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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
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Published: 02.02.2006, 06:00
Modified: 08.02.2006, 21:35
Wikipedia: young and successful, but not without reservation
A useful tool–despite everything

He would be well within his rights to stigmatise the free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, as a source of doubtful information. But he doesn't; like millions of other users ETH Professor of Software Engineering Bertrand Meyer values the five-year old medium–even though he was declared dead by a malevolent joker in the German Wikipedia.

Norbert Staub

It's quite probable that the holidays at the end of the year were partly responsible for the entry going unnoticed for five days: On 28th December, shortly after 10 p.m. an anonymous person, clearly a student, wrote that, "Bertrand Meyer died according to the latest information on 24.12.2005 in Zurich. On the 23.12.2005 the exam results of his latest classes were published; however, connections between this publication and his death can not be proved.“

Alive and kicking

There is no need to emphasise that Professor Meyer is in the pink of good health and that he was the victim of a macabre joke. On the 3rd of January a journalist from noticed the hoax and removed it on the spot. The press, all the way to "Spiegel online“, used the occasion to question the reliability of the popular internet encyclopedia.

Via Wikipedia he became the target of a malevolent joke: ETH Professor Bertrand Meyer. He refuses to let this influence his positive opinion of this global encyclopedia.

Critics of free authorship, which allows anyone to add to and change entries, were provided with further ammunition by another episode: a Wikipedia article in the English edition a few weeks earlier had suggested that John Seigenthaler, a former assistant to Robert Kennedy, had been involved in the murder of John F. Kennedy. This also turned out to be an evil and false report, remaining undiscovered for months.

Guarantor of success and Achilles' heel

Admittedly, Wikipedia's recipe for success is also its Achilles' heel: It is criticisable that nobody has to prove their expertise before modifying an entry (in the worst cases, making it worst instead of better). At the same time, the by now, gigantic community of "Wikipedians" acts as a strong corrective force that leads to a surprisingly high level of objectivity, consistency and accuracy in the great majority of the about 334'000 entries (in the German edition).

This is also the opinion of Bertrand Meyer, the victim of a malicious entry, himself. In his on-line article "Defense and Illustration of Wikipedia“ (1), he writes of "overwhelming evidence“: Wikipedia was there for everyone who regularly uses the Web to write, find facts, for research or other intellectual purposes, and was "more and more the appropriate source of information“. And this is not least a result of the collaborative process of quality assurance that is doubted by its critics.


An indispensable globally encompassing encyclopedia for millions of people; Wikipedia, set up by volunteers, has more than 3.7 million entries in more than 100 languages. large

Editing battles and tamings

"It's mass that counts," is the title that Stefan Betschon recently gave to his NZZ article on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the on-line encyclopedia–not without absolutely denying the site the competency of a work of reference for inquisitive users to find the necessary orientation(2). "Wikipedia is a work in progress, mistakes are quickly corrected. But new ones are being added all the time," writes the NZZ journalist.

Particularly on highly controversial themes, such as climate change, "ideological chasms" were opened up across which the representatives on either side of the divide conducted bitter "editing wars" where entries were changed or deleted as rapidly as possible by the opposing side–until one side succumbed to exhaustion. "The Wikipedia community has to find solutions to handle these situations," admits Bertrand Meyer, but adds, "who would seriously go to a Website for definitve answers about such issues?“ Speaking from his own observations the ETH computer scientist adds that, in time, the tactless, dishonest or over-enthusiastic authors would be "civilised" by the other users.

More quality control needed

Measured by its sheer range of subjects and its international perspective there was no other source of information that could measure up to Wikipedia, he says. However he also looks very favourably on this gateway for disruptive action, the universal editability. People who tend to pick up on and correct mistakes (and the ETH professor counts himself among these), for them this possibility of correcting things was a blessing: "I can't correct the typos on a normal Website," he says. Nevertheless, the qualitative reservations had to be taken seriously (3). In order to make progress here, Meyer recommends the setting up of a system of evaluation–for both authors and their contributions.

For those who are asking themselves whether the episode at the end of December has changed his opinion of Wikipedia, Bertrand Meyer has a clear answer: "No." The system had succumbed to one of its potential flaws, but had also been able to repair itself very quickly. "This doesn't affect the big picture.“

Bertrand Meyer

Bertrand Meyer studied in France and the USA. After a stint in industry, in 1985 he founded the company Interactive Software Engineering, which developed of the software "Eiffel“. Meyer has been Professor of Software Engineering at ETH Zurich for the past four years and is currently head of the Computer Science Department. The focus of Meyer's research is on the development of methods, techniques, languages and tools to improve the quality of software.

(1) Bertrand Meyer's full text can be found at:
(2) Cf. NZZ article:
(3) A comparative investigation using random checks, carried out in December 2005 by Nature, revealed that mistakes were to be found in entries on natural science themes in both Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but that the latter was better than Wikipedia as far as the accuracy of entries was concerned–but only marginally. Cf. text in Nature:

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