Another Kick in the Teeth for Wikipedia

For the record, I like Wikipedia just fine, as long as people understand what it is and what it isn’t. What it is: a useful and engaging enterprise in user-generated content about a mind-blowingly diverse range of subjects. What it isn’t: a dependable substitute for a reference work, at least not in many cases. We have touched on this dichotomy here and here and here and here.

The argument in defense of Wikipedia that I find most troubling is that it is self-correcting and self-policing, which is to say that, Hey, in the end all the mistakes and vendettas get fixed by caring and level-headed people. The problem, of course, is that if someone happens to read or cite a Wikipedia entry at a moment when all those things haven’t been fixed, which is obviously a vast, vast, vast majority of the time, then the mistakes get promulgated as fact.

So I was surprised to read in the 9/4/06 issue of Business Week that the U.S. Patent & Trademark office had been using Wikipedia as a source to help determine the validity of patent applications. According to the BW article, “Wikipedia has been cited in patent decisions on everything from car parts to chip designs.”

But as of August 15, the patent office pulled the plug on Wikipedia. “We’ve taken Wikipedia off our list of accepted sources of information,” said Patents Commissioner John Doll. The article also quotes Greg Aharonian, who publishes a patent newsletter and is a longtime critic of the patent office: “I’ve been complaining about this for years. From a legal point of view, a Wiki citation is toilet paper.”


Holy crap. I can't believe the USPTO would use Wikipedia as a cited source! This just boggles my mind. I would like to think that most people understand the use of the Wikipedia like you do, but unfortunately many do not.

Derek Scruggs

"Hey, in the end all the mistakes and vendettas get fixed by caring and level-headed people"

Heh heh. Substitute "caring and level-headed people" with "the market."


Perhaps if each Wiki contributor could build up a reputation for veracity and accuracy?

Contributors could still remain anonymous.

The more reputable the individual, the more they value their reputation and the more they have to lose.

I'm actually working on a system such as this at the moment - where observers stake their reputation (as in gambling).

Wikipedia are effectively having to build in a contrived hiearchy as it is. I reckon it would be more egalitarian if this hierarchy evolved organically from tons of mutual 'micro-agreements'.


If the USPTO used wikipedia to check for prior art, there might not be a big problem using it as a source of reference.

Something published on wikipedia may not be correct in the context of the wikipedia article but it would show that the idea has already been thought of. Articles published in journals (whether they are peer reviewed or not) are used for the same purpose.

With wikipedia's roll-back function the USPTO could essentially prove that a concept was thought of and in the public domain before the date of a patent application. This should indicate that a patent could not be issued for that application.

Paul Turnbull

So why exactly is this a kick in the teeth for Wikipedia? Seems more like a kick in the teeth to the USPTO.


". . .if someone happens to read or cite a Wikipedia entry at a moment when all those things haven't been fixed, which is obviously a vast, vast, vast majority of the time, then the mistakes get promulgated as fact."

What is your evience for the claim that mistakes "haven't been fixed" "a vast, vast, vast majority of the time?" This claim is far from "obvious."


"Perhaps if each Wiki contributor could build up a reputation for veracity and accuracy?" Another way to say "con game".


The only thing that this really shows about Wikipedia is that its influence and pervasive reach extends into government offices. The fact that it is risky to use a source that can be modified by anyone is not news.


Without stating the obvious Wikipedia is what it is. I am amazed that the USPTO use it as source but it is a great way of getting a really brief overview and it provides a good source of links to further information. No more no less.

Someone would need to be deranged to expect more.


Having read hundreds of Office Actions (both patent and trademark) issued by the USPTO, I can't remember a single instance when an Examiner cited Wikipedia as evidence of anything. However, attorneys responding to Office Actions may attempt to use Wikipedia to define terms or support arguments to overcome rejections. That the USPTO has determined it won't accept Wikipedia cites anymore is quite reasonable, but that's different from saying that the USPTO has been using it.


"con game"...

History is indeed a game of confidence, arbitrated by one's confidence in those who record it, according to their reputations.

Wikipedia is more like a journal peer reviewed through blind ballot by pseudonymous ad hoc committee.

A democratic jury is not enough, you need reputation too. Some voices have more weight on some subjects than others, otherwise what's the point of specialist expertise if it cannot be recognised?


As a longtime Wikipedian (I joined almost three years ago, to the day) I applaud the USPTO's decision. Even Wikipedia's founder has stated emphatically that nobody should rely on Wikipedia for serious or academic work. Wikipedia is a starting point for exploring a topic or getting an introduction to it. It should never be used for mission-critical or academic research.


it is not a kick in the teeth for wikipedia. If you use wikipedia as a primary source for reliable information then you just don't "get it".

The only information on wikipedia that (currently) deserved to be trusted is that information which is backed up with citations from reliable primary sources.

It is possible in the future wikipedia could add editorial review whereby accurate information could be vetted by several designated domain experts and then tagged as 'reliable'.

One thing people who don't "get it" fail to do is look at the articles corresonding disucssion page and possibly the article history.

Wikipedia is an awesome resource and it does subsume many of the niches Brittanica (sp?) used to occupy but it currently has no mechanism that makes it easy for the casual but informed viewer to tell what portions of an entry were written by a trustworthy expert and what portions were written by a person of unknown reputation. The weakness can be overcome, though how long it will take is anybodies best guess.



I don't know exactly how the patent review process works, but just think about the incentives actually at play here. To qualify for a patent, the applicant must establish that the idea is (1) novel, (2) non-obvious, and (3) useful. It seems most likely that wikipedia would be used in determing whether the idea meets (1) and (2). If the idea already appears on wiki, it most likely is not (1) or (2). Therefore, the applicant does not have an incentive to e.g., put up a fake wiki entry on the idea because doing so would defeat the app. It seems the most likely incentive would be for the applicant to intensely survey wiki to make sure there are no entries falsely claiming that the idea already exists. If the applicant came across such an entry, some kind of edit war would likely ensue, with corresponding discussion occuring on the wiki entry (viewable by everybody). In theory the discussion would aid in resolving whether the entry is e.g., a fake created by a rival inventor, or whether the applicant is really just trying to patent at idea that is not (1) or (2).

This incentives structure seems to increase the chances of USPTO getting more accurate info.

In fact, this website, claims that the USPTO is actually going to start experimenting with a wiki-like process starting in Jan 2007.


Dr. Funk

Wikipedia is a useful source of reliable information in that it links to sources of reliable information. In feature articles, every substantive claim is accompanied by a citation, which is a reliable source like an online newspaper or official site. All article are supposed to end up like this, but until they do, it's easy to tell what's reliable and what's not--look for citations, follow the links and verify.


Unfortunately, in this debate, most people are blinded by the fact that Wikipedia is openly editable. This is a strength as well as a weakness. But, whatever your position on Wikipedia, it is more important to point out that when doing research, no SINGLE source is adequate.

Wikipedia is very frequently accurate and reliable, and I believe most of the mistakes and vandalism are quickly corrected. This can be shown by the thorough record of edits for each article if you care to check.

Still, I feel something that has not been mentioned often enough in this debate is that whether you're using Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Brittanica, you CANNOT rely blindly on a single source in the course of academic or other "serious" research. THEY CAN ALL HAVE MISTAKES!!!!

Sorry, I just can't stand it - every time I hear this debate it seems that most people are just too lazy to verify their friggin sources, and then they the blame on Wikipedia or whoever....

Okay, I'll shut up now...



User generated content come in many forms - stock markets, prediction markets, wikipedia , etc. - and is basically just a result of a "market".

However, one must always remember that markets may be a good thing in general, but even if they function relatively efficient markets may encounter deviations from their equilibrium or true levels. These deviations means that markets only shows the "truth" on average.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that the legal role of wikipedia has disappeared


I feel the situation is this: Wikipedia is a process, a conversation/dialogue - well at the best of times I suppose. A simple diclaimer will suffice "some training in historical thinking is required". That being said I will take the Wikipedia format over my parent's 1967 World Book Encyclopedia set any day of the week.


Is this a real problem or is the USPTO more concerned about its image?

A quick search of the USPTO's patent database reveals that from January 2004 to the present, only 74 patents cite Wikipedia articles. Compare that to 33,802 references to IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) publications.

Other science and engineering publishers heavily cited in patents include:

Association of Computing Machinery = 6,010
Elsevier = 4,493
Springer Verlag = 2,319
McGraw-Hill = 2,728
Chemical Abstracts = 2,274
Oxford Univ Press = 781
Society of Automotive Engineers = 968
American Society of Mechanical Engineers = 850
Society of Petroleum Engineers =706
Cambridge Univ Press = 639
Wiley Interscience = 545
MIT Press = 403
ASTM = 498
American Institute of Chemical Engineers = 207

Wikipedia did beat its arch rival, Encyclopedia Britannica, which was cited in only 47 patents during the same time period.

Patent examiners and patent attorneys are highly trained (many have Masters or PhDs) and experienced professionals. Clearly, they know the difference between an authoritative source and an unreliable one. It may be that Wikipedia is the most appropriate source for some types of information. It's well suited to "gray" literature and emerging or interdisciplinary technologies that don't have established vocabularies or literature. The USPTO's own rules state that "[a]n electronic publication, including an on-line database or Internet publication," (MPEP 2128) may be valid reference if it is accessible to the public. Wikipedia certainly fits that criteria.



Basically wikipedia is fonded on the principle that everybody can edit an article.

Now even though everybody can edit it, not everybody will. If say 10% of users reading an article will edit it if wrong, then any incorrect information entered will be corrected within 10 people viewing it.

It does not matter if the page is highly viewed or hardly seen, as long as the basic percentage of users editing is the same, incorrect information will be corrected within approximately the same no of pageviews.

Once that is done, you only need to take care of vandals and wikipedia has lots of systems for that.

However nowadays, wikipedia, under pressure is reducing the ability of users to edit which I think is the wrong way to go.