Trusting Unsourced Quotations

Irish Times: Student’s Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries.

A Wikipedia hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world. The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.

Wikipedia logoThere are any number of lessons to draw from this situation. No doubt, the main lesson for many critics will be to blame Wikipedia, not the person who tried to pull off a hoax or the many people who fell for it.

Certainly the site’s open nature was instrumental in the student’s ability to pull off the hoax in the first place. But a closer examination, as we see in this piece by the readers’ editor of the Guardian (one of the publications that fell for the hoax — here’s the corrected original obituary), the Wikipedia community performed well in a) discovering the lie and 2) fixing the article.

Still, the invented quote was widely used — by people who should have known better. In the Guardian, there was apparently no citation, even to Wikipedia, which would have been a tipoff in the first instance.

As the Guardian notes in the follow-up:

The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.

That applies to everyone, not just journalists. I say this again and again, to students and anyone else who’ll listen:

Wikipedia is often the best place to start — but the worst place to stop.