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Wikipedia online economics

John Quiggin is helping to assemble contributors to provide a Wikipedia coverage that includes all the major categories in the Journal of Economic Literature (JEL) economics subject classification system. His hope is that the scheme is robust enough to allow for an expansion of Wikipedia to compete with specialist works like the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. John is optimistic about Wikipedia’s potential but, as he notes, the economics section of Wikipedia is a long way from being a comprehensive reference source at present. Currently there are whole categories in the JEL system for which Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry – John cites the example of Computable General Equilibrium models for example.

I use Wikipedia all the time so I support this effort. One advantage of Wikipedia is its currency. The day after noted economist, John Kenneth Galbraith’s recent death, his entry on Wikipedia had been updated to reflect that fact. Articles in the New Palgrave will take years to edit and publish. In fact ex-Agenda editor Michael James is now editing a second edition of the New Palgrave due for release in 2008. The earlier edition was released in 1987 so it will be more than a 20 year gap. Other advantages of the Wikipedia approach are that (i) it is free, (ii) entries can be classified and accessed via a subject classification system such as JEL and (iii) hyperlinks can be introduced in a Wikipedia entry that connect to related information very quickly. Thus – the supreme virtue of the Web occurs – search can be carried out immediately online at low cost.

The New Palgrave will be an expensive volume but online access will be available to subscribers so in this sense it too will be easy to search. One issue will be how much its publishers do invest in updating information and whether, in fact, updating occurs at all. A difficulty with making updates is that citation becomes difficult.

Obviously we benefit as consumers and producers of economics in having this form of competition between conventionally published and open source information. Wikipedia will have some competitive advantages but so too will the New Palgrave. Citation will be easier from the New Palgrave and accuracy and comprehensiveness will be claimed to be an advantage. Authors will be identified and paid for their contributions so one would expect better quality. I know that ‘open source’ enthusiasts argue that intellectual motivation can offset this last factor but I remain sceptical. On the issue of accuracy a recent debate has concerned the relative accuracy of Wikipedia compared to such publications as the Encyclopedia Britannica. The evidence suggests Wikipedia does as well or better. Frankly this evidence surprises me but, despite some problems with Wikipedia, it is obviously a valuable resource. Other work has compared operating systems such as the commercial Windows system with the open source Linux system. From many viewpoints Linux comes up surprisingly well in this comparison.

I’ll probably offer my own services to John Quiggin’s effort and certainly applaud his enthusiasm for the Wikipedia project. I’ll also certainly buy a copy of the New Palgrave when it comes out. I bought the 1997 edition and it is one of the most used sets of books in my professional library.

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