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Friday, 28th September 2007

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Can we really trust Wikipedia?



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It's the tenth most visited website in the world and millions rely on it for information, but can we really tsust Wikipedia? Sarah Freeman asked Yorkshire poets, authors and politicians to rate their entries.
We all know that we shouldn't believe everything we read... except, it seems, when it comes to Wikipedia.

It was 2001 that Jimmy Wales, a man who describes himself as pathologically optimistic, launched an online encyclopaedia to suit the digital age.

There was, he believed, no need for banks for grey-suited researchers methodically checking facts and figures, instead the public would be responsible for writing, editing and updating entries.

The move sent shudders down the spine of those who don't write a postcard without consulting Encyclopaedia Britannica, but Wales insisted his experiment "based on the twin pillars of trust and tolerance" would be a success.

In many ways, he was right, today the site employs just five full-time staff, yet seven billion entries are viewed each month and tap in the name of any celebrity into Google and their Wikipedia entry is likely to be in the top five hits.

But with more and more people viewing the site as the internet equivalent of the Word of God, there have been inevitable questions about its accuracy.

Just this week it was revealed workers operating on CIA computers have been spotted polishing the more unsightly facts from entries on former presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon while on this side of the Atlantic an anonymous internet surfer from inside Millbank deleted a section in the Labour Party profile which suggested the party's student movement was no longer seen as radical.

More fuel was added to the fire when one of Wikipedia's editors known only as Essjay, who had described himself as a professor of religion, was unveiled as a fake. To much embarrassment, he was forced to confess that his PhD was bogus and most of his knowledge had been taken from text books, including Catholicism for Dummies.

While hardly a scientific experiment, in the hope of shedding some light on the Wikipedia date, we asked a group of Yorkshire celebrities to cast their eye over their entries.

GP Taylor
Former Scarborough vicar and now best-selling author


It's the best work of fiction I have read in years.

I really would have loved to have been born in 1961 but sadly I was born in 1958 – thankfully this is not as bad as the Sun which once had me born in 1945. The rest is nearly true. The facts of the financial rewards have been totally wrongly quoted and it would appear that whoever put this together did this from a series of press articles that hadn't been fact checked before publication. The worrying thing is that this site is open to editing from any source. I have noticed that entries for people like JK Rowling are strictly controlled and Joe Public can't alter or add anything to them but others are able to go on to people's entries and say what they want.

I am actually published in 48 languages and have been read by several million people and all my books are optioned for movies so things seem to be out of date.

I like Wikipedia because it is packed with trivia and I spend a lot of time looking things up on the site and always cross check their facts just to be sure. This is what the internet is about – ordinary people being able to contribute to history and education. It is very 1984... Orwellian in the extreme. To get the full effect of its sinister nature, the best way to read Wikipedia is to cut a football in half and put it on like a bald head. Wear a rather smart jacket and tie put on a pair of large false ears – look into the mirror and read it in the voice of William Hague. I have just tried it and it has changed my life.

Jilly Cooper
Journalist and author


I'm completely computer illiterate, I don't even use email, so I had never heard of Wikipedia, but I was quite touched by the entry. I felt it was by somebody who'd really taken the trouble to read the books and say really sensible, perceptive things about them.

There are some little gripes, the entry implies our son Felix is older than our daughter Emily, but it's the other way round and while my stories do "heavily feature not only adultery, sexual infidelity, general betrayal, money worries and domestic upheavals" I would like to add they are also about great heroism and the triumph of true love.

Amusingly when thy write about my column in The Sunday Times which lasted 13 years it's described as being about "marriage, sex and housework".

Although I did refer to Leo a lot and sex a lot, I think I only wrote about housework once. I did other quite jolly things like interviewing Margaret Thatcher twice and I also wrote big pieces on a visit to Moscow, the Common Market and Oxford dons.

Keith Hellawell
Chief Constable of West Yorkshire from 1997 to 2001 and the Government's former anti-drugs co-ordinator.


I can't really take any issue with what's been written. There are a few minor points in that I seem to have lost my honorary doctorate from Huddersfield University and while they correctly refer to a fire at our property in the South of France in 2003, it was the chalet, not the house which burnt down, but other than that it seems spot on.

Joanne Harris
Former French teacher at Leeds Grammar school and now Huddersfield-based author


My grandmother was not a witch although this "fact" seems to appear in a lot of different places on websites and in articles and I've never actually corrected it.

Chocolat was actually based in the Gers area of France, not the Loire Valley. It's right in saying the movie rights were sold to Miramax Pictures and while it did bring me "wide recognition in North America" it was also popular in more than 40 countries. They are all very small points so all in all the entry is pretty accurate.

Michael Meadowcroft
Former Liberal MP for West Leeds from 1983-87 and now election observer overseas.


I didn't realise that there was an entry until a friend mentioned it recently. Reading it reveals that it has been culled from my profile the Dictionary of Liberal Biography which means that it is worryingly accurate.

However, my main complaint is that it personalises events that were much more co-operatively organised. For instance it calls the continuing Liberal Party "Meadowcroft's party" which it has never been.

Another problem is the updating. My involvement with assisting new and emerging democracies is listed as covering 33 missions in 19 countries, whereas the up to date figures are 48 missions to 35 countries. In my case this isn't desperately significant but Wikipedia's reliance on voluntary contributions inevitably means that, without assiduous and efficient contributors, entries can get dangerously out of date.

Even so, the concept of Wikipedia is great and I use it a lot.

Ian McMillan
Poet, broadcaster and Yorkshire Post columnist


They've got my date of birth right at 1956 when a number of my books put it at 1957, and one press release that came out in the 1990s had me born in 1950. The educational history and the fact that I'm still in Darfield is completely on the button.

What I like best about the entry is that it gives equal importance to everything; the fact that I've got my own show on Radio 3 is given as much weight as my judging a competition for Central Trains in December 2006. This gives your life an oddly skewed quality and it also underlines the fact that judging a poetry competition for Central Trains is, in many ways, as important as being on Have I Got News For You?

If I could add anything I'd show off about my three honorary degrees; one from Sheffield Hallam University, one from Staffordshire University and one from a university that I can't name because it's not been officially announced yet.

Three degrees, eh? That's what's known in the academic community as a "When Will I See You Again?"

And I'd like to make one thing up to put in my entry, just to alter the course of history a little: "In 1996 McMillan walked through Whitby wearing only a strategically placed Yorkshire Pudding to advertise the Whitby Festival."

Reginald Hill
Former English lecturer at Doncaster College of Education turned crime writer.


There's nothing in it which has got me reaching for my horsewhip or my lawyer.

I would like to think that when they describe me as being born to a "very ordinary working class family with its redundant adverb was not the direct quotation the inverted commas suggest, or that at least it was taken from something I said rather than wrote, but, that apart, the only positive inaccuracy is the very minor one of turning Doncaster College of Education (i.e an establishment where pre and post graduate students were trained to be teachers) into Doncaster College of Further Education.

The bibliography has an inaccurate publication date (Captain Fantom 1978 not 1980), an omission (The Forging of Fantom 1979), a repetition (A Very Good Hater 1974) and a title I do not recall writing (The Four Clubs 1997) though if anyone would care to send me the royalties, I won't object!

Joolz Denby
Bradford-based writer.


It's 10 out of 10 for accuracy and it's also pretty well up-to-date which is amazing (except it's now 23
Glastonburys!)

I can't honestly say there's anything misleading, inaccurate or missing in my particular bit though I can't vouch for the bits on Punk or other highlighted topics. Personally, I love Wikipedia but I'd never kept updated on my bit mostly because I'm too busy but I shall certainly be directing anyone wanting biographical info on me to it in future.

Kate Rusby
Folk singer from Barnsley


There's an awful lot of detail in the entry so perhaps it's inevitable that there are a few errors.

My birthday is wrong, I was born on December 4 not the 1 and while I was married to John McCusker, but we have since divorced. It mentions winning an award for the song Lullabye, but it's actually called Who Will Sing Me Lullabies.

Also it doesn't mention a children's animation that I wrote some music for, called Jack Frost, but apart from that, I am very impressed.
Last Updated: 16 August 2007 10:10 AM
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Ken Davies,

Paris 24/08/2007 17:03:12

These comments are interesting and well-intentioned, but most of them miss the point: you can yourself correct anything you find to be wrong. Just register as an editor. That, and of course the price, is the difference between Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is the first interactive source of information on almost any subject that I know of.

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