Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, December 3, 2018

Why I Quote Wikipedia
If you read any number of my blog posts, you may wonder why I use and quote Wikipedia. The answer to that question involves a number of levels of research and legal considerations which mostly revolve around copyright restrictions. The reasons I use Wikipedia also have extensive implications about why I use wiki-based genealogy programs.

Years ago, there was a controversy about the accuracy of Wikipedia and other wikis. The subject of the controversy was whether or not an online "encyclopedia" could be as accurate as a paper encyclopedia such as the Encyclopedia Britannica. The whole question seems a little bit ridiculous today since there is no question that Wikipedia has an unimaginable amount of information compared to the old paper-based encyclopedias. The real problem, however, was and is that the old encyclopedias were copyright protected. If you go to the Encyclopedia Britannica website I just linked to, you will see the copyright notification at the bottom of the page. In other words, the issue isn't just accuracy, it is primarily copyright protection. Wikipedia's Terms of Use require the information to be either in the public domain or under a free and open use license. It is as simple (and complicated) as that.

The greater issue of the accuracy of wikis is still a matter of some controversy. The wiki-type program implies and involves collaborative contributions that are freely editable by any registered user. The content is either moderated by some sponsoring organization or collaboratively watched and moderated by the wiki's users. There are also situations where moderation involves both the sponsor and the users. The larger genealogy community has a number of wiki-based websites such as the Family Tree,, and There is some degree of hand-wringing among genealogists over the fact that wikis are subject to user editing. Although the mechanisms for moderation vary, the main idea of the wiki is that the users will correct any inaccurate information.

Unfortunately, there is a segment of the potential users of wikis that believe that they are inherently inaccurate, incomplete, and therefore unreliable because of this user involvement and the fact that the entries are not static but can be changed. Unknowingly, these detractors are simply expressing the same arguments and doubts about the reliability of wikis that were rampant during their early development. I have been addressing this issue for many years. For example, see "Can the FamilySearch Family Tree become an accurate master reference?" back in 2016 or another post entitled, "Is Wikipedia a Genealogical Source?"

If I were using a paper resource such as a printed encyclopedia and I found a mistake or inaccurate statement, there is nothing that I could reasonably do to correct the information. If I find the same type of inaccurate information in a wiki, I can research the correct information and change the entry and at the same time provide a link to the original source where I obtained the correct information. This is the real difference between the idea of paper sources and the malleability of wikis. In a sense, they are living, breathing entities that can evolve as new information and corrections are made.

Do wikis become more accurate or less accurate over time? There is an extremely extensive and important article in Wikipedia on the subject entitled, "Reliability of Wikipedia." I am not going to quote the entire article but I will point out that the article concludes that wikis and Wikipedia, in particular, are self-correcting and tend to become more accurate over time. There are currently 249 source citations to the article.

Back to the issue of the genealogical wikis. They are wikis. They will have a tendency to become more complete and more accurate over time. If you want to rant about the changes in the Family Tree, read the above article on the Reliability of Wikipedia and look at every one of the sources before you make a comment about why you would never put "your" information in the Family Tree or any other wiki-based program.

The main issues with changes on Wikipedia revolve around controversial celebrities, political, and religious issues. These are areas of controversy in the Family Tree also, primarily with people who are "famous" or who were significant immigrants or other categories. Dismissing the Family Tree because of change is really putting your faith in a chimera. You could only dismiss a wiki program for accuracy if your own "information" was absolutely correct in all respects and you were entirely unwilling to share your information and you did not want to face the prospect that someone else may have information that is more correct than your own. When I get complaints about rampant changes on the Family Tree as the excuse for not participating, I simply respond that, yes, you do have correct errors, but that over time, the errors and changes diminish as the community comes to a consensus.

Genealogical research is always open-ended. There is always the possibility that one more document, record, or analysis will change an entry. Change is inevitable.

Genealogists are predominantly reclusive and claim ownership of their research and are thereby protective of that research. They are threatened by the possibility that their information may be lost but are frequently unwilling or unable to provide a clear way to share and preserve their information. Many genealogists are in the "I am going to publish a book about my ancestors" mode and some of them actually do publish such a book. Many of those who have published a book have stacks of copies of the book that they are trying to "sell off" to pay for the publication and cannot give away. Of course, not all genealogists fall into all of these categories, but I do not have to go far for examples. Professional genealogists are fixated on protecting their research because of their need to sell the results to make a living. Everything they publish must be tightly controlled and copyright protected and they are fierce in protecting their copyright claims.

All of the people with these attitudes towards genealogical research feel threatened by wiki-based, online family trees. They primarily object to and are threatened by the fact that wikis can be changed when the basic strength of all wikis is the fact that they can be edited and changed. They are also concerned that "their" information will be lost. As a side note, there is a lot of genealogical information out there on paper that needs to be corrected and lost. This fear of loss, however, does not extend to backing up their data or providing for its preservation when they die.

I quote Wikipedia for the same reasons I use the Family Tree. Ultimately, I trust both venues because my experience has led me to trust them. No, they are not perfect, but they can be corrected and ultimately, the information in them both will be preserved and corrected and become unimaginably complete. Like the quote attributed to President Harry S. Truman, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I would add and don't rant about the kitchen and those of us who can stand the heat. Our gain -- Your loss.

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