Wikipedia is growing daily, and becoming a a major reference for many subjects, from arts and entertainment, sports to quantum physics and population genetics. Myself, I have been following its growth through websites like reddit.com and by the increase of Google top hits directing to Wikipedia entries.
In December 2005, a small study compared the freely available encyclopedia to Britannica (summarized here) and found errors on both, almost leveling them. I cannot say about the quality of the content of Wikipedia in English, I only use it to quick scientific searches on topics that I do not have great knowledge or to mundane topics, like writers’ and bands’ biographies.
Lately, I have focused on checking the content of Wikipedia in Portuguese, especially entries that relate to biology, bioinformatics and genetics, with an anonymous profile. I was appalled with the poor quality of the entries, and I decided to edit some articles, in some places correcting minor grammar mistakes and in other replacing entire sections that were completely off the mark. I can say that a gave a minor contribution, I could and can give more if I had more time to edit things and I also have some articles marked for revision.
But that is not my concern. Several entries in the Portuguese version were poor translated material from the English website. So poor that in places the content makes no sense in Portuguese. Checking the profile of “editors” that have translated such entries, you invariably see that they claim to have an advanced level (sometimes even native-like) of English, and sometimes advanced levels in other languages. Still you see very poor translations. This, coupled with the poor knowledge of the subject of the entry, is a recipe for disaster. I know by personal experience that is very difficult to master a language that is not your native one (I have good domain of English, but not advertised anywhere); even more difficult is to do a technical translation of a topic that you don’t master completely.
It has been discussed elsewhere (ie here) about the potential problems of Wikipedia and the prepotency of some editors (who are volunteers) in protecting the articles from the so-called vandalism. Maybe I should register myself and edit with an username, and be prepared to the criticism and sometimes the bullying in the lengthy discussions that can be found on Wikipedia. It will be a double work: edit the entry and then explain why is was edited.
I don’t think I have stomach and patience to do that again. I just fear for the high-school kid that will learn from there, thinking it is a great reference, and in the end will have to relearn it, due to poor content. Just my two cents.