Wikipedia as a Source?
We’ve all been told to never use Wikipedia as a source. Since the site first started back in 2003, teachers everywhere have warned students of the mortal danger of using the site. After all, how could a site that allows anyone to post on subjects ranging from the Sumatran Orangutan to Steiner chains be accurate? The funny thing is if you’re curious about what a Steiner chain is now, you’re probably using Wikipedia to look it up. There’s a reason for that. Most of us trust Wikipedia, because it is actually reliable. Just how reliable is it? Well, according to this Wikipedia article, very reliable.
Many people just assume that allowing thousands of non-experts to create an online community-based encyclopedia is a recipe for disaster. In fact, Wikipedia has even been likened to a public restroom by former Encyclopædia Britannica editor Robert McHenry, “[H]owever closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability, it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler… The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.” Ouch. As biting as those remarks were, I’m still not ready to quit using Wikipedia and fork over $103 per year for a premium membership to the Encyclopædia Britannica website. Why not, you might ask? Since Wikipedia was established, a number of studies have shown that the site is actually an accurate source of information.
In 2005, the journal Nature showed that, compared to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Wikipedia had very few serious errors. An article by the Guardian maintained that most experts who were a part of their study rated Wikipedia between a 5 and 8 with 8 being the highest possible and 0 being the lowest. According to a review of the site by Library Journal, “While there are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resource that takes pride in limited professional management, many encouraging signs suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted the librarian’s seal of approval.” There have been many other positive reviews of the site’s accuracy by academia and tech professionals, which suggests that Wikipedia may not be the public restroom of the interwebs after all.
Part of the reason Wikipedia is such an accurate source despite the lack of expertise is that administrators play a major role in cleaning up the site. As of 2009, there were about 1,600 administrators for the English Wikipedia site. These administrators monitor the site checking for vandalism, inaccuracies, or poorly written articles. They also have the power to ban users or lock articles to prevent them from being edited any further. This combination of a free and open online community coupled with a significant number of experts with editorial power has led to Wikipedia becoming a surprisingly reliable and overwhelmingly vast online encyclopedia. Did I mention it’s free too?
Although the taboo against citing Wikipedia is quickly vanishing with over 400 academic and scientific articles referencing the site in 2008 and 600 in 2009, I’m not suggesting you go cite it in your next law review note. My point is that we should probably start changing the way we think about sources and authority. Having a centralized expert/author and editor is good, but having an entire community of enthusiastic non-experts is better (and more democratic.) There are tons of books that get published every year that really aren’t great sources (is a book by David Duke really a source at all?) and there are tons of blogs out there that provide quality information. In an age where publishing a book will soon be as easy as publishing online, we should use a critical eye when using any source.