[Originally written for school. 11/16/10]
Almost everyone has heard about this free online encyclopedia. Almost everyone has also heard that it is not to be trusted since the information on it is of unknown validity. This paper will take a close look at Wikipedia and will show skeptical instructors and researchers alike that this resource deserves much more respect than it typically gets. Launched in 2001, Wikipedia contains over 3.4 million articles in English (16 million total) and currently the largest and most popular general reference work on the internet. The model of Wikipedia allows anyone to edit an article. It relies on 13,000 volunteer contributors, many of whom are experts in a particular field, to edit previously submitted articles. In order to test its reliability, the journal Nature conducted a peer review of scientific entries on Wikipedia and the well-established Encyclopedia Britannica. The reviewers were asked to check for errors, but were not told about the source of the information. “Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia,” was the conclusion reached by the Nature researchers. The results show that, in addition to being free and containing seven times as many articles in English (thirty two times total) Wikipedia has about the same level of accuracy (at least in scientific articles) as the world’s most scholarly of encyclopedias.
This is not to say that Wikipedia is perfect, and that’s not what I’m arguing. Rather, I am arguing that for casual research, one can’t do much better than Wikipedia. If one hadn’t heard of something, say the phenomena of time dilation, one could spend a minimum of several minutes (more likely a minimum of several dozen minutes) traveling to the library, looking up a book that hopefully has the information needed and then proceed to read that book. Another option would be to spend eleven seconds reading the short summary of the topic at the top of Wikipedia’s article on it. I chose time dilation as an example because it is a fairly technical concept, and Wikipedia’s article gets as technical as could be desired, complete with mathematical formulae, but also has simple explanations for lay research. I also chose it because I have outside sources of very high reliability to check the accuracy of the article.
The fact that I decided to choose a topic with outside verifiability leads us into what is considered to be the greatest fault of Wikipedia; the fact that anyone who views an article can change its contents. While I don’t know of anyone who makes a point of ruining Wikipedia articles for fun, some people are still concerned that the open-to-all edit model is cause for concern. This is not something that the managers of Wikipedia are unaware of and because Wikipedia is open to anonymous and collaborative editing, assessments of its reliability usually include examinations of how quickly false or misleading information is removed. An early study conducted by IBM researchers in 2003 (two years following Wikipedia’s establishment) found that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly – so quickly that most users will never see its effects” and concluded that Wikipedia had “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities”. There are some notable incidents of false information, including tampered biographies and people editing for financial rewards. On August 21st 2007, Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, discussed the fact that some corporations had been caught changing their own entries on Wikipedia (I knew Walt Disney didn’t free the slaves!) and this led to a discussion of one of the methods used to help keep Wikipedia’s content reliable: WikiScanner. Released that same month, it’s a tool developed by Virgil Griffith of the Santa Fe Institute that traces anonymous IP address edits with an extensive database. Without getting too technical, it’s a way for the managers of Wikipedia to know who is editing articles even if you appear as anonymous to other users. This allows Wikipedia to hold the editor of an article accountable for the information they edit.
Another chief perk of Wikipedia is that when specific content is under serious dispute, it is flagged thusly and the reader is encouraged to visit the forums discussing the information. I can’t help but to point out that this is something which very few books do, even school text books. Wikipedia also has one more pillar on which it rests its reliability: the citing of outside scholarly resources. Again, rare in books, this is probably the foundation for it’s reliability and the chief evidence for it’s accuracy. The article on time dilation mentioned above has a mere 33 references. Choose a less specific topic, like the Civil War, and you get 174 in-text citations, in addition to two dozen suggested readings. This is the foundation of Wikipedia, the reason that it was an instant success. Even in the days before WikiScanner, before authors of articles were somewhat accountable for the contents of their pages, every person who read an article could determine the validity on their own by simply checking the sources used to write the article. Fairly quickly, the sources used to write the article become more and more sophisticated and reliable as people try to confirm or refute the content of a given article. A good rule of thumb that many users employ is to simply note how many citations appear in the text as they read it. This allows users to feel reasonably assured that we’re getting good summaries of scholarly and highly reputable while saving us the time of doing the first hand research ourselves.
The point of this paper, once again, was not to argue that Wikipedia ought to be taken as unerring and 100% reliable on every page. Rather, it was to argue that Wikipedia is unfairly portrayed as unreliable and that it’s often straightforward ban by most instructors is unjustified. With a high level of accuracy, millions of articles, and free access, it’s a great resource.
“American Civil War.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 18 Nov. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Civil_War>.
Hawking, Stephen W., and Leonard Mlodinow. A Briefer History of Time. New York: Bantam, 2008. Print.
“History Flow – Results.” IBM Research. IBM, 2003. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http:// http://www.research.ibm.com/visual/projects/history_flow/results.htm>.
“Time Dilation.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_dilation>.
“Wikipedia.org Site Info.” Alexa the Web Information Company. 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2010. <http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/wikipedia.org? range=5y&size=large&y=t>.
“Wikipedia Survives Research Test.” BBC News. BBC, 15 Dec. 2005. Web. 14 Nov. 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4530930.stm>.