The Wikipedia dilemma: What is the ideal reading level?

Web 2.0 Software / Open Source

I’ve long been tickled pink by the success of Wikipedia. A group of amateurs gathering together to craft articles that rival the articles found in Encyclopedia Britannica? How sweet is that!

But the issue of quality always rears its ugly head. Is the quality of a Wikipedia article going to be as high as the quality of an Encyclopedia Britannica article?

Measuring the quality of Wikipedia articles is a complex matter, mainly because quality is subjective. Is quality depth or breadth? Succinct or in depth? More information or less? Quality can’t truly be measured because it means different things to different people.

One aspect of quality is the readability of an article. If you want to teach important concepts about the American Civil War to 4th graders, you’re going to prepare a text differently than if you were teaching those same concepts to a group of American History post-graduate students. The 4th grade version would not be very long and would intentionally leave information out. The post-graduate level text would be much more detailed, and focus on much more information. All relevant information would be included, no matter how complex.

Several scales have been developed that measure the readability of a text. The output lets you know at what level your text can be understood. A quick and dirty
test of five of the ‘featured articles’ in Wikipedia show that on a readability scale, they come out very high. In other words, these aren’t just simple articles that could be written by any High School student; they are complex, in-depth, and informative.

Some might argue they are too complex. In a world where USA Today reads at a 10th grade level, could Wikipedia articles be more ‘useful’ if they were more readable?

The introduction to the Wikipedia article on President George Washington rates a 23 on the Gunning-Fog index – which puts the text on a post-graduate level. Although you could argue that the quality of the article is high, it is not useful for 4th graders.

What to do? Should we dumb down Wikipedia because the content is complex? Not at all. What I would like to see is the ability to take the text, make a copy, and
make that version of the article more readable. By bringing down the readability level you are making the article accessible to a wider range of individuals. Content that was of use to one segment of the population now becomes useful for even more people, thus raising the quality of the article.

Visitors to Wikipedia could go to an article, and based on who the content is intended for, click on the more readable version. There are a number of volunteers working on Wikipedia, and now with more than 1.5 million articles, maybe it’s time to look back at the ‘finished’ articles and see where improvements could be made.

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