Доверяй, но проверяй: The Trustworthiness and Usefulness of Wikipedia
in Different Languages as Seen at the Example of the
German/English article of Vladimir Nabokov
By Kerstin Schmedt & Hannah Thoma
An old Russian proverb goes Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai) or as US President Ronald Reagan put it: “Trust, but verify”. Something that would be a perfectly valid advice to many of the modern students of this day and age, considering that they have grown accustomed to a constant availability of information. Gone are the days in which one needs to leaf trough heavy tomes in search for data, which has been replaced by typing a single keyword into a search engine of Wikipedia (WP for short). Depending on the language that the user has chosen they will encounter different structures, seldom will they find a page that is an exact copy of another. In the following we will use the German/English article – which will be shortened in the following as simple G and E respectively whenever possible – on author Vladimir Nabokov as example to form a comparison of the outlines to give the reader a short overview of the general differences. After which we will examine both Wikipedia pages, if they truly follow the Wikipedia guidelines in terms of editorial context. So in the end we can weigh which of them is the superior and therefore, offer the user the more trustworthy information.
☰ Structure & Layout
Already at the top of the WP page for Nabokov the user will encounter significant distinction between the German and English version. While the German page immediately starts off into a rather detailed overview of the subject, the English version is far more condensed and more general, which it does so by moving some of the personal information the German version has written out into a sidebar. Here it can also be noted that unlike the English version, the German does not have an actual picture of Nabokov but heads the site with a photograph of a stone monument to avoid copyright issues.
The first actual aspects in both articles are dedicated to the subject’s life. Whereas the context seems to be around the same length, but differ both in content, focus and format. Nabokov’s life is sectioned into five parts each, though the E uses locations of where he used to live whereas the G uses major points in life e.g. his first and second exile.
From this point on the German and English article begin to differ in major structural points and context. Where E gives its readers now a closer look upon Nabokov’s history and style of writing you will only find something comparable further down the German article in the form of a short introductory sentence before a listing of all of his literary works. Not be done with differences the reader now finds sections in E though quite short are not made any mention or little to none in G at all, the subject’s self-described suffering from synaesthesia and his works in Entomology respectively. Despite that you will find the next English segment again in G beating out the English in this case by providing the reader by visualizing one of chess problems in their second portion. For the second to last section in English “Politics and Views” the reader will have to refer to the German “Leben” section to find any information what so ever.
In E the eighth section only contains a single link which will lead the reader to an extensive listing of Nabokov’s works and where they can be found in literature. G has something comparable in its fourth segment, though unlike the English one, here the user will found the list directly of the subject’s main article. And once more where the E article dedicates an entire section to literature about Nabokov himself – prior to the sources used for the article – the German groups it together with the man’s own works.
After comparing the general layout of our two WP articles, we continue our evaluation by following the guidelines for contributors on Wikipedia to judge the worth of the content presented to the user on both sides in terms Neutral Point of View, No Original Research and Verifiability. Of course more guidelines exist to assist a writer but we choose to ignore them, considering they will not further our main goal of comparison. The aspect of Notability also falls away since our subject has strong ties to both the German and English literary genre and more than warrants an entry in Wikipedia.
The first point we took a closer look at is Neutrality. In an article like ours in which the subject is a person it is bound to include segments about said person’s life that will cause a rift in secondary literature, especially since our stand-in-example Nabokov was not just a successful writer but also vocal about his political views in the times of National Socialism. For all these traps an editor on Wikipedia could fall for both G and E seem particularly keen on portraying the subject in an unbiased light. Both articles spread out the different angles throughout their paragraph that lends itself to represent the entirety objectively. And if anybody is actively looking for a discussion on some of the points handled in the article the Talk page is only one click away, though as noted often before the English version is more extensive.
The second principle that every Wikipedia article should abide by is that of No Original Research, meaning that something for which no reliable, published sources exist should not be used for an article. Looking over the text body of E, you will find only two instances in which the WP community requires more citation of the next knowledgeable editors about Nabokov’s inheritance and the popularity of his classes later in life, otherwise all paragraphs are regularly sourced, despite the use of some ridiculously named sites to do so (cf. Verifiability). Compared to that, the user will find no such gaps in G but will be forced to deal with less citation in general in the overall article, even though the editors have done their best to procure the most reliable sources.
The last of the core content policies we worked on the article under was – in our opinion – the most important one: Verifiability. In G the principle seems not to be followed all too strictly. Of course, when a controversial point is addressed the user will definitely find a footnote or two at the bottom of the page but many times over one will find long paragraphs without being given any concrete source that makes one wonder, if one note might not refer to several overarching passages. If some clusters of footnotes do appear in G it will usually be a list of different names, whereas more general information on Nabokov’s life will hardly be graced by an explanation as to where the original thought had come from. Half of the footnotes refer here to a rather limited amount of printed works, if not the same book altogether, whereas the other half consists of online newspaper articles.
As expected one will also find the above mentioned cluster of names in the English version as well but unlike G, E seems more uncompromising in their ways of providing passages with enough proper source material. The user will be hard pressed to find any paragraph which will not at least accommodate the reader with 3 footnotes if not more, and multiple ones for a single thought to mark it as the generally hold up opinion in scholar circles. But despite that, like G, it will have lesser sources marked on the minor disputed parts about the subject’s life. The majority of the intelligence used for the article can be found online in the form of different interviews and articles on Nabokov’s life and work ranging widely from Playboy interviews from the 60s and 70s over sites so aptly named like Bookslut to several more traditionally named printed works and BBC documentaries.
In the end we came to the result that the German article will suffice for a short overview of the general facts about our subject’s life and work but couldn’t expect anything in particular of this article beyond that. On the other hand, the English article spends a lot more attention not only on the general details of Nabokov’s life but also the smaller topics he got himself involved in over the years. Both article entries despite their minimal inefficiencies can be seen as reliable.
If a student were to use Wikipedia for this particular person as a first stop it would be an advantage for them to use the English version not only because of the greater detail in description but also because of the amount of sources used all together and other links and books references on the site. When looking at just the footnotes of both versions, you will get 22 for the German and 72 for the English alone. When comparing further reading suggested by them, again the English version beats out the German, enabling a student to get faster access to secondary literature to use properly for their academic work.