Tracing a false fact in wikipedia


There’s a college at Durham University named after  campaigning feminist Josephine Butler, and so one afternoon I found myself on wikipedia looking her up. I was quite surprised to read the following ‘fact’

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I happen to be from Southend. Royal Artillery way (or to give it it’s less fancy name, the A1159) is a short stretch of dual carriageway. I looked it up on google maps to check, no museum there. I googled it more broadly, no mention of the museum (except for the wikipedia page, and people who had cut and pasted it (a total of 77 hits!!). Most worryingly there is no link to any evidence for the museum’s existence on the wikipedia page, which is supposed to be one of the rules of wikipedia.

So after a bit of faff (the IP address of my office desktop was blocked) i managed to log in to wikipedia and try and find out when this misinformation was added. It was added on 20th October 2008, just shy of 5 years ago, and the original edit included some more information about the museum.

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Now this is more obviously untrue, “lazers” is misspelt for a start, but a few weeks later somebody with a different account name, embellishes it further

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This was obviously a step too far for somebody, and a couple of weeks later it was edited back to the ‘fact’ that I stumbled across (and have now deleted) nearly 5 years later.

I think this raises some interesting questions about wikipedia in general. Why did the original person only delete half the false fact and leave half? How did this unlikely fact last so long? Was it left alone because it sounded vaguely plausible once the more puerile stuff was deleted? How many other plausible untruths are there on wikipedia? And perhaps most importantly, why Southend? Any other town and I wouldn’t have checked and who knows how long that ‘fact’ would have lasted?

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About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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