One problem librarians typically have with the Wikipedia is the anonymity of its authors. In a reference world understandably based on authority as a shorthand for reliability, Wikipedia is woefully inadequate right from the start. If authority – rather than truth, usefulness, convenience, or breadth, for example – is the criterion of judgment for a reference work, then the Wikipedia gets disqualified before the game even begins. I’ve given my two cheers for Wikipedia before, and addressed the problems of authority.

The new Wikiscanner helps to alleviate the problem of no authority a little bit. (Read the Sunday NYT article about Wikiscanner: Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikimedia Edits.) The Wikiscanner searches Wikipedia and links IP addresses to edited articles. The idea behind the Wikiscanner is to reveal self-interested edits to Wikipedia articles. The Times article notes such examples as someone from Diebold deleting criticism of voting machines and someone from the Washington Post changing “the name of the owner of a free local paper, The Washington Examiner, from Philip Anschutz to Charles Manson” (more mischievous than self-interested, but still a violation of public trust).

On the other hand, the Wikiscanner also reveals the fact that most of the edits don’t appear to be self-interested. This doesn’t mean that the editors are reliable, only that they aren’t trying to promote themselves. I did a Wikiscanner search for Princeton University IP addresses, hoping to find salacious edits like saying the Harvard football players are all cross-dressers or something like that. There were a lot of edits of “Princeton University” and Princeton-related topics which could have been self-interested, but just as likely to be based on authority. I didn’t check the edits to the eating clubs pages to see what mischief might be there. There were some bizarre early edits of something called “Easting Clubs,” the spelling mistake (“Easting” for “Eating”) surviving for several edits.

But there were also multiple edits for John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Equipotential, Computer, Filioque clause, Neocortex, John of Damascus, Particle in a box, Euler’s totient function, and many other topics that were probably not driven by self-interest, and, given the subjects, may very well have been driven by the desire of someone who knew to get the facts right online. Though I’m not sure this explains why in one week of March 2005 someone from Princeton made over 50 edits to the article on Yoko Ono.

The Wikiscanner certainly doesn’t eliminate the problem of authority and shifting entries, but it does help reveal some problems. It’s also another example of what’s good about the way Wikipedia works, taking advantage of dispersed knowledge. Wikipedia always challenges us to question sources, and now it’s easier to do this. Some critics of Wikipedia seem to act as if everyone is helpless when viewing information online, implying that without librarians to help them, people will just accept anything written on any website. I think most people are probably more skeptical than that, and the Wikiscanner now gives the skeptics one more tool. If only librarians would create tools for skeptics rather than just condemn projects like the Wikipedia or hope people don’t use them, because these projects aren’t going to go away. Pointing out all the ways the Wikipedia is bad just ignores all the ways in which it is good, especially when one considers that for many researchers, the good is often equated with the good enough.