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke. Wikipedia's articles were compared to a consensus list of themes culled from four reference works in philosophy. Bragues found that, on average, Wikipedia's articles only covered 52% of consensus themes. No errors were found, though there were significant omissions. [59]

PC Pro magazine (August 2007) asked experts to compare four articles (a small sample) in their scientific fields between Wikipedia, Britannica and Encarta. In each case Wikipedia was described as "largely sound", "well handled", "performs well", "good for the bare facts" and "broadly accurate". One article had "a marked deterioration towards the end" while another had "clearer and more elegant" writing, a third was assessed as less well written but better detailed than its competitors, and a fourth was "of more benefit to the serious student than its Encarta or Britannica equivalents". No serious errors were noted in Wikipedia articles, whereas serious errors were noted in one Encarta and one Britannica article. [60]

In October 2007, Australian magazine PC Authority published a feature article on the accuracy of Wikipedia. The article compared Wikipedia's content to other popular online encyclopedias, namely Britannica and Encarta. The magazine asked experts to evaluate articles pertaining to their field. A total of four articles were reviewed by three experts. Wikipedia was comparable to the other encyclopedias, topping the chemistry category. [61]

In December 2007, German magazine Stern published the results of a comparison between the German Wikipedia and the online version of the 15-volume edition of Brockhaus Enzyklopädie. The test was commissioned to a research institute (Cologne-based WIND GmbH), whose analysts assessed 50 articles from each encyclopedia (covering politics, business, sports, science, culture, entertainment, geography, medicine, history and religion) on four criteria (accuracy, completeness, timeliness and clarity), and judged Wikipedia articles to be more accurate on the average (1.6 on a scale from 1 to 6 versus 2.3 for Brockhaus, with 1 as the best and 6 as the worst). Wikipedia's coverage was also found to be more complete and up to date however, Brockhaus was judged to be more clearly written, while several Wikipedia articles were criticized as being too complicated for non-experts, and many as too lengthy. [62] [63] [64]

In its April 2008 issue British computing magazine PC Plus compared the English Wikipedia with the DVD editions of World Book Encyclopedia and Encyclopædia Britannica, assessing for each the coverage of a series of random subjects. It concluded, "The quality of content is good in all three cases" and advised Wikipedia users "Be aware that erroneous edits do occur, and check anything that seems outlandish with a second source. But the vast majority of Wikipedia is filled with valuable and accurate information." [65]

A 2008 paper in Reference Services Review compared nine Wikipedia entries on historical topics to their counterparts in Encyclopædia Britannica, The Dictionary of American History and American National Biography Online. The paper found that Wikipedia's entries had an overall accuracy rate of 80 percent, whereas the other encyclopedias had an accuracy rate of 95 to 96 percent. [66]

A 2010 study assessed the extent to which Wikipedia pages about the history of countries conformed to the site's policy of verifiability. It found that, in contradiction of this policy, many claims in these articles were not supported by citations, and that many of those that were, sourced to popular media and government websites rather than to academic journal articles. [67]

In April 2011, a study was published by Adam Brown of Brigham Young University in the journal PS Political Science & Politics which examined "thousands of Wikipedia articles about candidates, elections, and officeholders". The study found that while information in these articles tended to be accurate, the articles examined contained many errors of omission. [68]

A 2012 study co-authored by Shane Greenstein examined a decade of Wikipedia articles on United States politics and found that the more contributors there were to a given article, the more neutral it tended to be, in line with a narrow interpretation of Linus's law. [69]

Reavley et al. (2012) compared the quality of articles on select mental health topics on Wikipedia with corresponding articles in Encyclopædia Britannica and a psychiatry textbook. They asked experts to rate article content with regard to accuracy, up-to-dateness, breadth of coverage, referencing and readability. Wikipedia scored highest on all criteria except readability, and the authors concluded that Wikipedia is as good as or better than Britannica and a standard textbook. [26]

A 2014 perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine examined Wikipedia pages about 22 prescription drugs to determine if they had been updated to include the most recent FDA safety warnings. It found that 41% of these pages were updated within two weeks after the warning, 23% were updated more than two weeks later, and the remaining 36% had not been updated to include the warning as of more than 1 year later as of January 2014. [70]

A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association examined 19 Wikipedia articles about herbal supplements, and concluded that all of these articles contained information about their "therapeutic uses and adverse effects", but also concluded that "several lacked information on drug interactions, pregnancy, and contraindications". The study's authors therefore recommended that patients not rely solely on Wikipedia as a source for information about the herbal supplements in question. [71]

Another study published in 2014 in PLOS ONE found that Wikipedia's information about pharmacology was 99.7% accurate when compared to a pharmacology textbook, and that the completeness of such information on Wikipedia was 83.8%. The study also determined that completeness of these Wikipedia articles was lowest (68%) in the category "pharmacokinetics" and highest (91.3%) in the category "indication". The authors concluded that "Wikipedia is an accurate and comprehensive source of drug-related information for undergraduate medical education". [72]

Expert opinion

Librarians' views

In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, self-described information specialist and Internet consultant [73] Philip Bradley said that he would not use Wikipedia and was "not aware of a single librarian who would". He then explained that "the main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data are reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window." [74]

A 2006 review of Wikipedia by Library Journal, using a panel of librarians, "the toughest critics of reference materials, whatever their format", asked "long standing reviewers" to evaluate three areas of Wikipedia (popular culture, current affairs, and science), and concluded: "While there are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resource that takes pride in limited professional management, many encouraging signs suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted the librarian's seal of approval". A reviewer who "decided to explore controversial historical and current events, hoping to find glaring abuses" said, "I was pleased by Wikipedia's objective presentation of controversial subjects" but that "as with much information floating around in cyberspace, a healthy degree of skepticism and skill at winnowing fact from opinion are required". Other reviewers noted that there is "much variation" but "good content abounds". [75]

In 2007, Michael Gorman, former president of the American Library Association (ALA) stated in an Encyclopædia Britannica blog that "A professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything". [76]

The library at Trent University in Ontario states of Wikipedia that many articles are "long and comprehensive", but that there is "a lot of room for misinformation and bias [and] a lot of variability in both the quality and depth of articles". It adds that Wikipedia has advantages and limitations, that it has "excellent coverage of technical topics" and articles are "often added quickly and, as a result, coverage of current events is quite good", comparing this to traditional sources which are unable to achieve this task. It concludes that, depending upon the need, one should think critically and assess the appropriateness of one's sources, "whether you are looking for fact or opinion, how in-depth you want to be as you explore a topic, the importance of reliability and accuracy, and the importance of timely or recent information", and adds that Wikipedia can be used in any event as a "starting point". [77]

Information Today (March 2006) cites librarian Nancy O'Neill (principal librarian for Reference Services at the Santa Monica Public Library System) as saying that "there is a good deal of skepticism about Wikipedia in the library community" but that "she also admits cheerfully that Wikipedia makes a good starting place for a search. You get terminology, names, and a feel for the subject." [78]

PC Pro (August 2007) cites the head of the European and American Collection at the British Library, Stephen Bury, as stating "Wikipedia is potentially a good thing—it provides a speedier response to new events, and to new evidence on old items". The article concludes: "For [Bury], the problem isn't so much the reliability of Wikipedia's content so much as the way in which it's used." "It's already become the first port of call for the researcher", Bury says, before noting that this is "not necessarily problematic except when they go no further". According to Bury, the trick to using Wikipedia is to understand that "just because it's in an encyclopedia (free, web or printed) doesn't mean it's true. Ask for evidence . and contribute." [60]

Articles on contentious issues

A 2006 article for the Canadian Library Association (CLA) [79] discussed the Wikipedia approach, process and outcome in depth, commenting for example that in controversial topics, "what is most remarkable is that the two sides actually engaged each other and negotiated a version of the article that both can more or less live with". The author comments that:

In fact Wikipedia has more institutional structure than at first appears. Some 800 experienced users are designated as administrators, with special powers of binding and loosing: they can protect and unprotect, delete and undelete and revert articles, and block and unblock users. They are expected to use their powers in a neutral way, forming and implementing the consensus of the community. The effect of their intervention shows in the discussion pages of most contentious articles. Wikipedia has survived this long because it is easier to reverse vandalism than it is to commit it.

Shi et al. extended this analysis in discussing "The wisdom of polarized crowds" in 2017 based on content analysis of all edits to English Wikipedia articles relating to politics, social issues and science from its start to December 1, 2016. This included almost 233,000 articles representing approximately 5 percent of the English Wikipedia. They noted that at least in the US,

Political speech has become markedly more polarized in recent years . . [D]espite early promise of the world-wide-web to democratize access to diverse information, increased media choice and social networking platforms . [create] echo chambers that . degrade the quality of individual decisions, . discount identity-incongruent opinions, stimulate and reinforce polarizing information . foment conflict and even make communication counter-productive. Nevertheless, a large literature documents the largely positive effect that social differences can exert on the collaborative production of information, goods and services. Research demonstrates that individuals from socially distinct groups embody diverse cognitive resources and perspectives that, when cooperatively combined . outperform those from homogeneous groups.

They translated edit histories of millions of Wikipedia editors into a 7-point political identification scale and compared that with Wikipedia's six-level article quality score (stub, start, C, B, good, featured) assigned via a machine learning algorithm. They found that “articles attracting more attention tend to have more balanced engagement . [and] higher polarization is associated with higher quality.” [80]


Academics have also criticized Wikipedia for its perceived failure as a reliable source and because Wikipedia editors may have no expertise, competence, or credentials in the topics on which they contribute. [81] [82] Adrian Riskin, a mathematician in Whittier College commented that while highly technical articles may be written by mathematicians for mathematicians, the more general maths topics, such as the article on polynomials, are written in a very amateurish fashion with a number of obvious mistakes. [83]

Because Wikipedia cannot be considered a reliable source, the use of Wikipedia is not accepted in many schools and universities in writing a formal paper, and some educational institutions have banned it as a primary source while others have limited its use to only a pointer to external sources. [81] [84] [85] The criticism of not being a reliable source, however, may not only apply to Wikipedia but to encyclopedias in general—some university lecturers are not impressed when students cite print-based encyclopedias in assigned work. [86] However, it seems that instructors have underestimated the use of Wikipedia in academia because of these concerns. Researchers and academics contend that while Wikipedia may not be used as a 100 percent accurate source for final papers, it is a valuable jumping off point for research that can lead to many possibilities if approached critically. What may be missing in academia is the emphasis on critical analysis in regards to the use of Wikipedia in secondary and higher education. We should not dismiss Wikipedia entirely (there are less inaccuracies than there are errors of omission) but rather begin to support it, and teach the use of Wikipedia as an education tool in tandem with critical thinking skills that will allow students to filter the information found on the online encyclopedia and help them critically analyze their findings. [87]

An empirical study conducted in 2006 by a Nottingham University Business School lecturer in Information Systems, [88] the subject of a review on the technical website Ars Technica, [89] involving 55 academics asked to review specific Wikipedia articles that either were in their expert field (group 1) or chosen at random (group 2), concluded that: "The experts found Wikipedia's articles to be more credible than the non-experts. This suggests that the accuracy of Wikipedia is high. However, the results should not be seen as support for Wikipedia as a totally reliable resource as, according to the experts, 13 percent of the articles contain mistakes (10% of the experts reported factual errors of an unspecified degree, 3% of them reported spelling errors)." [90]

The Gould Library at Carleton College in Minnesota has a web-page describing the use of Wikipedia in academia. It asserts that "Wikipedia is without question a valuable and informative resource", but that "there is an inherent lack of reliability and stability" to its articles, again drawing attention to similar advantages and limitations as other sources. As with other reviews it comments that one should assess one's sources and what is desired from them, and that "Wikipedia may be an appropriate resource for some assignments, but not for others." It cited Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales' view that Wikipedia may not be ideal as a source for all academic uses, and (as with other sources) suggests that at the least, one strength of Wikipedia is that it provides a good starting point for current information on a very wide range of topics. [91]

In 2007, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article written by Cathy Davidson, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and English at Duke University, in which she asserts that Wikipedia should be used to teach students about the concepts of reliability and credibility. [92]

In 2008, Hamlet Isakhanli, founder and president of Khazar University, compared the Encyclopædia Britannica and English Wikipedia articles on Azerbaijan and related subjects. His study found that Wikipedia covered the subject much more widely, more accurately and in more detail, though with some lack of balance, and that Wikipedia was the best source for the first approximation. [93]

In 2011, Karl Kehm, associate professor of physics at Washington College, said: "I do encourage [my students] to use [Wikipedia] as one of many launch points for pursuing original source material. The best Wikipedia entries are well researched with extensive citations". [94]

Some academic journals do refer to Wikipedia articles, but are not elevating it to the same level as traditional references. For instance, Wikipedia articles have been referenced in "enhanced perspectives" provided on-line in the journal Science. The first of these perspectives to provide a hyperlink to Wikipedia was "A White Collar Protein Senses Blue Light", [95] and dozens of enhanced perspectives have provided such links since then. The publisher of Science states that these enhanced perspectives "include hypernotes—which link directly to websites of other relevant information available online—beyond the standard bibliographic references". [96]

Journalism and use of Wikipedia in the newsroom

In his 2014 book Virtual Unreality, Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University, noted Wikipedia's susceptibility to hoaxes and misinformation, including manipulation by commercial and political organisations "masquerading as common people" making edits to Wikipedia. In conclusion, Seife presented the following advice: [97]

Wikipedia is like an old and eccentric uncle.

He can be a lot of fun—over the years he's seen a lot, and he can tell a great story. He's also no dummy he's accumulated a lot of information and has some strong opinions about what he's gathered. You can learn quite a bit from him. But take everything he says with a grain of salt. A lot of the things he thinks he knows for sure aren't quite right, or are taken out of context. And when it comes down to it, sometimes he believes things that are a little bit, well, nuts.

If it ever matters to you whether something he said is real or fictional, it's crucial to check it out with a more reliable source. [97]

Seife observed that when false information from Wikipedia spreads to other publications, it sometimes alters truth itself. [97] On June 28, 2012, for example, an anonymous Wikipedia contributor added the invented nickname "Millville Meteor" to the Wikipedia biography of baseball player Mike Trout. A couple of weeks later, a Newsday sports writer reproduced the nickname in an article, and "with that act, the fake nickname became real". [97] Seife pointed out that while Wikipedia, by some standards, could be described as "roughly as accurate" as traditional publications, and is more up to date, "there's a difference between the kind of error one would find in Wikipedia and what one would in Britannica or Collier's or even in the now-defunct Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia . the majority of hoaxes on Wikipedia could never have appeared in the old-fashioned encyclopedias." [97] Dwight Garner, reviewing Seife's book in The New York Times, said that he himself had "been burned enough times by bad online information", including "Wikipedia howlers", to have adopted a very sceptical mindset. [98]

In November 2012, Lord Leveson was accused of having forgotten "one of the elementary rules of journalism" when he named a "Brett Straub" as one of the founders of The Independent newspaper in his report on the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. The name had been added to the Wikipedia article on The Independent over a year prior, and turned out to be that of a 25-year-old Californian, whose friend had added his name to a string of Wikipedia pages as a prank. [99] Straub was tracked down by The Telegraph and commented, "The fact someone, especially a judge, has believed something on Wikipedia is kind of shocking. My friend went on and edited a bunch of Wikipedia pages and put my name there. [. ] I knew my friend had done it but I didn't know how to change them back and I thought someone would. At one point I was the creator of Coca-Cola or something. You know how easy it is to change Wikipedia. Every time he came across a red linked name he put my name in its place." [100]

A 2016 BBC article by Ciaran McCauley similarly noted that "plenty of mischievous, made-up information has found its way" on to Wikipedia and that "many of these fake facts have fallen through the cracks and been taken as gospel by everyone from university academics to major newspapers and broadcasters." [101] Listing examples of journalists being embarrassed by reproducing hoaxes and other falsifications from Wikipedia in their writing, including false information propagated by major news organisations in their obituaries of Maurice Jarre and Ronnie Hazlehurst, McCauley stated that

Any journalist in any newsroom will likely get a sharp slap across the head from an editor for treating Wikipedia with anything but total scepticism (you can imagine the kicking I've taken over this article). [101]

The Daily Mail – itself banned as a source on Wikipedia in 2017 because of its perceived unreliability – has publicly stated that it "banned all its journalists from using Wikipedia as a sole source in 2014 because of its unreliability". [102]

Science and medicine

Science and medicine are areas where accuracy is of high importance and peer review is the norm. While some of Wikipedia's content has passed a form of peer review, most has not. [103]

A 2008 study examined 80 Wikipedia drug entries. The researchers found few factual errors in this set of articles, but determined that these articles were often missing important information, like contraindications and drug interactions. One of the researchers noted that "If people went and used this as a sole or authoritative source without contacting a health professional. those are the types of negative impacts that can occur." The researchers also compared Wikipedia to Medscape Drug Reference (MDR), by looking for answers to 80 different questions covering eight categories of drug information, including adverse drug events, dosages, and mechanism of action. They have determined that MDR provided answers to 82.5 percent of the questions, while Wikipedia could only answer 40 percent, and that answers were less likely to be complete for Wikipedia as well. None of the answers from Wikipedia were determined factually inaccurate, while they found four inaccurate answers in MDR. But the researchers found 48 errors of omission in the Wikipedia entries, compared to 14 for MDR. The lead investigator concluded: "I think that these errors of omission can be just as dangerous [as inaccuracies]", and he pointed out that drug company representatives have been caught deleting information from Wikipedia entries that make their drugs look unsafe. [25]

A 2009 survey asked US toxicologists how accurately they rated the portrayal of health risks of chemicals in different media sources. It was based on the answers of 937 members of the Society of Toxicology and found that these experts regarded Wikipedia's reliability in this area as far higher than that of all traditional news media:

In perhaps the most surprising finding in the entire study, all these national media outlets [U.S. newspapers, news magazines, health magazines, broadcast and cable television networks] are easily eclipsed by two representatives of "new media": WebMD and Wikipedia. WebMD is the only news source whose coverage of chemical risk is regarded as accurate by a majority (56 percent) of toxicologists, closely followed by Wikipedia's 45 percent accuracy rating. By contrast, only 15 percent describe as accurate the portrayals of chemical risk found in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. [23]

In 2010 researchers compared information about 10 types of cancer on Wikipedia to similar data from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query and concluded "the Wiki resource had similar accuracy and depth to the professionally edited database" and that "sub-analysis comparing common to uncommon cancers demonstrated no difference between the two", but that ease of readability was an issue. [104]

A study in 2011 came to the result that categories most frequently absent in Wikipedia's drug articles are those of drug interactions and medication use in breastfeeding. [105] Other categories with incomplete coverage were descriptions of off-label indications, contraindications and precautions, adverse drug events and dosing. [105] Information most frequently deviating from other sources used in the study were that of contraindications and precautions, drug absorption and adverse drug events. [105]

A 2012 study reported that Wikipedia articles about pediatric otolaryngology contained twice as many errors and omissions as the medical database eMedicine. [106]

In a U.S. study in 2014, 10 researchers examined 10 Wikipedia health articles of the most costly medical conditions in the United States and found that 90% of the entries contained errors and statements that contradicted latest medical research. However, according to Stevie Benton of Wikimedia UK the sample size used in the research may have been too small to be considered representative. [107] [108]

A 2014 study published in PLOS One looked at the quality of Wikipedia articles on pharmacology, comparing articles from English and German Wikipedia with academic textbooks. It found that "the collaborative and participatory design of Wikipedia does generate high quality information on pharmacology that is suitable for undergraduate medical education". [109]

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

In a 2004 piece called "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia", Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, stated that Wikipedia errs in billing itself as an encyclopedia, because that word implies a level of authority and accountability that he believes cannot be possessed by an openly editable reference. McHenry argued that "the typical user doesn't know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do". [110] He added:

[H]owever closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability, it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler. The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him." [110]

Similarly, Britannica ' s executive editor, Ted Pappas, was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

The premise of Wikipedia is that continuous improvement will lead to perfection. That premise is completely unproven. [74]

In the September 12, 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Jimmy Wales debated with Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica. Hoiberg focused on a need for expertise and control in an encyclopedia and cited Lewis Mumford that overwhelming information could "bring about a state of intellectual enervation and depletion hardly to be distinguished from massive ignorance". Wales emphasized Wikipedia's differences, and asserted that openness and transparency lead to quality. Hoiberg replied that he "had neither the time nor space to respond to [criticisms]" and "could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia", to which Wales responded: "No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article", and included a link to the Wikipedia article Criticism of Wikipedia. [111]

Information loop

Sources accepted as reliable for Wikipedia may in fact rely on Wikipedia as a reference source, sometimes indirectly. If the original information in Wikipedia was false, once it has been reported in sources considered reliable, Wikipedia may use them to reference the false information, giving an apparent respectability to a falsehood. This in turn increases the likelihood of the false information being reported in other media. [112] A known example is the Sacha Baron Cohen article, where false information added in Wikipedia was apparently used by two newspapers, leading to it being treated as reliable in Wikipedia. [113] This process of creating reliable sources for false facts has been termed "citogenesis" by webcomic artist Randall Munroe. [114] [115] [116]

Somewhat related to the "information loop", but perhaps more worrisome, is the propagation of misinformation to other websites (Answers.com is just one of many) which will often quote misinformation from Wikipedia verbatim, and without mentioning that it has come from Wikipedia. A piece of misinformation originally taken from a Wikipedia article will live on in perhaps dozens of other websites, even if Wikipedia itself has deleted the unreliable material. [117]


In one article, Information Today (March 2006) likens [78] comparisons between Wikipedia and Britannica to "apples and oranges":

Even the revered Encyclopædia Britannica is riddled with errors, not to mention the subtle yet pervasive biases of individual subjectivity and corporate correctness. There is no one perfect way. Britannica seems to claim that there is. Wikipedia acknowledges there's no such thing. Librarians and information professionals have always known this. That's why we always consult multiple sources and counsel our users to do the same.

Jonathan Sidener of The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote that "vandalism and self-serving misinformation [are] common particularly in the political articles". [118]

Andrew Orlowski, a columnist for The Register, expressed similar criticisms in 2005, writing that the use of the term "encyclopedia" to describe Wikipedia may lead users into believing it is more reliable than it may be. [119]

BBC technology specialist Bill Thompson wrote that "Most Wikipedia entries are written and submitted in good faith, and we should not let the contentious areas such as politics, religion or biography shape our view of the project as a whole", that it forms a good starting point for serious research but that: [120]

No information source is guaranteed to be accurate, and we should not place complete faith in something which can so easily be undermined through malice or ignorance. That does not devalue the project entirely, it just means that we should be skeptical about Wikipedia entries as a primary source of information. It is the same with search engine results. Just because something comes up in the top 10 on MSN Search or Google does not automatically give it credibility or vouch for its accuracy or importance. [120]

Thompson adds the observation that since most popular online sources are inherently unreliable in this way, one byproduct of the information age is a wiser audience who are learning to check information rather than take it on faith due to its source, leading to "a better sense of how to evaluate information sources". [120]

The Supreme Court of India in its judgment in Commr. of Customs, Bangalore vs. ACER India Pvt. (Citation 2007(12)SCALE581) held that "We have referred to Wikipedia, as the learned Counsel for the parties relied thereupon. It is an online encyclopaedia and information can be entered therein by any person and as such it may not be authentic." [121]

In his 2007 Guide to Military History on the Internet, Simon Fowler rated Wikipedia as "the best general resource" for military history research, and stated that "the results are largely accurate and generally free of bias". [122] When rating Wikipedia as the No. 1 military site he mentioned that "Wikipedia is often criticised for its inaccuracy and bias, but in my experience the military history articles are spot on." [123]

In July 2008, The Economist magazine described Wikipedia as "a user-generated reference service" and noted that Wikipedia's "elaborate moderation rules put a limit to acrimony" generated by cyber-nationalism. [124]

Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of Wikipedia, stresses that encyclopedias of any type are not usually appropriate as primary sources, and should not be relied upon as being authoritative. [125]

Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch offered the following anecdote in his book The Last Lecture. He was surprised that his entry to World Book Encyclopedia on virtual reality was accepted without question, so he concluded, "I now believe Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your information, because I know what the quality control is for real encyclopedias." [126]

Removal of false information

Fernanda Viégas of the MIT Media Lab and Martin Wattenberg and Kushal Dave of IBM Research studied the flow of editing in the Wikipedia model, with emphasis on breaks in flow (from vandalism or substantial rewrites), showing the dynamic flow of material over time. [127] From a sample of vandalism edits on the English Wikipedia during May 2003, they found that most such acts were repaired within minutes, summarizing:

We've examined many pages on Wikipedia that treat controversial topics, and have discovered that most have, in fact, been vandalized at some point in their history. But we've also found that vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects. [128]

They also stated that "it is essentially impossible to find a crisp definition of vandalism". [127]

Lih (2004) compared articles before and after they were mentioned in the press, and found that externally referenced articles are of higher quality work.

An informal assessment by the popular IT magazine PC Pro for its 2007 article "Wikipedia Uncovered" [60] tested Wikipedia by introducing 10 errors that "varied between bleeding obvious and deftly subtle" into articles (the researchers later corrected the articles they had edited). Labeling the results "impressive" it noted that all but one was noted and fixed within the hour, and that "the Wikipedians' tools and know-how were just too much for our team." A second series of another 10 tests, using "far more subtle errors" and additional techniques to conceal their nature, met similar results: "despite our stealth attempts the vast majority. were discovered remarkably quickly. the ridiculously minor Jesse James error was corrected within a minute and a very slight change to Queen Anne's entry was put right within two minutes". Two of the latter series were not detected. The article concluded that "Wikipedia corrects the vast majority of errors within minutes, but if they're not spotted within the first day the chances. dwindle as you're then relying on someone to spot the errors while reading the article rather than reviewing the edits".

A study in late 2007 systematically inserted inaccuracies into Wikipedia entries about the lives of philosophers. Depending on how exactly the data are interpreted, either one third or one half of the inaccuracies were corrected within 48 hours. [129]

A 2007 peer-reviewed study [130] that measured the actual number of page views with "damaged" content concluded:

42% of damage is repaired almost immediately, i.e., before it can confuse, offend, or mislead anyone. Nonetheless, there are still hundreds of millions of damaged views.

Loc Vu-Quoc, professor for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida, stated in 2008 that "sometimes errors may go for years without being corrected as experts don't usually read Wikipedia articles in their own field to correct these errors". [131]

Susceptibility to bias

Individual bias and the WikiScanner tool

In August 2007, WikiScanner, a tool developed by Virgil Griffith of the California Institute of Technology, was released to match anonymous IP edits in the encyclopedia with an extensive database of addresses. News stories appeared about IP addresses from various organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Diebold, Inc. and the Australian government being used to make edits to Wikipedia articles, sometimes of an opinionated or questionable nature. [132] The BBC quoted a Wikimedia spokesperson as praising the tool: "We really value transparency and the scanner really takes this to another level. Wikipedia Scanner may prevent an organization or individuals from editing articles that they're really not supposed to." [133]

The WikiScanner story was also covered by The Independent, which stated that many "censorial interventions" by editors with vested interests on a variety of articles in Wikipedia had been discovered:

[Wikipedia] was hailed as a breakthrough in the democratisation of knowledge. But the online encyclopedia has since been hijacked by forces who decided that certain things were best left unknown. Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. It has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spin doctors and corporate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed. [134]

Not everyone hailed WikiScanner as a success for Wikipedia. Oliver Kamm, in a column for The Times, argued instead that:

The WikiScanner is thus an important development in bringing down a pernicious influence on our intellectual life. Critics of the web decry the medium as the cult of the amateur. Wikipedia is worse than that it is the province of the covert lobby. The most constructive course is to stand on the sidelines and jeer at its pretensions. [135]

WikiScanner only reveals conflict of interest when the editor does not have a Wikipedia account and their IP address is used instead. Conflict of interest editing done by editors with accounts is not detected, since those edits are anonymous to everyone—except for "a handful of privileged Wikipedia admins". [136]


Wikipedia has been accused of systemic bias, which is to say its general nature leads, without necessarily any conscious intention, to the propagation of various prejudices. Although many articles in newspapers have concentrated on minor, indeed trivial, factual errors in Wikipedia articles, there are also concerns about large-scale, presumably unintentional effects from the increasing influence and use of Wikipedia as a research tool at all levels. In an article in the Times Higher Education magazine (London) philosopher Martin Cohen frames Wikipedia of having "become a monopoly" with "all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators", which he describes as a "youthful cab-drivers" perspective. [137] Cohen's argument, however, finds a grave conclusion in these circumstances: "To control the reference sources that people use is to control the way people comprehend the world. Wikipedia may have a benign, even trivial face, but underneath may lie a more sinister and subtle threat to freedom of thought." [137] That freedom is undermined by what he sees as what matters on Wikipedia, "not your sources but the 'support of the community'." [137]

Critics also point to the tendency to cover topics in a detail disproportionate to their importance. For example, Stephen Colbert once mockingly praised Wikipedia for having a "longer entry on 'lightsabers' than it does on the 'printing press'." [138] In an interview with The Guardian, Dale Hoiberg, the editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, noted:

People write of things they're interested in, and so many subjects don't get covered and news events get covered in great detail. In the past, the entry on Hurricane Frances was more than five times the length of that on Chinese art, and the entry on Coronation Street was twice as long as the article on Tony Blair. [74]

This critical approach has been satirised as "Wikigroaning", a term coined by Jon Hendren [139] of the website Something Awful. [140] In the game, two articles (preferably with similar names) are compared: one about an acknowledged serious or classical subject and the other about a popular topic or current event. [141] Defenders of a broad inclusion criteria have held that the encyclopedia's coverage of pop culture does not impose space constraints on the coverage of more serious subjects (see "Wiki is not paper"). As Ivor Tossell noted:

That Wikipedia is chock full of useless arcana (and did you know, by the way, that the article on "Debate" is shorter than the piece that weighs the relative merits of the 1978 and 2003 versions of Battlestar Galactica?) isn't a knock against it: Since it can grow infinitely, the silly articles aren't depriving the serious ones of space. [142]

Wikipedia has been accused of deficiencies in comprehensiveness because of its voluntary nature, and of reflecting the systemic biases of its contributors. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger stated in 2004, "when it comes to relatively specialized topics (outside of the interests of most of the contributors), the project's credibility is very uneven." [144] He expanded on this 16 years later in May 2020, by comparing how coverage impacts tone between the articles of U.S. presidents Donald Trump (seen as negative) and Barack Obama (seen as positive). [143]

In a GamesRadar editorial, columnist Charlie Barrat juxtaposed Wikipedia's coverage of video game-related topics with its smaller content about topics that have greater real-world significance, such as God, World War II and former U.S. presidents. [145] Wikipedia has been praised for making it possible for articles to be updated or created in response to current events. Its editors have also argued that, as a website, Wikipedia is able to include articles on a greater number of subjects than print encyclopedias can. [146]

A 2011 study reported evidence of cultural bias in Wikipedia articles about famous people on both the English and Polish Wikipedias. These biases included those pertaining to the cultures of both the United States and Poland on each of the corresponding-language Wikipedias, as well as a pro-U.S./English-language bias on both of them. [147]

Notability of article topics

Wikipedia's notability guidelines, which are used by editors to determine if a subject merits its own article, and the application thereof, are the subject of much criticism. [148] A Wikipedia editor rejected a draft article about Donna Strickland before she won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, because no independent sources were given to show that Strickland was sufficiently notable by Wikipedia's standards. Journalists highlighted this as an indicator of the limited visibility of women in science compared to their male colleagues. [149] [150] The gender bias on Wikipedia is well documented, and has prompted a movement to increase the number of notable women on Wikipedia through the Women in Red WikiProject.

In an article entitled "Seeking Disambiguation", Annalisa Merelli interviewed Catalina Cruz, a candidate for office in Queens, New York in the 2018 election who had the notorious SEO disadvantage of having the same name as a porn star with a Wikipedia page. Merelli also interviewed the Wikipedia editor who wrote the candidate's ill-fated article (which was deleted, then restored, after she won the election). She described the Articles for Deletion process, and pointed to other candidates who had pages on the English Wikipedia despite never having held office. [151]

Novelist Nicholson Baker, critical of deletionism, writes: "There are quires, reams, bales of controversy over what constitutes notability in Wikipedia: nobody will ever sort it out." [152]

Journalist Timothy Noah wrote of his treatment: "Wikipedia's notability policy resembles U.S. immigration policy before 9/11: stringent rules, spotty enforcement". [153] In the same article, Noah mentions that the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stacy Schiff was not considered notable enough for a Wikipedia entry until she wrote her article "Know it All" about the Wikipedia Essjay controversy.

On a more generic level, a 2014 study found no correlation between characteristics of a given Wikipedia page about an academic and the academic's notability as determined by citation counts. The metrics of each Wikipedia page examined included length, number of links to the page from other articles, and number of edits made to the page. This study also found that Wikipedia did not cover notable ISI highly cited researchers properly. [154]

In 2020, Wikipedia was criticized for the amount of time it took for an article about Theresa Greenfield, a candidate for the 2020 United States Senate election in Iowa, to leave Wikipedia's Articles for Creation process and become published. Particularly, the criteria for notability were criticized, with the Washington Post reporting: "Greenfield is an uniquely tricky case for Wikipedia because she doesn’t have the background that most candidates for major political office typically have (like prior government experience or prominence in business). Even if Wikipedia editors could recognize she was prominent, she had a hard time meeting the official criteria for notability." [155] Jimmy Wales also criticized the long process on his talk page. [156]

Liberal bias

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales stated in 2006:

The Wikipedia community is very diverse, from liberal to conservative to libertarian and beyond. If averages mattered, and due to the nature of the wiki software (no voting) they almost certainly don't, I would say that the Wikipedia community is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average, because we are global and the international community of English speakers is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population. There are no data or surveys to back that. [157]

A number of politically conservative commentators have argued that Wikipedia's coverage is affected by liberal bias. Andrew Schlafly created Conservapedia because he found Wikipedia "increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American" for its frequent use of British spelling and coverage of topics like creationism and the effect of Christianity on the Renaissance. [158] In 2007, an article in The Christian Post criticised Wikipedia's coverage of intelligent design, saying that it was biased and hypocritical. [159] Lawrence Solomon of the National Review stated that Wikipedia articles on subjects like global warming, intelligent design, and Roe v. Wade are slanted in favor of liberal views. [160]

In a September 2010 issue of the conservative weekly Human Events, Rowan Scarborough presented a critique of Wikipedia's coverage of American politicians prominent in the approaching midterm elections as evidence of systemic liberal bias. Scarborough compared the biographical articles of liberal and conservative opponents in Senate races in the Alaska Republican primary and the Delaware and Nevada general election, emphasizing the quantity of negative coverage of tea party-endorsed candidates. He also cites some criticism by Lawrence Solomon and quotes in full the lead section of Wikipedia's article on the conservative wiki Conservapedia as evidence of an underlying bias. [161]

A 2015 study found negative facts are more likely to be removed from Wikipedia articles on U.S. senators than positive facts, but did not find any significant difference relating to political affiliation. [162]

Reliability as a source in other contexts

Although Wikipedia is stated not to be a primary source, it has been used as evidence in legal cases. In January 2007, The New York Times reported that U.S. courts vary in their treatment of Wikipedia as a source of information, with over 100 judicial rulings having relied on the encyclopedia, including those involving taxes, narcotics, and civil issues such as personal injury and matrimonial issues. [163]

In April 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that in the five years since the 2007 The New York Times story, federal courts of appeals had cited Wikipedia about 95 times. The story also reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated convictions in a cockfighting case because a juror used Wikipedia to research an element of the crime, expressing in its decision concerns about Wikipedia's reliability. [164]

In one notable case, the trademark of Formula One racing decision, [165] the UK Intellectual Property Office considered both the reliability of Wikipedia, and its usefulness as a reliable source of evidence:

Wikipedia has sometimes suffered from the self-editing that is intrinsic to it, giving rise at times to potentially libellous statements. However, inherently, I cannot see that what is in Wikipedia is any less likely to be true than what is published in a book or on the websites of news organizations. [Formula One's lawyer] did not express any concerns about the Wikipedia evidence [presented by the plaintiff]. I consider that the evidence from Wikipedia can be taken at face value." The case turned substantively upon evidence cited from Wikipedia in 2006 as to the usage and interpretation of the term Formula One.

In the United States, the United States Court of Federal Claims has ruled that "Wikipedia may not be a reliable source of information." [166] and ". Articles [from Wikipedia] do not—at least on their face—remotely meet this reliability requirement. A review of the Wikipedia website reveals a pervasive and, for our purposes, disturbing series of disclaimers. ". [163] [167] Such disclaimers include the Wikipedia not being able to guarantee the validity of the information on its articles and having no formal peer review.

Among other reasons for these statements about Wikipedia's reliability are the stability of the articles (which due to editing may cause new readers to find information that differs from the originally cited) and, according to Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School, "the most critical fact is public acceptance", therefore "a judge should not use Wikipedia when the public is not prepared to accept it as authority". [168]

Wikipedia has also become a key source for some current news events such as the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, when The New York Times cites Wikimedia to report 750,000 page views of the article in the two days after the event:

Even The Roanoke Times, which is published near Blacksburg, Virginia, where the university is located, noted on Thursday that Wikipedia "has emerged as the clearinghouse for detailed information on the event". [169]

The Washington Post commented, in the context of 2008 presidential election candidate biographies, that despite occasional brief vandalism, "it's hard to find a more up-to-date, detailed, thorough article on Obama than Wikipedia's. As of Friday (14 September 2007), Obama's article—more than 22 pages long, with 15 sections covering his personal and professional life—had a reference list of 167 sources." [170]

Broad opinions

Several commentators have drawn a middle ground, asserting that the project contains much valuable knowledge and has some reliability, even if the degree is not yet assessed with certainty.

Others taking this view include danah boyd, [sic] who in 2005 discussed Wikipedia as an academic source, concluding that "[i]t will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes", [171] and Bill Thompson who stated "I use the Wikipedia a lot. It is a good starting point for serious research, but I would never accept something that I read there without checking." [120]

Information Today's March 2006 article [78] concludes on a similar theme:

The inconvenient reality is that people and their products are messy, whether produced in a top-down or bottom-up manner. Almost every source includes errors. Many non-fiction books are produced via an appallingly sloppy process. In this author's opinion, the flap over Wikipedia was significantly overblown, but contained a silver lining: People are becoming more aware of the perils of accepting information at face value. They have learned not to consult just one source.

Dan Gillmor, a Silicon Valley commentator and author commented in October 2004 that, "I don't think anyone is saying Wikipedia is an absolute replacement for a traditional encyclopedia. But in the topics I know something about, I've found Wikipedia to be as accurate as any other source I've found." [74]

Larry Sanger stated on Kuro5hin in 2001 that "Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow", [172] which is a paraphrase of Linus' Law of open-source development.

Likewise, technology figure Joi Ito wrote on Wikipedia's authority, "[a]lthough it depends a bit on the field, the question is whether something is more likely to be true coming from a source whose resume sounds authoritative, or a source that has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people (with the ability to comment) and has survived." [173]

In a 2008 letter to the editor of Physics Today, Gregg Jaeger, an associate professor at Boston University, [174] has characterized Wikipedia as a medium that is susceptible to fostering "anarchy and distortions" in relation to scientific information. [175] The letter was in response to a review of his book Quantum Information: An Overview, that had questioned "whether there is an audience for such encyclopedic texts, especially given the easy access to online sources of information such as the arXiv e-print server and Wikipedia."

People known to use or recommend Wikipedia as a reference source include film critic Roger Ebert, [176] [177] [178] [179] comedian Rosie O'Donnell, [180] University of Maryland physicist Robert L. Park, [181] Rutgers University sociology professor Ted Goertzel [182] [183] and scientific skepticism promoter and investigator James Randi. [184] Periodicals that publish articles featuring citations of Wikipedia as a source include the American science magazines Skeptic [185] [186] and Skeptical Inquirer. [187] In the January 2013 episode of his talk show, Stossel, about how ideas can flourish without regulation, journalist John Stossel interviewed Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, and discussed the success of Wikipedia's model versus that of Britannica, during which Stossel stated that his own Wikipedia article exhibited only one error. [188]

Jean Goodwin wrote on the reasons why Wikipedia may be trusted. According to him, while readers may not assess the actual expertise of the authors of a given article, they may assess the passion of Wikipedians, and in so far provide a reason for trust. [189]

Tools for testing the reliability of articles

While experienced editors can view the article history and discussion page, for normal users it is not so easy to check whether information from Wikipedia is reliable. University projects from California, Switzerland and Germany try to improve that by methods of formal analysis and data mining. Wiki-Watch from Germany, which was inspired by the WikiBu from Switzerland, shows an evaluation up to five-stars for every English or German article in Wikipedia. Part of this rating is the tool WikiTrust which shows the trustworthiness of single text parts of Wikipedia articles by white (trustworthy) or orange (not trustworthy) markings. [190]

False biographical information

Inaccurate information may persist in Wikipedia for a long time before it is challenged. The most prominent cases reported by mainstream media involved biographies of living persons.

The Seigenthaler incident demonstrated that the subject of a biographical article must sometimes fix blatant lies about his or her own life. In May 2005, a user edited the biographical article on John Seigenthaler Sr. so that it contained several false and defamatory statements. [9] The inaccurate claims went unnoticed between May and September 2005 when they were discovered by Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler. Wikipedia content is often mirrored at sites such as Answers.com, which means that incorrect information can be replicated alongside correct information through a number of web sources. Such information can develop a misleading air of authority because of its presence at such sites: [192]

Then [Seigenthaler's] son discovered that his father's hoax biography also appeared on two other sites, Reference.com and Answers.com, which took direct feeds from Wikipedia. It was out there for four months before Seigenthaler realized and got the Wikipedia entry replaced with a more reliable account. The lies remained for another three weeks on the mirror sites downstream.

Seth Finkelstein reported in an article in The Guardian on his efforts to remove his own biography page from Wikipedia, simply because it was subjected to defamation: [193]

Wikipedia has a short biography of me, originally added in February 2004, mostly concerned with my internet civil liberties achievements. After discovering in May 2006 that it had been vandalised in March, possibly by a long-time opponent, and that the attack had been subsequently propagated to many other sites which (legally) repackage Wikipedia's content, the article's existence seemed to me overall to be harmful rather than helpful. For people who are not very prominent, Wikipedia biographies can be an "attractive nuisance". It says, to every troll, vandal, and score-settler: "Here's an article about a person where you can, with no accountability whatsoever, write any libel, defamation, or smear. It won't be a marginal comment with the social status of an inconsequential rant, but rather will be made prominent about the person, and reputation-laundered with the institutional status of an encyclopedia."

In the same article Finkelstein recounts how he voted his own biography as "not notable enough" in order to have it removed from Wikipedia. He goes on to recount a similar story involving Angela Beesley, previously a prominent member of the foundation which runs Wikipedia.

Taner Akçam, a Turkish history professor at the University of Minnesota, was detained at the Montreal airport, as his article was vandalized by Turkish nationalists in 2007. While this mistake was resolved, he was again arrested in US for the same suspicion two days later. [194]

In another example, on March 2, 2007, msnbc.com reported that Hillary Clinton had been incorrectly listed for 20 months in her Wikipedia biography as valedictorian of her class of 1969 at Wellesley College. (Hillary Rodham was not the valedictorian, though she did speak at commencement.) [195] The article included a link to the Wikipedia edit, [196] where the incorrect information was added on July 9, 2005. After the msnbc.com report, the inaccurate information was removed the same day. [197] Between the two edits, the wrong information had stayed in the Clinton article while it was edited more than 4,800 times over 20 months.

Attempts to perpetrate hoaxes may not be confined to editing Wikipedia articles. In October 2005 Alan Mcilwraith, a former call center worker from Scotland created a Wikipedia article in which he claimed to be a highly decorated war hero. The article was quickly identified by other users as unreliable (see Wikipedia Signpost article April 17, 2006). However, Mcilwraith had also succeeded in convincing a number of charities and media organizations that he was who he claimed to be: [198]

The 28-year-old, who calls himself Captain Sir Alan McIlwraith, KBE, DSO, MC, has mixed with celebrities for at least one fundraising event. But last night, an Army spokesman said: "I can confirm he is a fraud. He has never been an officer, soldier or Army cadet."

In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l'Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l'Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l'Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal's praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé's research led him to realize that de l'Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered. Upon Sud-Ouest's revelation—repeated in other major French newspapers—French Wikipedia administrator DonCamillo immediately deleted the article. [8] [191] [199] [200] [201] [202] [203]

There have also been instances of users deliberately inserting false information into Wikipedia in order to test the system and demonstrate its alleged unreliability. For example, Gene Weingarten, a journalist, ran such a test in 2007 by anonymously inserting false information into his own biography. The fabrications were removed 27 hours later by a Wikipedia editor who was regularly watching changes to that article. [204] Television personality Stephen Colbert lampooned this drawback of Wikipedia, calling it wikiality.

"Death by Wikipedia" is a phenomenon in which a person is erroneously proclaimed dead through vandalism. Articles about the comedian Paul Reiser, British television host Vernon Kay, and the West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who died on June 28, 2010, have been vandalized in this way. [205] [206] [207]

Wikipedia considers vandalism as "any addition, removal, or change of content in a deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of Wikipedia". The Wikipedia page "Researching with Wikipedia" states:

Wikipedia's radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism than a typical reference work.

Other false information

In June 2007, an anonymous Wikipedia contributor became involved in the Chris Benoit double murder and suicide because of an unverified piece of information he added to the Chris Benoit English Wikipedia article. This information regarding Benoit's wife's death was added fourteen hours before police discovered the bodies of Benoit and his family. [208] Police detectives seized computer equipment from the man held responsible for the postings, but believed he was uninvolved and did not press charges. [209]

The IP address from which the edit was made was traced to earlier instances of Wikipedia vandalism. The contributor apologized on Wikinews, saying:

I will never vandalize anything on Wikipedia or post wrongful information. I will never post anything here again unless it is pure fact . [210]

On August 29, 2008, shortly after the first round draw was completed for UEFA Europa League football cup, an edit was made to the article for the football club AC Omonia, apparently by users of the website B3ta, [211] which added the following erroneous information to the section titled "The fans".

A small but loyal group of fans are lovingly called "The Zany Ones"—they like to wear hats made from discarded shoes and have a song about a little potato.

On September 18, 2008, David Anderson, a British journalist writing for the Daily Mirror, quoted this in his match preview ahead of Omonia's game with Manchester City, which appeared in the web and print versions of the Mirror and the nickname was quoted in subsequent editions on September 19. [212] [213]

In May 2009, University College Dublin sociology student Shane Fitzgerald added an incorrect quote to the article on the recently deceased composer Maurice Jarre. Fitzgerald wanted to demonstrate the potential dangers of news reporters' reliance on the internet for information. [214] Although Fitzgerald's edits were removed three times from the Wikipedia article for lack of sourcing, [215] they were nevertheless copied into obituary columns in newspapers worldwide. [216] Fitzgerald believes that if he had not come forward his quote would have remained in history as fact. [215]

The death of Norman Wisdom in October 2010 led several major newspapers to repeat the false claim, drawn from Wikipedia, that he was the author of the lyrics of the Second World War song "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover". [217]

After the 2010 FIFA World Cup, FIFA president Sepp Blatter was presented with the Order of the Companions of Oliver Reginald Tambo. The citation, however, read: "The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Gold—awarded to Joseph Sepp Bellend Blatter (1936–) for his exceptional contribution to the field of football and support for the hosting of the Fifa World Cup on the African continent," after the name on his Wikipedia entry was vandalized. [218]

In October 2012, the Asian Football Confederation official website published an article about the United Arab Emirates national football team's bid to qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, in which the team's nickname was stated to be the "Sand Monkeys". This was the indirect result of vandalism of the Wikipedia article on the team, and the AFC was forced to apologise for what was perceived as a racist slur. [219] [220]

In December 2012, an article titled "Bicholim conflict" was deleted after standing since 2007. [221] It talked about a war that took place in India between the years 1640 and 1641, but was later confirmed to be completely fictitious. [222] The hoax article had won Wikipedia's "Good Article" award, a status conferred on fewer than 1 percent of articles on the site, a few months after its creation in 2007, and held that status for five years. [223]

In March 2013, it was discovered that both Wikipedia and IMDb had for three-and-a-half years contained articles on a fictitious Russian filmmaker named Yuri Gadyukin. False information had been planted in both sites as part of a viral promotion campaign for an upcoming film. [224]

In May 2014, The New Yorker reported that a 17-year-old student had added an invented nickname to the Wikipedia article on the coati in 2008, saying coatis were also known as "Brazilian aardvarks". The taxonomically false information, inserted as a private joke, lasted for six years in Wikipedia and over this time came to be propagated by hundreds of websites, several newspapers (one of which was later cited as a source in Wikipedia) and even books published by university presses. It was only removed from Wikipedia after publication of the New Yorker article, in which the student explained how the joke had come about. [4] [5]

In March 2015, it became known that an article on Wikipedia entitled "Jar'Edo Wens", purportedly about an Australian aboriginal deity of that name, was a hoax. The article had survived for more than nine years before being deleted, making it one of the longest-lived documented hoax articles in Wikipedia's history. The article spawned mentions of the fake god on numerous other websites as well as in a book titled Atheism and the Case Against Christ. [225] [226] [227]

In August 2019, a discredited theory was removed from the article Warsaw concentration camp, over 10 years after it was debunked in mainstream scholarly literature. The article was first drafted in August 2004 by an established editor who presented as fact a fringe theory that the camp contained gas chambers in which 200,000 non-Jews perished. With the conspiracy theory presented as fact for 15 years, media sources dubbed it as "Wikipedia's longest-standing hoax." [228] [229] [230]

Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia

Political interests and advocacy

While Wikipedia policy requires articles to have a neutral point of view, there have been attempts to place a spin on articles. In January 2006 several staffers of members of the U.S. House of Representatives attempted to cleanse their respective bosses' biographies on Wikipedia, and to insert negative remarks on political opponents. References to a campaign promise by Martin Meehan to surrender his seat in 2000 were deleted, and negative comments were inserted into the articles on U.S. Senator Bill Frist and Eric Cantor, a congressman from Virginia. Numerous other changes were made from an IP address which is assigned to the House of Representatives. [231] In an interview, Jimmy Wales remarked that the changes were "not cool." [232]

On August 31, 2008, The New York Times ran an article detailing the edits made to the biography of Sarah Palin in the wake of her nomination as running mate of John McCain. During the 24 hours before the McCain campaign announcement, 30 edits, many of them flattering details, were made to the article by Wikipedia single-purpose user identity Young Trigg. This person later acknowledged working on the McCain campaign, and having several Wikipedia user accounts. [233] [234]

Larry Delay and Pablo Bachelet write that from their perspective, some articles dealing with Latin American history and groups (such as the Sandinistas and Cuba) lack political neutrality and are written from a sympathetic Marxist perspective which treats socialist dictatorships favorably at the expense of alternate positions. [235] [236] [237]

In November 2007, libelous accusations were made against two politicians from southwestern France, Jean-Pierre Grand and Hélène Mandroux-Colas, on their Wikipedia biographies. Jean-Pierre Grand asked the president of the French National Assembly and the prime minister of France to reinforce the legislation on the penal responsibility of Internet sites and of authors who peddle false information in order to cause harm. [238] Senator Jean Louis Masson then requested the Minister of Justice to tell him whether it would be possible to increase the criminal responsibilities of hosting providers, site operators, and authors of libelous content the minister declined to do so, recalling the existing rules in the LCEN law. [239]

In 2009, Wikipedia banned the Church of Scientology from editing any articles on its site. The Wikipedia articles concerning Scientology were edited by members of the group to improve its portrayal. [240]

On August 25, 2010, the Toronto Star reported that the Canadian "government is now conducting two investigations into federal employees who have taken to Wikipedia to express their opinion on federal policies and bitter political debates." [241]

In 2010, Al Jazeera's Teymoor Nabili suggested that the article Cyrus Cylinder had been edited for political purposes by "an apparent tussle of opinions in the shadowy world of hard drives and 'independent' editors that comprise the Wikipedia industry." He suggested that after the Iranian presidential election, 2009 and the ensuing "anti-Iranian activities" a "strenuous attempt to portray the cylinder as nothing more than the propaganda tool of an aggressive invader" was visible. The edits following his analysis of the edits during 2009 and 2010, represented "a complete dismissal of the suggestion that the cylinder, or Cyrus' actions, represent concern for human rights or any kind of enlightened intent," in stark contrast to Cyrus' own reputation (among the people of Babylon) as written in the Old Testament. [242]

Arab-Israeli conflict

In April 2008, the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organized an e-mail campaign to encourage readers to correct perceived Israel-related biases and inconsistencies in Wikipedia. [243] Excerpts of some of the e-mails were published in the July 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine under the title of "Candid camera". [244]

CAMERA argued the excerpts were unrepresentative and that it had explicitly campaigned merely "toward encouraging people to learn about and edit the online encyclopedia for accuracy". [245] According to some defenders of CAMERA, serious misrepresentations of CAMERA's role emanated from the competing Electronic Intifada group moreover, it is said, some other Palestinian advocacy groups have been guilty of systematic misrepresentations and manipulative behaviors but have not suffered bans of editors amongst their staff or volunteers. [246] [247]

Five editors involved in the campaign were sanctioned by Wikipedia administrators. [248] Israeli diplomat David Saranga said that Wikipedia is generally fair in regard to Israel. When confronted with the fact that the entry on Israel mentioned the word "occupation" nine times, whereas the entry on the Palestinian People mentioned "terror" only once, he replied

"It means only one thing: Israelis should be more active on Wikipedia. Instead of blaming it, they should go on the site much more, and try and change it." [249]

Political commentator Haviv Rettig Gur, reviewing widespread perceptions in Israel of systemic bias in Wikipedia articles, has argued that there are deeper structural problems creating this bias: anonymous editing favors biased results, especially if those Gur calls "pro-Palestinian activists" organize concerted campaigns as has been done in articles dealing with Arab-Israeli issues, and current Wikipedia policies, while well-meant, have proven ineffective in handling this. [250]

On August 3, 2010, it was reported that the Yesha Council together with Israel Sheli (My Israel), a network of online pro-Israel activists committed to spreading Zionism online, were organizing people at a workshop in Jerusalem to teach them how to edit Wikipedia articles in a pro-Israeli way. [251] [252] [253] Around 50 people took part in the course. [254]

The project organiser, Ayelet Shaked, who has since been elected to Israel's parliament, was interviewed on Arutz Sheva Radio. She emphasized that the information has to be reliable and meet Wikipedia rules. She cited some examples such as the use of the term "occupation" in Wikipedia entries, as well as in the editing of entries that link Israel with Judea and Samaria and Jewish history". [255]

"We don't want to change Wikipedia or turn it into a propaganda arm," commented Naftali Bennett, director of the Yesha Council. "We just want to show the other side. People think that Israelis are mean, evil people who only want to hurt Arabs all day." [256] "The idea is not to make Wikipedia rightist but for it to include our point of view," he said in another interview. [254]

A course participant explained that the course is not a "Zionist conspiracy to take over Wikipedia" rather, it is an attempt to balance information about disputed issues presented in the online encyclopedia.

[T]he goal of this workshop was to train a number of pro-Israelis how to edit Wikipedia so that more people could present the Israeli side of things, and thus the content would be more balanced. Wikipedia is meant to be a fair and balanced source, and it is that way by having people from all across the spectrum contributing to the content. [257]

Following the course announcement, Abdul Nasser An-Najar, the head of Palestinian Journalists Syndicate said there were plans to set up a counter group to ensure the Palestinian view is presented online as the "next regional war will be [a] media war." [256]

In 2011, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales stated in retrospect about the course organized by Israel Sheli, "we saw absolutely no impact from that effort whatsoever. I don't think it ever—it was in the press but we never saw any impact." [258]

Corporate public relations industry

In January 2012, members of the public relations industry created the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE) Facebook group with the stated goal of maintaining accurate articles about corporations. [259]

Editing for financial rewards

In an October 2012 Salon story, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales stated that he was against the practice of paid editing of Wikipedia, as are a number long-time members of Wikipedia's community. Nonetheless, a number of organizations do pay employees to edit Wikipedia articles, with one writer, Soraya Field Fiorio, stating that she writes commissioned Wikipedia articles for writers and musicians for $30 an hour. According to Fiorio, her clients control the article's content in the same way that they control press releases, which function as part of publicity strategies. [260] In January 2007, Rick Jelliffe claimed in a story carried by CBS [261] and IDG News Service [262] [263] that Microsoft had offered him compensation in exchange for his future editorial services on OOXML. A Microsoft spokesperson, quoted by CBS, commented that "Microsoft and the writer, Rick Jelliffe, had not determined a price and no money had changed hands, but they had agreed that the company would not be allowed to review his writing before submission". CBS also quoted Jimmy Wales as having expressed his disapproval of Microsoft's involvement: "We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach."

In a story covered by the BBC, Jeffrey Merkey claimed that in exchange for a donation his Wikipedia entry was edited in his favor. Jay Walsh, a spokesman for Wikipedia, flatly denied the allegations in an interview given to the Daily Telegraph. [264]

In a story covered by InformationWeek, Eric Goldman, assistant law professor at Santa Clara University in California argued that "eventually, marketers will build scripts to edit Wikipedia pages to insert links and conduct automated attacks on Wikipedia", [265] thus putting the encyclopedia beyond the ability of its editors to provide countermeasures against the attackers, particularly because of a vicious circle where the strain of responding to these attacks drives core contributors away, increasing the strain on those who remain. [266] However, Wikipedia operates bots to aid in the detection and removal of vandalism, and uses nofollow and a CAPTCHA to discourage and filter additions of external links.

Conflicts involving Wikipedia policy makers

In February 2008, British technology news and opinion website The Register stated that a prominent administrator of Wikipedia had edited a topic area where he had a conflict of interest to keep criticism to a bare minimum, as well as altering the Wikipedia policies regarding personal biography and conflict of interest to favour his editing.

Some of the most scathing criticism of Wikipedia's claimed neutrality came in The Register, which in turn was allegedly criticized by founding members of the project. According to The Register: [267]

In short, Wikipedia is a cult. Or at least, the inner circle is a cult. We aren't the first to make this observation.

On the inside, they reinforce each other's beliefs. And if anyone on the outside questions those beliefs, they circle the wagons. They deny the facts. They attack the attacker. After our Jossi Fresco story, Fresco didn't refute our reporting. He simply accused us of "yellow journalism". After our Overstock.com article, Wales called us "trash".

Charles Arthur in The Guardian said that "Wikipedia, and so many other online activities, show all the outward characteristics of a cult." [268]

In February 2015, a longstanding Wikipedia administrator was site-banned after Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee found that he or she had, over a period of several years, manipulated the content of Wikipedia articles to add positive content and remove negative content about the controversial Indian Institute of Planning and Management and its dean, Arindam Chaudhuri. An Indian journalist commented in Newsweek on the importance of the Wikipedia article to the institute's PR campaign and voiced the opinion that "by letting this go on for so long, Wikipedia has messed up perhaps 15,000 students' lives". [269] [270]

Scientific disputes

The 2005 Nature study also gave two brief examples of challenges that Wikipedian science writers purportedly faced on Wikipedia. The first concerned the addition of a section on violence to the schizophrenia article, which exhibited the view of one of the article's regular editors, neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, that it was little more than a "rant" about the need to lock people up, and that editing it stimulated him to look up the literature on the topic. [27]

The second dispute reported by Nature involved the climatologist William Connolley related to protracted disputes between editors of climate change topics, in which Connolley was placed on parole and several opponents banned from editing climate related articles for six months [27] a separate paper commented that this was more about etiquette than bias and that Connolley did "not suffer fools gladly". [271]

History Quotes

&ldquoFor me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.&rdquo
― Herman Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

Fact check: A 2012 study did not use mRNA vaccines or result in animals dying from disease

A video which uses a research paper to argue that mRNA vaccines will make people fatally weakened to other diseases makes untrue claims about the study, according to the paper’s lead author.

The video, which has been viewed over 140,000 times on Facebook, carries the headline: “Why people may start dying a few months after the Gates vaccination”.

It opens with a screenshot of the abstract of a 2012 paper entitled ‘Immunization with SARS Coronavirus Vaccines Leads to Pulmonary Immunopathology on Challenge with the SARS Virus’. That paper is visible online here and here. The study researched vaccinated mice that were later exposed to a live SARS virus.

The speaker in the video says: “What happened in this study is that the animal models, after being challenged, got very sick and that some of them died. So that the last line of the abstract says: ‘Caution in proceeding to application of a SARS-CoV vaccine in humans is indicated.’” (Timestamp 1.06)

The recommendation for caution is indeed the final line of the study’s conclusion, as published on the above link, but the lead author of the study, Prof Chien-Te (Kent) Tseng (here), told Reuters by email that the animals in the study did not die.

He said that immunised mice “generated strong and highly protective antibody responses which fully protect immunized mice against lethal infection”.

He said that when the animals were exposed to the live virus, they developed eosinophilia (a high count of a type of white blood cells) but, despite this, they “found that mice survived the lethal challenge without showing any readily noticeable weight loss and other signs of illness.”

The speaker in the video goes on to suggest throughout the video that the findings of the study are applicable to RNA vaccines (here Timestamps 0.18, 1.49, 2.43).

However, Tseng, said the vaccines they had studied in the 2012 paper and the mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines are “very different vaccine platforms.”

Tseng also said that, while people should always be cautious about the safety of new vaccines, they should not be alarmed by his paper.

He wrote: “I feel our earlier report has raised that safety issue which has been taken seriously within the vaccine developers worldwide by different Institutions, including the World Health Organisation and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”

The Daily Mail Snopes Story And Fact Checking The Fact Checkers

Yesterday afternoon a colleague forwarded me an article from the Daily Mail, asking me if it could possibly be true. The article in question is an expose on Snopes.com, the fact checking site used by journalists and citizens across the world and one of the sites that Facebook recently partnered with to fact check news stories on its platform. The Daily Mail’s article makes a number of claims about the site’s principles and organization, drawing heavily from the proceedings of a contentious divorce between the site’s founders and questioning whether the site could possibly act as a trusted and neutral arbitrator of the “truth.”

When I first read through the Daily Mail article I immediately suspected the story itself must certainly be “fake news” because of how devastating the claims were and that given that Snopes.com was so heavily used by the journalistic community, if any of the claims were true, someone would have already written about them and companies like Facebook would not be partnering with them. I also noted that despite having been online for several hours, no other major mainstream news outlet had written about the story, which is typically a strong sign of a false or misleading story. Yet at the same time, the Daily Mail appeared to be sourcing its claims from a series of emails and other documents from a court case, some of which it reproduced in its article and, perhaps most strangely, neither Snopes nor its principles had issued any kind of statement through its website or social media channels disclaiming the story.

On the surface this looked like a classic case of fake news – a scandalous and highly shareable story, incorporating official-looking materials and sourcing, yet with no other mainstream outlet even mentioning the story. I myself told my colleague I simply did not know what to think. Was this a complete fabrication by a disgruntled target of Snopes or was this really an explosive expose pulling back the curtain on one of the world’s most respected and famous fact checking brands?

In fact, one of my first thoughts upon reading the article is that this is precisely how the “fake news” community would fight back against fact checking – by running a drip-drip of fake or misleading explosive stories to discredit and cast doubt upon the fact checkers.

In the counter-intelligence world, this is what is known as a “wilderness of mirrors” – creating a chaotic information environment that so perfectly blends truth, half-truth and fiction that even the best can no longer tell what’s real and what’s not.

Thus, when I reached out to David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes, for comment, I fully expected him to respond with a lengthy email in Snopes’ trademark point-by-point format, fully refuting each and every one of the claims in the Daily Mail’s article and writing the entire article off as “fake news.”

It was with incredible surprise therefore that I received David’s one-sentence response which read in its entirety “I'd be happy to speak with you, but I can only address some aspects in general because I'm precluded by the terms of a binding settlement agreement from discussing details of my divorce.”

This absolutely astounded me. Here was the one of the world’s most respected fact checking organizations, soon to be an ultimate arbitrator of “truth” on Facebook, saying that it cannot respond to a fact checking request because of a secrecy agreement.

In short, when someone attempted to fact check the fact checker, the response was the equivalent of “it's secret.”

It is impossible to understate how antithetical this is to the fact checking world, in which absolute openness and transparency are necessary prerequisites for trust. How can fact checking organizations like Snopes expect the public to place trust in them if when they themselves are called into question, their response is that they can’t respond.

When I presented a set of subsequent clarifying questions to David, he provided responses to some and not to others. Of particular interest, when pressed about claims by the Daily Mail that at least one Snopes employee has actually run for political office and that this presents at the very least the appearance of potential bias in Snopes’ fact checks, David responded “It's pretty much a given that anyone who has ever run for (or held) a political office did so under some form of party affiliation and said something critical about their opponent(s) and/or other politicians at some point. Does that mean anyone who has ever run for office is manifestly unsuited to be associated with a fact-checking endeavor, in any capacity?”

That is actually a fascinating response to come from a fact checking organization that prides itself on its claimed neutrality. Think about it this way – what if there was a fact checking organization whose fact checkers were all drawn from the ranks of Breitbart and Infowars? Most liberals would likely dismiss such an organization as partisan and biased. Similarly, an organization whose fact checkers were all drawn from Occupy Democrats and Huffington Post might be dismissed by conservatives as partisan and biased. In fact, when I asked several colleagues for their thoughts on this issue this morning, the unanimous response back was that people with strong self-declared political leanings on either side should not be a part of a fact checking organization and all had incorrectly assumed that Snopes would have felt the same way and had a blanket policy against placing partisan individuals as fact checkers.

In fact, this is one of the reasons that fact checking organizations must be transparent and open. If an organization like Snopes feels it is ok to hire partisan employees who have run for public office on behalf of a particular political party and employ them as fact checkers where they have a high likelihood of being asked to weigh in on material aligned with or contrary to their views, how can they reasonably be expected to act as neutral arbitrators of the truth?

Put another way, some Republicans believe firmly that climate change is a falsehood and that humans are not responsible in any way for climatic change. Those in the scientific community might object to an anti-climate change Republican serving as a fact checker for climate change stories at Snopes and flagging every article about a new scientific study on climate change as fake news. Yet, we have no way of knowing the biases of the fact checkers at Snopes – we simply have to trust that the site’s views on what constitutes neutrality are the same as ours.

When I asked for comment on the specific detailed criteria Snopes uses to screen its applicants and decide who to hire as a fact checker, surprisingly David demurred, saying only that the site looks for applicants across all fields and skills. He specifically did not provide any detail of any kind regarding the screening process and how Snopes evaluates potential hires. David also did not respond to further emails asking whether, as part of the screening process, Snopes has applicants fact check a set of articles to evaluate their reasoning and research skills and to gain insight into their thinking process.

This was highly unexpected, as I had assumed that a fact checking site as reputable as Snopes would have a detailed written formal evaluation process for new fact checkers that would include having them perform a set of fact checks and include a lengthy set of interview questions designed to assess their ability to identify potential or perceived conflicts of interest and work through potential biases.

Even more strangely, despite asking in two separate emails how Snopes assesses its fact checkers and whether it performs intra- and inter-rater reliability assessments, David responded only that fact checkers work together collaboratively and did not respond to further requests for more detail and did not answer whether Snopes uses any sort of assessment scoring or ongoing testing process to assess its fact checkers.

This raises exceptionally grave concerns about the internal workings of Snopes and why it is not more forthcoming about its assessment process. Arguing that because multiple fact checkers might work on an article, reliability is not a concern, is a false argument that shows a concerning lack of understanding about reliability and accuracy. Imagine a team of 50 staunch climate deniers all working collaboratively to debunk a new scientific study showing a clear link between industrial pollution and climate change. The very large team size does not make up for the lack of diversity of opinion. Yet, David provided no comment on how Snopes does or does not explicitly force diversity of opinion in its ad-hoc fact checking teams.

A robust human rating workflow must regularly assess the accuracy and reproducibility of the scores generated by its human raters, even when they work collaboratively together. Typically this means that on a regular basis each fact checker or fact checker team is given the same article to fact check and the results compared across the groups. If one person or group regularly generates different results from the others, this is then evaluated to understand why. Similarly, an individual or group is also periodically given the same or nearly identical story from months prior to see if they give it the same rating as last time – this assesses whether they are consistent in their scoring.

More troubling is that we simply don’t know who contributed to a given fact check. David noted that Snopes’ “process is a highly collaborative one in which several different people may contribute to a single article,” but that “the result is typically credited to whoever wrote the initial draft.” David did not respond to a request for comment on why Snopes only lists a single author for each of its fact checks, rather than provide an acknowledgement section that lists all of the individuals who contributed to a given fact check.

One might argue that newspapers similarly do not acknowledge their fact checkers in the bylines of articles. Yet, in a newspaper workflow, fact checking typically occurs as an editorial function, double checking what a reporter wrote. At Snopes, fact checking is the core function of an article and thus if multiple people contributed to a fact check, it is surprising that absolutely no mention is made of them, given that at a newspaper all reporters contributing to a story are listed. Not only does this rob those individuals of credit, but perhaps most critically, it makes it impossible for outside entities to audit who is contributing to what fact check and to ensure that fact checkers who self-identify as strongly supportive or against particular topics are not assigned to fact check those topics to prevent the appearance of conflicts of interest or bias.

If privacy or safety of fact checkers is a concern, the site could simply use first name and last initials or pseudonyms. Having a master list of all fact checkers contributing in any way to a given fact check would go a long way towards establishing greater transparency to the fact checking process and Snopes’ internal controls on conflict of interest and bias.

David also did not respond to a request for comment on why Snopes fact checks rarely mention that they reached out to the authors of the article being fact checked to get their side of the story. Indeed, Journalism 101 teaches you that when you write an article presenting someone or something in a negative light, you must give them the opportunity to respond and provide their side of the story. Instead, Snopes typically focuses on the events being depicted in the article and contacts individuals and entities named in the story, but Snopes fact checks typically do not mention contacting the authors of the articles about those events to see if those reporters claim to have additional corroborating material, perhaps disclosed to them off the record.

In essence, in these cases Snopes performs “fact checking from afar,” rendering judgement on news stories without giving the original reporters the opportunity for comment. David did not respond to a request for comment on this or why the site does not have a dedicated appeals page for authors of stories which Snopes has labeled false to contest that label and he also did not respond to a request to provide further detail on whether Snopes has a written formal appeals process or how it handles such requests.

Putting this all together, we simply don’t know if the Daily Mail story is completely false, completely true or somewhere in the middle. Snopes itself has not issued a formal response to the article and its founder David Mikkelson responded by email that he was unable to address many of the claims due to a confidentiality clause in his divorce settlement. This creates a deeply unsettling environment in which when one tries to fact check the fact checker, the answer is the equivalent of “its secret.” Moreover, David’s responses regarding the hiring of strongly partisan fact checkers and his lack of response on screening and assessment protocols present a deeply troubling picture of a secretive black box that acts as ultimate arbitrator of truth, yet reveals little of its inner workings. This is precisely the same approach used by Facebook for its former Trending Topics team and more recently its hate speech rules (the company did not respond to a request for comment).

From the outside, Silicon Valley looks like a gleaming tower of technological perfection. Yet, once the curtain is pulled back, we see that behind that shimmering façade is a warehouse of good old fashioned humans, subject to all the same biases and fallibility, but with their results now laundered through the sheen of computerized infallibility. Even my colleagues who work in the journalism community and by their nature skeptical, had assumed that Snopes must have rigorous screening procedures, constant inter- and intra-rater evaluations and ongoing assessments and a total transparency mandate. Yet, the truth is that we simply have no visibility into the organization’s inner workings and its founder declined to shed further light into its operations for this article.

Regardless of whether the Daily Mail article is correct in its claims about Snopes, at the least what does emerge from my exchanges with Snopes’ founder is the image of the ultimate black box presenting a gleaming veneer of ultimate arbitration of truth, yet with absolutely no insight into its inner workings. While technology pundits decry the black boxes of the algorithms that increasingly power companies like Facebook, they have forgotten that even the human-powered sites offer us little visibility into how they function.

At the end of the day, it is clear that before we rush to place fact checking organizations like Snopes in charge of arbitrating what is “truth” on Facebook, we need to have a lot more understanding of how they function internally and much greater transparency into their work.

How Accurate Is Argo?

Argo, the new movie from actor-director Ben Affleck, has mostly been getting raves—including a qualified but fairly strong endorsement from Slate’s own Dana Stevens, who calls it “a rollicking yarn” and “easily the most cohesive and technically accomplished of Affleck’s three films so far.” But several reviews have also noted just how far the movie departs in certain respects from the historical record. In the movie’s dramatic climax, Stevens writes, the “broadly accurate retelling of real events” gives way to “some fairly whopping dramatic license.” Similarly, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane—who also enjoyed the film—found it a “bit rich” that the movie pokes so much fun at “Hollywood deceitfulness” only to end “with an expert helping of white lies.” Former Slate film critic David Edelstein goes even further: NPR headlined his review “Argo: Too Good To Be True, Because It Isn’t.”

So just how accurate is Argo? And what are the white lies and dramatic whoppers the movie indulges in? We’ve tried to break it all down below. While it seems odd to offer a spoiler alert for a movie based on historical events, be warned that the rest of this post will discuss the movie in some detail. But you should also know that a lot of the most interesting details below aren’t in the movie at all—because, it turns out, much of the stuff Argo leaves out is even better than what made it in.

The Premise
Argo’s central, nutty storyline—in which the CIA establishes a fake movie production, complete with a full script and ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, in order to rescue six Americans stranded in post-revolutionary Iran—is 100 percent true, and pretty incredible. The movie is largely based on a terrific article by Joshuah Bearman published five years ago in Wired, which you should read. (The script also draws on a memoir by Antonio Mendez, the man that Affleck plays in the film.) As Bearman explained in a chat with Gawker readers yesterday, the person who first told him about the story was an independent movie producer named David Klawans, who hoped that Bearman would report it out and write up a “nice yarn” that “might help kickstart a movie.” “Shockingly,” Bearman said, “it worked.” (Klawans is an executive producer of Argo.)

Canada’s Involvement
The most disputed aspect of the movie’s version of events has to do with Canada’s role in the escape. 30 years ago, Canada received complete credit for the rescue, because the U.S. was worried about possible repercussions if CIA involvement was publicized. (They may also have wanted to maintain the plausibility of a similar ruse in future.) Argo corrects that version of events—or, rather, overcorrects it, downplaying the actual extent of Canadian involvement, which was considerable. The Americans were housed by two Canadians: the Ambassador Ken Taylor, and a Canadian embassy employee, John Sheardown. (In the film, all of them stay with Taylor Sheardown does not appear at all.) It was Taylor who cabled Washington to begin the escape plan in earnest, and once the plan was decided on, Canadians “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets,” and “even coached the six in sounding Canadian.”

Almost none of that appears in Argo. Taylor himself has a major part, and is presented as a sympathetic and brave man who took great personal risks to save the Americans. But his actual role was even larger. He was “spying for the U.S. throughout the hostage crisis, at the request of Jimmy Carter.” After some friends who attended the Argo premiere in Toronto described it to Taylor, he expressed concern “that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA,” which is a pretty fair description of what the film depicts. Affleck made a small change in response to this criticism: A postscript that contrasted Taylor’s 112 citations with the absence of credit given the CIA was rewritten to praise the Argo mission as a model of international cooperation.

The Escape
It’s not Canada’s involvement that has gotten the goat of some critics, though—it’s the pulse-pounding trip to the airport that serves as the movie’s climax. Affleck’s version involves every conceivable complication—each one of them, as it happens, invented purely to make the movie more exciting. (And it works! The finale is thrilling.) In the movie, the U.S. government reverses its approval of the plan at the last minute, meaning there may be no tickets waiting for the Americans when they arrive at the airport. In fact, the plane tickets were purchased ahead of time by the Canadians. Airport security guards stop the Americans in the film, leading to a tense and terrific scene in which one of the Americans makes the risky decision to speak Farsi with the guards, a daring move that pays off hugely. Actually, though, the trip through the airport was “smooth as silk,” as Mendez himself has written. Most improbably, the teams of carpet weavers that the Iranian government put to work repairing shredded documents (something they actually did!) piece together the face of one of the six Americans right as the group reaches the airport, and those carpet weavers relay the image to their higher-ups in time for armed men to chase down the departing airplane in a jeep and police cars. None of that happened.

The Fake Movie
Once Mendez got the go-ahead for the fake movie plan, he needed a real movie idea that his fake film company could pretend to have in production. In Argo, Mendez and the Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers—amusingly played by his actual doppelganger, John Goodman—go through dozens of scripts with a veteran Hollywood producer played by Alan Arkin (about whom more below), and Mendez spots a movie called Argo buried in the pile. In fact, Chambers thought of a script they could use soon after Mendez told him the idea. It was called Lord of Light, after the best-selling sci-fi novel by Roger Zelazny that it was based on. The Lord of Light script was part of a wildly ambitious scheme called Science Fiction Land, which would have been the first sci-fi theme park. In order to make that dream a reality, the script’s author, Barry Ira Geller, managed to enlist support not only from Chambers, but from Buckminster Fuller, Ray Bradbury, Paolo Soleri, and Jack Kirby—who made production drawings for the film. You can see one of them below. (In Argo, Mendez commissions storyboards himself, which are quite different from Kirby’s drawings.)

After Chambers showed Mendez the Lord of Light script, Mendez decided it needed a new name. He suggested “Argo” because it was part of his favorite knock-knock joke. “Who’s there?” “Argo.” “Argo who?” “Argo fuck yourself.” This last phrase is given a different origin story in Argo and becomes a very funny running gag. Geller, by the way, still hopes to get Lord of Light made some day, and producer-director Judd Ehrlich is trying to get a documentary about Science Fiction Land off the ground.

Alan Arkin’s Role
Among the major roles, the Hollywood producer played with great relish by Alan Arkin is the only one who is essentially fictional. Which is a bit ironic, since the character is himself presented as the embodiment of Hollywood bullshit. In Argo, Chambers tells Mendez they need a big-name producer to make the movie look legit, and he knows just the guy. In fact, Chambers brought in fellow make-up man Robert Sidell, who worked on E.T. among many other movies. The January 1980 Hollywood Reporter story that announced plans for Argo was headlined “Two make-up artists turn to producing with sci-fi ‘Argo.’ ” Arkin has said he based his character partly on Jack Warner.

Ben Affleck’s Role
Tony Mendez is, on the other hand, very much a real person, of course. But Affleck gives him a little bit of Hollywood-friendly backstory that seems to be fictional. The first time we see Mendez in Argo he’s sleeping in a messy apartment all by himself he and his wife are taking some time off, we soon learn, and it’s suggested that he’s lost some respect down at the Agency. Thus Affleck reinforces the feel-good quality of the story by providing a narrative of personal redemption as well: At the end, Mendez is a hero at work, and appears to reconcile with his wife and young son—who, in this version, helped inspire the sci-fi movie trappings of Mendez’s exfiltration plan. The real Mendez had two sons and a daughter with his first wife, who died of cancer in 1986. In his memoir, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, he does not describe the kind of separation and reconciling that Affleck depicts. In fact, when he left for Tehran, his wife drove him to the airport.

You can watch Mendez talk about the actual mission in the clip below. It’s from an episode of the Errol Morris series First Person that was devoted to Mendez and titled “The Little Gray Man.”

Ad placed in The Hollywood Reporter, left, and a story that ran in the same magazine

Get Slate Culture in Your Inbox

The best of movies, TV, books, music, and more, delivered three times a week.

Thanks for signing up! You can manage your newsletter subscriptions at any time.

In the movie’s first scene, Tubman experiences one of her “spells,” which often cause her to lose consciousness and seem to give her visions of nearby dangers or events to come. (In an interview with Slate, Lemmons described the “spells” as Tubman’s “Spidey sense.”) As in the movie, Tubman believed that the visions she experienced were messages from God.

It isn’t until later in the movie that we find out that Minty’s “spells” might be the result of a traumatic injury. Just as described in the movie, the real-life Tubman was, as a teenager, struck in the forehead by a 2-pound weight thrown by a white overseer. According to the writer Sarah Hopkins Bradford, who interviewed Tubman for two books about her in the 19 th century, the injury “cause[d] her often to fall into a state of somnolency from which it is almost impossible to rouse her.” Twenty-first-century historians have speculated that Tubman might have had narcolepsy, epilepsy, or both.

In the movie, as in real life, Harriet’s journey to freedom is kicked into high gear upon the death of her master, Edward Brodess. Brodess’ son Gideon (played in the movie by Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn) had caught Minty praying for the death of his father after he refused to set her free. Tight on cash and unnerved by her seemingly prophetic praying power, he puts Minty up for sale, and Minty leaves her husband behind in her rapid solo escape. Her father helps her tap into the Underground Railroad through a local free black preacher—based on Dorchester County’s real-life freed slave, preacher, and Tubman collaborator Reverend Samuel Green—and after an almost 100-mile journey, she makes it to Philadelphia.

Harriet really did pray for the death of her master—she admits as much in one of Bradford’s books—but it’s unlikely that she was sold for that reason. In reality, as in the movie, the Brodess family was in dire straits after the death of Edward, and Eliza, his widow, planned to sell slaves to pay off debts. And though Tubman did end up completing her journey alone to Philadelphia, she initially left with two of her brothers, both of whom ended up turning back out of fear.

Though the Brodesses did have a son, his name was Jonathan, and little is known about him. As those facts suggest, just about everything in the movie that involves this character and his dogged, years-long pursuit of Tubman, up to and including a final standoff in the woods, was invented for the movie.

One of the first people Harriet meets in Philadelphia is the black abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor William Still. He helps her get settled in the city and eventually inducts Harriet as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Just as in the movie, William Still really did keep meticulous records of all the people who managed to escape slavery and the horrors they endured, eventually publishing them as The Underground Railroad Records. While there’s no historical evidence that Still greeted Tubman upon her arrival in Philadelphia, it’s not out of the realm of possibility: Still destroyed many of his notes before the Civil War so they couldn’t be used to prosecute fugitives. The notes left behind do indicate that the two certainly worked closely together. He was not only one of the most successful black businessmen in the city but one of the busiest conductors on the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of fugitive slaves settle in the city or continue farther north.

The character of Marie Buchanon—a free black woman and successful business owner who takes Tubman in and teaches her how to live as a free woman—is invented for the movie. However, that’s not to say someone like Buchanon couldn’t have existed.

In the movie, Harriet’s first trip back south comes a year after her escape, and it’s to rescue her husband, John. Though he was a free man, his freedom as a black man in the South was exceptionally restricted by the whims of white people, as evidenced by the fact that Edward Brodess could keep him from seeing his wife. But upon returning to Dorchester County, Harriet discovers that, in her absence, John remarried a free woman and is expecting a child with her. While she is still reeling from this news, her father finds her and asks her to help her brothers and a few other runaway hopefuls escape north because the Brodesses were planning to sell them to pay off their mounting debts. Pretty early into their journey, Harriet has to pull a gun on her brother to get him to follow her.

While it’s true that John did remarry in Harriet’s absence, her trip back to Dorchester County wasn’t her first rescue. Before her return for her husband, she rescued her niece Kessiah Jolley Bowley and her niece’s two children in Baltimore with the help of Bowley’s free husband, John. It is true, however, that Tubman would occasionally have to pull her gun on the very people she was helping so that they wouldn’t turn back and give them away. As in the movie, she is often quoted as saying in such situations, “You’ll be free or die,” or, as Still cited in his more contemporary account, “They had to go through or die.”

While Bradford, Tubman’s biographer, claimed that she rescued more than 300 slaves in her missions to the South, Bradford had a tendency to exaggerate. The real number is closer to 70. Similarly, while there isn’t evidence that Tubman became so infamous among slave owners so quickly, it wasn’t long before she was indeed known among abolitionists and conductors as “Moses,” the name by which her feats were often recorded in Still’s book.

Upon noticing the escape of Harriet’s brothers, the vengeful Gideon hires Bigger Long, a slave catcher who is rumored to be the best in the area. To his (and my) surprise, Long is a black man. There’s no evidence that the Brodesses hired a slave catcher, but according to a few historians whom I reached out to, it’s not entirely impossible that such a mercenary would have been black. Joshua Rothman, the chair of the University of Alabama history department, told me in an email that “there were surely black slave catchers”:

It would be tricky for such people to operate in the South itself, because in most parts of the South, whites assumed all black people they didn’t know were slaves, and there are plenty of cases of free black people taken into custody, thrown in jail, and sold as slaves themselves. But outside of the South, or even in border states, we know that rings of kidnappers used free black people to lure in their prey, who were far more likely to trust a black person than a white one and who wouldn’t realize they’d been duped until they were en route to being sold as a slave. … And no doubt there were free black people who just decided to do the work themselves and keep all the reward money.

Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, agreed that such people existed but suggested there weren’t many: “There were a few free blacks who were involved in kidnapping rings especially in Northern and border state cities. But they were few and far between and subject to reprisals from a fairly well organized free black community. Many more of course were involved in assisting fugitive slaves and in the abolitionist underground.”

In the movie, Harriet manages several rescue missions, and her reputation as a conductor on the Underground Railroad is well established by the time that the Fugitive Slave Act passes. In reality, the law—which not only made it legal for runaways to be captured and returned to the South but effectively conscripted bystanders into aiding the capture of runaways—was actually passed within months of Tubman’s escape. It was definitely in effect by the time that she returned for her husband.

At the very end of the movie, we see Harriet two years into the Civil War, giving a speech to a battalion of black soldiers in a prelude to the Combahee River Raid, where she led a group of 150 soldiers in an expedition to destroy Confederate supply lines and rescue about 750 fugitive slaves. In a postscript, we’re told that not only was she the first woman to lead an armed military raid but that she also served during the war as Union spy, nurse, and scout. She dies at 91, surrounded by family.

This, again, is pretty accurate, though at least one historian thinks that Tubman’s role in the raid has been slightly exaggerated. Milton Sernett, professor emeritus of history at Syracuse University, said, “While she was certainly a nurse, spy, and scout for the Union Army, I think the claims that she was the first female general and commanded a raid are wishful thinking.” Regardless of her rank, she certainly played an important role in planning and guiding the raid, and she did, rather improbably for a woman of her time, live to be 91.