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The paradox of expertise: is the Wikipedia Reference Desk as good as your library?

Pnina Shachaf (School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 16 October 2009




The purpose of this paper is to examine the quality of answers on the Wikipedia Reference Desk, and to compare it with library reference services. It aims to examine whether Wikipedia volunteers outperform expert reference librarians and exemplify the paradox of expertise.


The study applied content analysis to a sample of 434 messages (77 questions and 357 responses) from the Wikipedia Reference Desk and focused on three SERVQUAL quality variables: reliability (accuracy, completeness, verifiability), responsiveness, and assurance.


The study reports that on all three SERVQUAL measures quality of answers produced by the Wikipedia Reference Desk is comparable with that of library reference services.

Research limitations/implications

The collaborative social reference model matched or outperformed the dyadic reference interview and should be further examined theoretically and empirically. The generalizability of the findings to other similar sites is questionable.

Practical implications

Librarians and library science educators should examine the implications of the social reference on the future role of reference services.


The study is the first to: examine the quality of the Wikipedia Reference Desk; extend research on Wikipedia quality; use SERVQUAL measures in evaluating Q&A sites; and compare Q&A sites with traditional reference services.



Shachaf, P. (2009), "The paradox of expertise: is the Wikipedia Reference Desk as good as your library?", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 65 No. 6, pp. 977-996.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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